When I meet Howard Nuer ’07, a Hassidic Jewish student, three Sundays ago in his room, I am struck most by his bookshelf—filled to the gills with advanced math books and Hebrew scripture. The math major sits relaxed at his desk, which is covered in papers scratched with, alternatively, multivariable calculus or Jewish prayers. With his eyes in a light shadow from the brim of his AEPi hat, he gazes around the room, the spitting epitome of ordered disarray. I have come to probe the issue of Rabbi Eitan Webb’s unsuccessful attempt to be officially recognized as a University chaplain. Past articles have addressed the CJL’s antagonism toward Webb and Tilghman’s refusal to explain decisions made about the Chabad Affair, but when I talk to Nuer, though, all of this remains secondary. I have come for answers about Webb himself. Who is he? Why is he? What is his raison d’être? Nuer says that when he was becoming more religious, one of his friends recommended Webb as the only person on campus truly learned in the Torah and Jewish scripture. Nuer admits that Webb’s impressive scholarship coincides perfectly with the needs of intelligent Princeton students. “[Eitan] has an encyclopedic knowledge of almost everything he’s learned, and he’s learned a lot,” Nuer says. “He has very fast recall. It’s amazing just how quickly he can remember exactly where the answer to someone’s question is in some book. He’s a very smart man, and he’s very quick thinking. And I think he’s a great match for Princeton campus and Princeton students…Eitan’s very good, because, especially for people who are impatient…he can come up with the answer very quickly, because he has an amazing ability to recall information anywhere.” In addition to Webb’s impressive scholarship, Nuer praises Webb for his reliability and the sacrifices he makes to benefit Jews on campus. Right before Passover, for example, Webb recognized the craving many students had for bread products such as pizza right before a week without leaven. “Rabbi Webb’s always there,” Nuer said. “Last night when a bunch of us wanted to order kosher pizza, but none of us has cars to go get it, Rabbi Webb was there to lend us his car. He’s always there to help students whenever they need it. That’s something the CJL can never provide.” Lisa Glukhovsky ’08, who studies Hebrew with Webb (for free, to boot), spoke about Webb’s leadership qualities in his devotion to Princeton students. “Not only is Rabbi Webb a kind and generous person, but he is also very devoted to his family and friends,” she said. “Whether he is teaching his toddlers the Four Questions, or college students the Book of Ruth, it is easy to see his deep passion for Judaism and passing his knowledge on to others. This makes him a wonderful leader and role model.” Glukhovsky also emphasized the important role that Webb’s wife, Gitty, provides in support for Jews on campus—particularly Jewish women.
“Gitty is also a wonderful parent and friend to those around her,” Glukhovsky said. “She has a sweet personality and kind heart, and shares Eitan’s love for teaching. She recently helped start Banot, a group for Jewish woman on campus.” Banot fills a deep gap in the support for female Jewish life at Princeton; this is something that the CJL, even with a female rabbi, could not conceive of, and it is the warm familial nature of Chabad that provides this all-encompassing support.
As psychology major particularly interested in lingustics, Glukhovsky spoke about how Webb has allowed her to study another language that would otherwise not fit into her schedule. “Learning Hebrew from Eitan has been a great experience,” she said. “His creativity and sense of humor make the Hebrew lessons a lot of fun, and in just under a year, we have learned the fundamentals of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary, and have even started writing stories.”
Webb is there for small favors and dedicated teaching, and, according to Will Scharf ’08, former Chabad Student Board President, Webb’s commitment to students becomes even more important in situations of increased gravity. “The day my grandmother died my freshman year, [Webb] was the first person I talked to,” Scharf said. “I was a freshman; I didn’t exactly know many people on campus, and having a religious leader like Rabbi Eitan around provided me with an outlet to discuss spiritual and religious issues about which I literally had nobody else to speak to on campus.” Webb, who has a family with three small children, makes himself available for one-on-one guidance for students in need. But Scharf continues that Webb goes above and beyond the call of duty to show support.
“It’s also worth noting that two days later [Webb] dropped everything and drove to New York for the funeral,” Scharf said. “I was just a random freshman, he didn’t really know my family or anything, but that’s the kind of thing he does for people. He has always in my experience been willing to at the drop of a hat forget about everything going on in his extremely busy life to help others in any sort of need.” Though Scharf and others can rely on Webb for personal help and religious guidance, Scharf does not think that this sort of personal connection can exist at the CJL. “A Hillel director would never have driven two hours to a cemetery for a random freshman she barely knew,” he said. “Chabad is a fundamentally different approach to Judaism from Hillel, one much more attuned to the religious needs of individuals, and one much less judgmental in terms of level of observance or religious education.” Because the CJL is run like a big organization, Nuer says that it cannot provide the individual attention that Chabad does. “Chabad really does serve in a way that the CJL never can and never will,” he says. “The fact that it’s so bureaucratic, the CJL, the fact that it is an ‘organization’ prevents it from getting one on one with the students. It doesn’t really serve the full gamut of Jewish life at Princeton. It only serves those who define themselves extremely narrowly as Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform—people who fit into those specific groups here on campus. But people who are between and don’t really connect with the people in those groups, where are they supposed to go?” Scharf too finds the root of the CJL’s problem with religious intimacy part and parcel of the bureaucratic nature of the organization, and discontent stews with regard to CJL Rabbi Julie Roth, who has official University recognition as a chaplain.
“Rabbi Webb is a community rabbi in every sense of the word,” he said. “Julie Roth is primarily an administrator.”
Apropos of Julie Roth, Nuer also expressed dissatisfaction with her leadership. “She has no perspective or relation to the orthodox Jews on campus,” Nuer says. “To be honest, she tries very hard to be nice, and that’s appreciated, but it certainly seems she’s tries too hard. And this is my own personal thing, but I feel like she’s trying to glean something or manipulate me when she speaks to me, when she’s nice to me. That maybe because I’m so close to Eitan, but that’s how I feel.” If Nuer, a deeply religious Jew, feels the official campus rabbi has surreptitious ulterior motives in her interactions with him, one should see as essential the need for another chaplain with whom students can feel comfortable. Nuer also noted that CJL associates have been hypocritical in their tenuous accusation that Webb serves alcohol to minors. Citing an instance in which Roth offered a few “l’chaims” to students, Nuer chastised her fickle constitutions. “When a certain decision was made by the conservative movement [allowing homosexual rabbis to be ordained]…[Roth] started jumping with joy in the CJL, and in the CJL was offering people vodka, which seems contradictory… She is so flippant about her policies.”
Also lamenting the rushed nature of the religious services at the CJL, Nuer feels a certain drab ennui coming from CJL administrators during prayer. “The services, even the orthodox services, [at the CJL] aren’t encouraging of necessarily anything but getting through the prayers as quickly as possible,” he said. In contrast, Nuer says that Webb brings some zest to Judaism. “Eitan represents such a viable, energy driven option in comparison to the CJL, and it’s important that that option exists and be known to people,” he says. “Princeton should be proud that we have a Chabad rabbi…one is so intellectual and who is willing to argue with people and intellectually debate… in a very mature way. He also brings, as they some religious circles, some chai, some life.” Nuer claims that even if recognized as an official chaplain, Webb has promised not to lead his own services, besides his Shabbat and holiday gatherings, out of respect for the Jewish community. “[Webb] does not conduct [his own] services explicitly for the purposes that he does not want to split the community,” Nuer says. “He doesn’t have his own synagogue as most Chabad rabbis do. He doesn’t want to split the CJL that way. But at all of his dinners and his events for the holidays, he tries to bring an extra vitality to the holidays that is not found at the CJL.” Nuer feels that because Webb has done so much for the Princeton community, the decision to refuse his chaplaincy plea stands as particularly insulting. “Denying him a chaplaincy is such a slap in the face,” Nuer says. “It’s saying that your value to the individual students at Princeton, who are theoretically the ones that matter, isn’t a value, we don’t care. That’s really disrespectful.” The official recognition, Nuer insists, would show that the University respects Webb and does not merely consider him some “random guy on campus.” “Webb is not seen as the administration as anything but some crazy rabbi on Nassau Street,” Nuer said. “And he deserves respect. Chaplaincy would allow him to actively improve and more efficiently improve Jewish life on campus; he wouldn’t have to get students to set up an event for other students.” Tilghman herself realizes that Webb is handicapped without official chaplaincy. “I hope that what Rabbi Webb is able to do is to work together with Rabbi Roth on any of the issues where the lack of a chaplaincy could potentially put Chabad at a disadvantage,” she said. But Chabad is ideologically and philosophically different from the CJL and needs its own chaplaincy, its own volition to bring its initiatives to fruition. And, indeed, Webb’s lack of chaplaincy has inhibited him from reaching out to more Jews. This often hurts him when trying to reserve rooms or introduce himself to prospective students. Though Webb, for example, was active on campus during Nuer’s freshman year, Nuer notes that Webb’s lack of official status prevented the breadth of his outreach to Jewish students. Though the CJL has been concerned that with Webb’s charisma would enable him to tap into their fund bases, Nuer says this is not a problem. “One of the CJL’s concern is that Chabad would have access to their alumni base,” Nuer says. “They’re afraid. He’s an extremely good fund raiser, and that’s how he supports, the whole operation of Chabad on Campus at Princeton. That’s how all the Chabad rabbis do it. I think that’s one of their fears. But he himself has promised not to do that. He told them he would fund raise for them, if they would kind of back down and be civil about this.” Nuer asserts further that the school should realize the benefits of creating more options. “We’re such a school that is full of economists,” Nuer said, “and one of the basic principles of economics is that free trade is better, the more options you have, the better it is for everyone. There’s more diversity, and people are happier. [The administration] is denying the students a great option on campus.” Arthur Ewenczyk ’09, Chabad Student Board President, said that because of this creation of more diverse options for the benefit of Jewish Princetonians, many students who hold allegiance to the CJL still support Chabad. “Some students at the CJL who never set foot in Chabad for ideological reasons have come up to me and told me that they were very much in support of Rabbi Webb getting chaplaincy, and not because it’s an idea that they subscribe to, but because they feel that he’s done so much for the students,” Ewenczyk said. Only Roth and Joe Skloot ’05 have spoken out against Chabad and Webb’s quest for chaplaincy. Roth, of course, been vocal out for reasons for maintaining her power and virtual attempt at monopolizing Jewish life on campus. Skloot, who Ewnczyk calls a “militant Reform Jew,” has an agenda against Chabad because of his ties to his specific sect of Judaism. The measly efforts by Roth and Skloot to preclude Webb’s chaplaincy are widely considered to be in bad taste; their counter attacks, many claim, have exacerbated the issue. In the midst of all of this debate, Tilghman advocates reasonable conduct to avoid conflict. “I think that there is a potential of a win-win here for everybody,” she said, “and if there are multiple ways for Jewish students to explore their religious life here at Princeton, that should be done in collaboration and hopefully collegiality.” Because of basic ideological tenants, though, Chabad at Princeton needs its own chaplaincy—just as the Chabad rabbis at Columbia, Darthmouth, and Harvard have been independently recognized. The “collegiality” and “civility” would be possible only if the CJL were to stop prolonging this debate and make motions in support of Webb’s chaplaincy. As much as there have been attacks against Chabad, Ewenczyk realizes that Chabad will be part of the Princeton community. “The other thing is that Chabad on Campus is here to stay,” he said, “and this issue of chaplaincy is not going to make Chabad disappear. We’re a student group, we’re on campus, and chaplaincy will help Rabbi Webb do the wonderful things that he’s doing better for the students.” Even Tilghman recognizes that Chabad has found its niche at Princeton. “I do know that I think everyone agrees that Chabad has really been thriving under the current system,” she said. “I think that the students who have participated in religious activities with Rabbi Webb feel very positively and very strongly that they’ve had a wonderful experience. I know that they have purchased a home for Rabbi Webb over on University place, and I fully expect that that will be a place where Chabad students will be able to gather.” But with Chabad becoming an even larger and more permanent fixture of Princetonian Jewish life, the refusal to grant Webb official chaplaincy promises only to escalate tensions. On Sunday night, the USG Senate voted down a resolution that would urge President Shirley Tilghman to reconsider Chabad Rabbi Eitan Webb’s chaplaincy status. Though the USG chose not to be polemical about this issue by choosing sides, it has offered to add the chaplaincy issue on the upcoming ballot if the Chabad students can marshal 400 signatures by April 22. Time will tell whether or not Princeton has progressed enough to accept as an official chaplain a bearded, be-yarmulked man who has served as a leader, teacher, and friend to many Jews on campus.