News

Inside the Strangely Public War Between Two Top Washington Rabbis

Rabbi Levi Shemtov is a Washington institution. Rabbi Yudi Steiner was his protégé. But now the pair are at loggerheads over who gets to mentor one of the country’s largest Jewish student bodies.
Inside the Strangely Public War Between Two Top Washington Rabbis
(Right) Rabbi Levi Shemtov is a Washington institution. (Left) Rabbi Yudi Steiner was his protégé. Photographs by Stephen Voss

For about a year now, a peculiar turf war has vexed George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom campus.

It’s not the subject matter—two rabbis squabbling over who can lead the university’s Jewish students—that makes the scrum unusual. Nor is it the specifics of the quarrel, which has involved insults, name-calling, dueling religious organizations, and allegations of untoward, alcohol-fueled socializing. Rather, what makes the fight truly exceptional is where it’s unfolding.

Campus spats are regularly resolved in off-the-record academic committees. Feuds involving prominent political operators are typically swept under the rug by pricey PR firms. And face-offs between Jewish clergy, in particular, tend to be handled in private rabbinical courts.

But this battle, which involves all three, is taking place in DC Superior Court, for all the world to see.

In one corner: Levi Shemtov, who is among the country’s best-connected and most politically savvy rabbis. Shemtov has supervised the koshering of the White House kitchen, lit the National Menorah alongside Vice President Joe Biden, and for more than two decades has run American Friends of Lubavitch (AFL), the Washington arm of the world’s most successful Jewish outreach organization.

His antagonist: Yehuda “Yudi” Steiner, Shemtov’s former underling—a young talmudist 13 years Shemtov’s junior whom the older man picked in 2008 to be AFL’s campus emissary to GW.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, far left, lights the national menorah at the White House in 2010. Photograph by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.

Both rabbis are affiliated with Chabad, a movement founded 250 years ago in Lyubavichi, Russia, that promotes an intellectual and soulful approach to Orthodox Judaism. The group could have a significant effect at a place like GW, home to the fifth-largest Jewish population among private US universities, according to the website Reform Judaism. Nearly a third of GW’s 10,000 undergraduates are Jewish, the site’s data shows, yet before Shemtov installed Steiner, Chabad had no dedicated rabbi working on campus.

Shemtov expected big things from his young hire. The alliance, however, didn’t work out as expected. And while it’s easy to see the falling-out as merely a standoff between two proud men—or a tale of a mentor’s betrayal by his wayward protégé—the stakes may actually be higher.

“This city is a gold mine of Jewish souls,” Steiner says. Who provides spiritual guidance to its college students is no trivial matter.

• • •

Levi Shemtov is one of Jewish Washington’s great political operators. A Hasidic Jew with square spectacles and a gray-streaked beard, he has a booming voice and the self-assurance to match. “I’ll give you a quote,” he’ll say before supplying a choice line and then hinting, not so subtly, “That’s a good one.”

The rabbi’s political ties stretch back to 1975, the year his father founded AFL, Chabad’s link to Capitol Hill. The group isn’t an official lobby; it’s more of a soft power outpost that gets to burnish the image of Chabad while connecting Jewish political leaders more closely to their faith as well as to one another. Shemtov took over AFL in the early 1990s and has been a fixture ever since.

Shemtov delivers a blessing at the Congressional Gold medal ceremony inside the U.S. Capitol rotunda for Raoul Wallenberg, famous for rescuing nearly 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Photograph by Jeff Malet.

“It’s hard for me to think of any political Jewish person in Washington that doesn’t have a relationship with him,” says Steve Rabinowitz, a PR executive and longtime friend of the rabbi’s.

Shemtov also cuts a profile that’s particularly impressive to the kind of student who opts for college in the nation’s capital: He may be devout, but he’s also connected, “the Jewish ambassador in DC,” according to Nicolo Nourafchan, who met the rabbi soon after coming to GW in 2001.

In public, Shemtov can display his insider ties and his religious devotion at the same time. As a Hasid, for instance, he clasps hands with male leaders (including President Obama) but is forbidden from showing the same courtesy to women he meets (including Michelle Obama).

“He’s not willing to compromise his values, even when it’s the First Lady extending her hand,” says Nourafchan, who came from a not particularly religious Jewish family before arriving in DC.

At the time, Hillel was the only Jewish organization at GW. Nourafchan wasn’t interested in the group. It charged about $15 for Shabbat dinner—the Friday meal that marks the start of the Jewish sabbath—and he wanted something more focused on spiritual enrichment. So in 2002, he asked Shemtov if he would put up money for events on campus. For the rabbi, the answer was easy: Funding social gatherings was an obvious opportunity to galvanize hundreds of students a year. Before long, he was spending an average of $1,000 a week to cover Shabbat for anywhere from 50 to 300 at the State Plaza Hotel’s ballroom.

Shemtov rarely attended, but many GW students availed themselves of the chance to go to Shabbat at his synagogue in Dupont Circle, where they could rub elbows with former US senator Joe Lieberman or former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, among other Jewish names in Washington. For students like Nourafchan, who dreamed of making it big in the policy world, davening with Beltway notables was no small thing.

Levi Shemtov has been a fixture in DC political circles for two decades. Installing Yudi Steiner at GW extended his influence. Photograph by Ron Sachs/American Friends of Lubavitch/Getty Images.

The partnership flourished for a few years, but after Nourafchan and his friends graduated, interest dwindled. When David Spier, a Modern Orthodox Jew from New York who had selected GW partly because of its demographics, got to campus in 2006, he was “shocked at the lack of Jewish community,” he says. Like Nourafchan before him, he and a few friends went to Shemtov for help. This time, they asked for more: a dedicated rabbi to guide them in their growth as Jewish adults.

Unlike chapters of Hillel, which are often affiliated with schools, Chabad frequently operates independently and offers more spiritual guidance. Chabad rabbis open their homes to students and offer an escape from campus—adherents will tell you it’s like family, or mishpocheh. Spier realized that many schools across the country, such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and UCLA, had Chabad emissaries—why not GW?

The idea made sense to Shemtov. “I wanted to be a pioneer,” he says.

Chabad hires are usually family members who can be trusted to fall in line. But Shemtov decided to break from tradition. He had met Steiner at a New York event and been impressed. While the young rabbi didn’t come from his bloodline, there was no reason to question the man’s loyalties—his enthusiasm for the job was unmistakable. Says Shemtov: “He seemed to be really energetic and would carry through.”

• • •

Steiner was 26 then, just a few years removed from rabbinical college. He’d spent time doing religious work in Eastern Europe before he got the offer in 2008 to move to Foggy Bottom—a thrill, he says: “There was a tremendous need. GW was one of the last campuses of its Jewish-community size to get a permanent Chabad presence.”

Steiner (center) became the hip religious man on campus, hosting Shabbat dinners at his home for GW kids and organizing social outings such as this freshman cruise. Photograph courtesy of Rabbi Yehuda Steiner.

It’s not hard to see how Steiner might be an appealing campus figure—the cool rabbi who posed for selfies with students. He’s cheerful and can come off as unassuming, his tone soft and his voice gentle. When he meets a woman, he bows in deference. When he talks about students, it’s with a protective air.

On taking the job, Steiner saw all kinds of possibilities for bonding with GW kids beyond weekly Shabbat dinners. He went on a day cruise with a group of freshmen; his wife, Rivky, led a ladies-only trip to an apple orchard in Germantown. Steiner quickly earned a reputation as someone who inspired remarkable devotion. “I wouldn’t be married, or be the person I am today, without Rabbi Steiner,” says Spier, who now runs his own hedge fund in New York.

The problem was that tending to the souls of GW undergrads was only part of Steiner’s job description. According to Shemtov, when school wasn’t in session, his employee was supposed to work directly for AFL, doing things like research and data entry, leading prayer at the Dupont synagogue, and making visits to hospitals and prisons—distractions, in Steiner’s opinion.

There was also the issue of funding. On most campuses, Steiner says, the rabbi on the ground forms ties with students and then, after they’re alumni, hits them up for money for Chabad. Shemtov, however, wanted to manage a lot of the relationships with donors himself, some of whom he saw as crucial to maintaining his operation. He says he worried that Steiner would “try and change the [employer/employee] dynamic—and more—once he achieved a certain comfort level.”

Photographs courtesy of Rabbi Steiner.

Indeed, as Steiner’s popularity grew, he yearned for more freedom from his boss, and the men began to cross swords. In November 2011, Shemtov refused to give the young rabbi a new contract allowing him more independence. Steiner says that’s Shemtov spinning—that his boss fired him. He took Shemtov to a beit din, a legally binding religious court, and as a result he got his job back in 2012.

The new employment contract negotiated under the beit din, however, granted a significant concession to Shemtov. It said that he was the “ultimate rabbinic and executive authority” of Chabad in Washington and that his employee could never operate an independent group if their alliance ever were to dissolve—a compromise Steiner says he made because he wanted to get back to working with his flock. The power structure was thus set; even though his ambitions had expanded, Steiner ostensibly had no real way of going around his boss.

• • •

Despite the friction that had come to define their relationship, the rabbis might have soldiered on for the good of their cause had rumors not begun traveling around campus about Steiner’s “improper use of alcohol,” according to court records. Students had gotten their hands on booze at Chabad-sponsored events, Shemtov alleges in court filings. Steiner denies the allegations. A university official declined to comment.

The mere appearance of wrongdoing had the potential to cause serious trouble, judging from a similar run-in at another school. In 2012, Northwestern University disaffiliated with a Chabad group in Evanston, Illinois, after receiving multiple reports of inappropriate alcohol use, which included serving to minors. And when local and state Chabad branches filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the school, it caused more harm than good. An appeals court dismissed the lawsuit last year, making clear the organization was in the wrong on multiple occasions, including the time a minor was hospitalized after getting drunk at a Chabad house.

That sort of scandal could be particularly embarrassing to a widely admired public figure like Shemtov. So after he heard the rumors about Steiner, he went into damage-control mode. “I strongly urge you to . . . just cut the alcohol at Chabad GW,” Shemtov e-mailed Steiner in February 2014, later adding, “If you will stop and think this through for a moment, perhaps you will realize that this is more for YOUR sake than mine.”

Steiner admitted by e-mail to “one incident” but refused to discuss it with Shemtov. He was annoyed that his boss seemed to be interrogating him and condescending to him. “I’m demanding a modicome [sic] of respect,” Steiner wrote.

The tension combusted on a Saturday night in the spring of last year. Shemtov believed Steiner had launched a Chabad GW alumni group in violation of their contract, and he demanded that the young rabbi cancel a fundraiser, unauthorized in Shemtov’s view, that was supposed to raise money from these alums. Steiner initially refused to back down, insisting no such group was ever formed.

Shemtov kept pressing him. “Not gonna play well for you if this goes public,” he warned Steiner in an e-mail, insinuating that Steiner’s alleged dishonesty would be exposed. “You might want to consider . . . quitting while you’re ahead.”

By August, Shemtov was fed up with his insubordinate protégé and fired him for mucking up basic administrative tasks—failing to transfer data and financial contributions on time, among other things. Steiner, however, refused to leave campus. Instead, he went rogue and founded his own Chabad organization, Jewish GW, so he could keep on kibitzing with students.

Thus, the nuclear option: Shemtov filed his suit in DC Superior Court, demanding Steiner relinquish his post and stop doing Chabad work in Washington.

Until then, the infighting had been a secret, even to the kids at GW. “I look at you as my children,” as Steiner put it, “and I don’t think it’s valuable to involve you.” Taking a dispute to a civil court represented a dramatic break with tradition. The backlash—from both community leaders and GW students—was swift. Rabbi Mendel Sharfstein of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn e-mailed Shemtov insisting the lawsuit “be immediately removed from the secular courts.” (In his defense, Shemtov says he consulted with numerous rabbinical authorities and was advised to sue.) Nearly 1,500 people signed a Change.org petition describing Shemtov’s actions as “reprehensible” and “an embarrassment.”

Jamie Weiss, a student leader of Chabad, says she and others spoke to Shemtov by phone and declined his request to talk in person. Things quickly escalated. “He told us that we don’t have a right not to meet with him,” she says. “He told us that we drink from his well, that ‘everything that you have on campus is because of me.’ He’s not used to having younger people speak to him the way I did.”

Shemtov denies raising his voice and brushes off the incident. “Let me give you a quote,” he says. “Juvenile outburst. No big deal.”

Alumni have taken sides, too. Nourafchan, a corporate lawyer at Sidley Austin in New York, is backing Shemtov in spirit. Spier, the hedge-funder, is backing Steiner with money. He and another alum, Joshua Sasouness, are covering most of the rabbi’s annual $200,000 budget, which includes his salary. They also helped secure a pro bono lawyer to fight the lawsuit.

To settle the turf war, a DC judge drew boundaries on a Google map around GW where Steiner isn’t supposed to operate. Map Courtesy of Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Late last year, a civil-court order barred Steiner from conducting Chabad activities within a mile of the school—a crude hand drawing on a Google map etches out the exact turf the court granted to Shemtov. Steiner has since appealed the injunction, arguing that it violated his First Amendment rights. If the courts end up barring him from GW permanently, he says, he’ll unleash a more ambitious endeavor: a program targeting every Jewish student in Washington. “This isn’t going to get in our way,” he says of the lawsuit.

Shemtov is irate about the trespass. “[Steiner] looks like the biggest victim,” he says, “when in truth I’m the biggest victim.” (No fewer than three high-powered flacks have contacted Washingtonian on Shemtov’s behalf.)

GW, which was never officially affiliated with Chabad, is staying out of the feud. But it’s no secret which person students see as mishpocheh. On a Thursday evening at winter’s end, a fresh status popped up on the Facebook page of Steiner’s group announcing a student Shabbat to his 1,469 followers. “Looking forward to seeing everyone!” the post read. “Come help us cook for dinner tonight at 7:30 in the apt!”

Emily Codik can be reached at ecodik@washingtonian.com.

This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

Don’t miss a new restaurant again: Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.