There is no free Shabbas dinner

Dear Editor,

As an alumnus (Class of 1970) and former editor of Student Life (1969), I’d like to join the others in welcoming the class of 2014. Statistics show that you are more talented than me and most of my classmates.

I am writing on this Saturday before Rosh Hashanah to remind my fellow tribesmen of the Jewish faith who are entering WU that there is no such thing as a free Shabbas dinner. In addition to being proselytized by the local “Jews for Jesus” (an oxymoron), you will be offered a free lunch or dinner from the local Chabad house, which I call “Jews for Moses.” Like most Chabad houses, it is run by a member of this ultra-orthodox branch of Hasidic Judaism.

Although I don’t like what Chabad Rabbi Hershey Novick is teaching, I concede that he isn’t stupid. He is persuasive. He could sell Mezzuzahs to Palestinians, which is all the more reason to know what he is selling before you try it.

If you take the bait of a Shabbas dinner, google “Chabad” first. If you do, you’ll note that this sect of Judaism currently has a large segment which believes its former Rebbe Menahem Schneerson, who inherited the position, is the Messiah. Some Chabadnicks believe he is still alive even though he was buried more than 10 years ago.

One of Chabad’s current activities has been an effort to free Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin, head of the Rubashkin crime family, who was recently sentenced to 28 years in prison for defrauding one of our local St. Louis banks—a true chillul hashem [desecration of God’s name].

To Chabad, no Jew—no matter how guilty—belongs in jail. They defend Rubashkin, who was its major funder, because he was charitable. Truthfully, he was a “Robbing Hoodstein,” stealing from the rich and giving to whomever he wanted, less 10 percent for expenses.

What’s more, think twice before you go to Hillel. When I was a student, it was headed by a fine reform rabbi, Rabbi Robert Jacobs, known for his ecumenical actions. For example, he met with Pope John Paul II on his visit to St. Louis. Now, however, the board of our local Hillel thought that you would appreciate being rabbied to by an orthodox rabbi who believes that men and women shouldn’t pray together.

The board’s choice, Rabbi Andy Kastner, has said publically that his main mission here is to “teach Torah.” Unless you think that the creator of the universe cares whether you have a beard, go to a mikvah after your period or plow your field with oxen and donkeys mixed, you might consider enrolling in another class. (If you do want to attend his Torah classes, I suggest “Introduction to Stonings 101.”)

So, before you get hooked into the false belief that orthodox Judaism is the only authentic brand of Judaism and come home for Thanksgiving with a black hat or wig, read up on Spinoza and the other members of our tribe who helped bring humanity out of the dark ages.

And L’ Shana Tova!

-Norman Pressman

Class of 1969

  • Shocked & Dismayed

    You sir are a really disgusting person. Only reform rabbis are fine men(or women I suppose) . The rest of the lot are vile cult leaders.. I suppose that you are only open minded when it comes to gay clergy. People who want to keep shabbat or observe other halachot are somehow defective or at the very least want to coopt our children.

  • Matthew Chase

    I also am an alum of Washington University, like Pressman. (JD/MA ’04) Like him, I am a local attorney. It is often said that ad hominem attacks are pointless and detract from one’s argument, however, I will state from much past experience trading barbs with him both in the St. Louis Jewish Light and his blog, that Pressman is an odious, anti-Semitic bigot.

    Pressman this time first casts wide and varied aspersions on Chabad Chasidim generally and Rabbi Novack specifically, and the new rabbi of Hillel as well. Next he brings up a particular custom – this time it is kapores. Last time I bothered responding to his public hate-spewing it involved his then venomous attack on one step in the traditional milah (circumcision) process. [Due to time limitations, and not to digress overly much, I'll leave aside completely the issue of Pressman's criticism of Chabad's (and most of the Orthodox Jewish world's) unmitigated support for Rabbi Shalom Rubashkin, other than to say that anyone interested in this issue should carefully read the many articles available online, as well as the court filings and letters of support from countless federal prosecutors, judges, US attorneys general, constitutional and other legal scholars, who cut across the religious and political spectrum, and decide for yourself whether you believe that what happened in the Agriprocessors case was justice or something foul.]

    Regardless of what the specifics, Pressman ignores the reality, whether he likes it or not, that Torah-observant Jews practice Judaism. Whether it be a custom of symbolically placing our sins into a chicken (personally I go for using money because I dislike birds intensely and won’t touch them unless and until they are boneless, skinless breasts) or the more universally accepted Jewish custom, practice and law of belief in one omnipotent, everpresent Creator, this self-hating Jew has nothing but contempt for Judaism. His hatred is particular for Chasidim, and his total contempt for any religiously devout person is palpable and shocking.

    To you, entering freshman and returning upperclassmen alike, Jew and Gentile all, please pardon this miserable excuse for a ‘member of the tribe.’ We, the Jews, do tend to try to be welcoming of all, but as in all groups, someone invariably comes up short. Rabbi Hershey Novack, and of course his wife Chana, exemplify this and live a life dedicated to educating Jews about Judaism and bringing Jewish infrastructure and services to the university community. My understanding, though I’ve not yet met the man, is that Rabbi Kastner is of similar mind and quite an excellent guy. Please avail yourselves of their time, teaching and input during your four years here. Ignore the bigots in our midst – foremost among them Norman Pressman.

    Matthew S. Chase
    University City, Missouri (yes, Norm, the Jewish Ghetto…)
    JD/MA ’04

  • Jesse Markowitz

    This dude has clearly never met the Novacks and has zero authority to make the claims he’s making. This letter could deprive ‘lost’ Jewish students, such as I was freshman year, of a lot of social fulfillment, as I found once I had gone to Chabad. I’m a non-religious Jew and I felt a lot more comfortable at Chabad than I ever did at Hillel, even with the old Reform rabbi. At Chabad everyone there clearly wanted to be there and to enjoy the company of their fellow students. At Chabad we were never talked down to or proselytized to.

    I went through an “I hate religion” phase my sophomore year at WashU (though I was equal-opportunity; never had it out for Jews only). But then I realized I was being a total douchebag, like R. Dawkins, C. Hitchens, P.Z. Meyers, etc., whom I had read seeking enlightenment, but realized I was only finding lessons in how to piss people off by attacking something important to them (seriously, those guys are tools.) There’s an old religious fallacy: “Anyone less religious than me isn’t doing enough and anyone more religious than me is a fanatic.” The writer of this letter has fallen prey to at least the second half.

    I guess the difference between me and the writer of this letter is that for me, hating religion and those that subscribe to it was only a phase. I matured, grew up, and grew out of it.

    ~Jesse Markowitz
    Class of 2010

  • Justin Eisenberg

    Hmmm. Looks like Orthodox Judaism doesn’t need to be “brought out of the dark ages” as Mr. Pressman suggested.

  • Joseph Bitton

    Norman Pressman’s comments are nothing new. Just more spewing from another self-hating jew who is completely ignorant of anything to do with authentic Torah Judaism. He simply throws out the few snippets of what he thinks he knows to make readers of his hatred think he actually knows something. He should consider studying the facts about authentic Judaism, Chabad and all of their charitable work world-wide before he spews any of his blanket condemnations of orthodox Judaism and Chabad.
    Joseph Bitton
    Class of 1983

  • Marc Hendel

    Mr. Pressman can’t decide: (1) Should he attack a person because of the institution with which they are affiliated {the StudLife article} or (2) attack an institution because of one person {his blog}

    From my research, Mr. Pressman is a wealthy donor to the Jewish Federation in St. Louis. He believes that Orthodox Jews are (in his words) stuck “in the Dark Ages.” Perhaps he thinks his donations make anti-semitic comments acceptible. I am glad that people aren’t letting him get away with this vituperative letter just because his salutations were in Hebrew.

    As a Reform Jew, I espouse a philosophy of tolerance and family among all Jews, from all backgrounds.

  • Liz Klein

    It’s not hard to figure out that before writing this, Mr. Pressman didn’t do a whole lot of research into what our Jewish community is actually like – for one thing, the directors of Chabad on Campus are the Novacks, not the Novicks. Anyone who’s been even peripherally involved in Jewish life at Wash. U. will recognize that Mr. Pressman based his critiques of our warm, inclusive, and pluralistic community on sweeping generalizations about entire philosophical movements within Judaism, and formed his opinions about important Jewish leaders on campus without even having met them. His accusations about the motives of the leaders of our Chabad and Hillel are so far from the truth that I won’t bother to refute them here.
    But aside from the lack of research and the bordering-on-libelous statements found in Mr. Pressman’s piece, what stands out most to me is his extraordinary hypocrisy. According to Mr. Pressman, Orthodox Jews are closed-minded; they reject all other types of Judaism for not being “authentic”. In Mr. Pressman’s mind, Orthodox Jews think their way is the only right way, and they will stop at nothing to convert you to their way of life. It seems to me that these statements quite aptly characterize Mr. Pressman himself. He obviously feels that assimilated/secular/non-traditional Jews are more enlightened than Orthodox Jews, and that the Orthodox are stuck in the “dark ages”. According to Mr. Pressman, anyone who keeps the commandments of the Torah, and believes that God cares whether he does so, is either crazy, stupid, or hopelessly backwards. A true liberal, Mr. Pressman will probably justify this by telling you that he’s only closed-minded toward closed-minded people.
    I only hope that Jews at Wash. U. who haven’t yet had a chance to get involved in Jewish life on campus won’t be turned off by Mr. Pressman’s absurd and totally inaccurate portrayal of our community.
    Mr. Pressman, I have yet to meet an Orthodox Jew who is as narrow-minded and spiteful toward his fellow Jews as you are.

  • Marc Hendel

    Reading this letter made me very upset… and quite confused. I am confused about Norman Pressman’s argument. Is he arguing that all Jewish organizations led by Orthodox clergy are the same?

    The Jewish organizations on campus are trying to keep students connected with Judaism. It seems Mr. Pressman is so afraid of Orthodox Judaism that he would rather have college students lose their Jewish identity altogether than to spend time close to someone who has a beard.

    Perhaps Mr. Pressman has no understanding of the religious beliefs of students at Wash U in 2010. I can assure you that most Jews here are not looking to become very religious – they are looking to maintain their connection to Judaism through food, study, community service, and spirituality.

    Now I am off to send Mr. Norman Pressman an email.

    Marc Hendel
    Class of 2012

  • Dave

    For one to say that there are no religious zealots in the Orthodox Jewish movement would be insane, but for one to assume that all members of the Orthodox movement are religious zealots would be wrong

  • Messiah

    I agree with the comments below that Rabbi Hershey and Chana are extremely warm, inviting people who do not push religion or preach orthodoxy to anyone. In fact, I was quite surprised during a few Shabbat dinners at how relaxed and varied the conversation was, among both attendees and the Novacks.

    Of course, after attending these dinners, they will urge you to go on Birthright and invite you to join their Facebook group, but such behavior is 1. To be expected 2. Them doing their job and 3. A small price to pay for delicious free food and good company.

    While I do not know the new Hillel Rabbi, the argument in the penultimate paragraph seems to be one primarily against the antiquated nature of religion itself, and is a topic best debated elsewhere.

  • Max and Sarah

    These claims are completely arbitrary and show little understanding of what goes on in the WashU Jewish community. The claims about Rabbi Hershey couldn’t be farther from the truth. He never imposes his Jewish beliefs on anyone and reaches out to people of all faiths and denominations. In the dozens of meals we have eaten there we have never felt like they had an agenda and, on the contrary, we have seen that they truly care about fostering positive Jewish experiences for WashU students. To classify Shabbat dinner as “bait” shows total ignorance to the community that the Novacks have created. The erroneous claims about Rabbi Andy misrepresent him as Jewish leader. To represent his beliefs with a statement about not allowing men and women to pray together is a gross generalization of his Jewish ideology (and one we don’t think is necessarily true). On more than one occasion he has helped make an egalitarian minyan and is spending the High Holidays with the Conservative and Reform communities on campus. In the short time that we have gotten to know him, we have seen him welcome and care about people of all different Jewish backgrounds.

    It is important not to make judgements about people based on extremely general categories they may fall into and instead consider each person as an individual. To describe the campus Rabbis simply as “Chabad” and “Orthodox” misses out on the most significant parts of their personalities that make them instrumental and fitting parts in the WashU Jewish community.

    Max Arad and Sarah Ebstein

    • Norm Pressman

      Max and Sarah

      Here is a direct link to Chabad’s Website about the custom of Kapporot-

      Here is an article about the efforts of secular authorities to stop this horrendous custom which has no basis in Torah.

      I suggest that the people who have critized me ask Rabbi Novick about Kapport and whether he practices this custom or practiced it and why?I’m guessing that as a modern Orthdox Rabbi Rabbi “Andy” (as you have termed him) probably doesn’t now but has in the past. What does practicing this custom have to do with being a Jew-Why would you associate with people who do these things?. While you are at it google “Mitizah B’Peh” and ask what your rabbis think about that. Its too disgusting to describe here. Do a second google and add “Mayor Bloomberg”.

      And to those who have asked–I have met Rabbi Novick-a smart guy-but if you can’t see that he is recruiting for Chabad you are missing the whiole point of Chabad (which differes from the more insular branches of hasidism-don’t get me started on Satmar!)

      My friends, the point is that we are facing a growing orthodox hegemony, certainly in Israel and also in the diapora-Smart young Jewish kids like you shouldn’t be fooled into joining this cult.

      Rabbi Novick would have made a fine-not superb lawyer.

      • Hannah

        Again, it seems that Mr. Pressman feels the need to make general assumptions about the denominations to which these rabbis belong and apply it to them personally without any knowledge. Specifically with reference to the accusation that Rabbi Novack practices kappurot with chickens, this is simply untrue. Students even approached him about the prospect of taking part in this tradition last year and he explained that he did not think that it was appropriate to do. I hope that in the future, Mr. Pressman chooses to do some research before making accusations against important Jewish leaders on WashU’s campus.

  • Anonymous

    Has Mr. Pressman met or even talked to Rabbi Kastner? He seems to have formed pretty strong opinions about a man that has been at Wash U for all of three months.

  • David Cantor

    David Cantor NJ parent of Wash U student -L’Shana Tova….I read with interest your reviews of where our children can go for the high holidays….I am pleased with the chabad and Hillel choices locally as most of the students will not be traveling to their homes… perhaps if you feel so strongly about where our kids go you could offer your home (for dinner) and you local reform congregation as an alternative. Unfortunately we Jews are awful at throwing stones at fellow jews and you must be ready to carry the weight if you are throwing a boulder….

    • Norm Pressman

      David: I had my nephew from Atlanta and his girlfriend from New York who are WU students over last night. Have your daughter call me and I’ll make sure to invite her over the next time. I’m in the phone book. Or I’ll be happy to take her out to lunch on campus or in Clayton.

      Take a look at what the orthodox are doing in Israel (for example Cheif Rabbi Amar latest broadside) —and perhaps you ought to drive through Lakewood New Jersey. Your daughter msut be prety smart to have goten into Wash U-and hopefully she won’t fall prey to one of the relgious cults that claim to be part of our tribe.

      • Anonymous

        Be careful, David–there’s no such thing as a free lunch in Clayton.

        • Norm

          No there isn’t. I will try to convince your kid that there is no invisible women in the sky who interferes with the laws of physics. And I’ll give him or her a free copy of Stephen Hawkins new Book “The Grand Design” which I’m reading this Yom Kippur.

          • Justin Eisenberg

            “I will try to convince your kid…” Sounds like Mr. Pressman is the one who is trying to “gain more followers.” (from his comment on Re: “There is no free Shabbas dinner” 09/15/10)
            None of the leaders or students of the WashU Jewish community have ever explicitly said they are going to try to convince us of anything, nor have they ever implied that they would. While one might argue that these people are smart enough to leave no trace of their supposed agenda, the student responses to this article clearly demonstrate that there is no attempt to convince anyone of anything as Mr. Pressman fears.

  • Daniel

    The best part of the Jewish community is our pluralism. Those of different sects of Judaism get along despite our differences. Yes, we disagree on a lot of important things, but that does not mean we cannot come together as a community. Perhaps during Mr. Pressman’s time, they appreciated division more than unity, but that is not the case today.

  • Anon

    This impassioned cautionary critique lacks personal experience and thorough research. It is important to note that Pressman launches his attack on the principles of Chabad Jewry but then mistakenly extends his critique to the organization. Has he ever met Hershey or Chana? Anyone who has would realize that these two work hard to include WashU students from all types of Jewish backgrounds, creating a community for Jews to enjoy a meal on Shabbat or the High Holidays. At Chabad, the guests always range from those who are Orthodox,Conservative, Reform or even unaffiliated. Although I could refute the claim that MOST Chabad Jews believe that Rebbe Schneerson was the Messiah, I will choose to focus on the fact that such beliefs are never proselytized or marketed to those who dine or attend Chabad events.
    One of the major goals of Chabad Jewry is the inclusion of all Jews, despite their differences in beliefs, and this is something that Chana and Hershey strive for. Although I firmly identify myself as a Conservative Jew and find many aspects of the Orthodox sect problematic, I admire the Chabad house’s philosophy and how successful they have been in forming relationships with people of many different backgrounds. They are not here to forcefully shove beliefs down WashU students’ throats, but, rather, to create a warm Jewish environment. They fulfill the students who feel incomplete without their weekly Shabbat meal and satiate those who have a hunger for further Jewish involvement and knowledge. We are lucky to have Chabad at our university and I only wish that more Jewish organizations on campus who knew how to appropriately and actively engage those who seek Jewish involvement.

  • Rubashkin Supporter


    Nachum (Norman)

    Why so positive? (sarcasm)

    orthodox judaism is really just judaism….. men and women davening were always seperated till fairly recently.

    Thank G-d orthodoxy is on the rise and unlike other “branches” its growing.

    focus on the positive that chabad and other jews are doing…. you will feel better and may even smile once in a while.