Tempest in a Coffee Cup: Rabbi Wins Legal Battle

By Mark I. Levenstein

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Rabbi Israel Steinberg went to New York City’s Nations Café in November 1992, all he wanted was some coffee. Instead he got a 12 1/2-year legal battle.

Last week the battle ended when the New York State Division of Human Rights ordered the Nations Café to pay Steinberg $500 compensation for the mental anguish he suffered when one of the store’s employees refused to serve him and ridiculed him because of his religion. The café is also required to stop discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs.

Steinberg, an Orthodox rabbi who supplies kosher certification to several restaurants in New York, was on his way to a conference when he stopped for coffee at the Nations Café, which serves the United Nations area. Wearing a yarmulke, he sat at the counter and requested that his coffee be served in a disposable cup, as he did not want to drink from a mug washed with other dishes that were used to serve nonkosher foods.

The Nations Café employee serving Steinberg refused to give him coffee in a paper cup to drink at the counter, saying that the paper cups were only for “to go” orders; if Steinberg wanted his coffee in a disposable cup, he would have to go outside. Then, according to Steinberg, the café employee mocked the rabbi’s religious beliefs and kicked him out of the restaurant.

Steinberg, a self-proclaimed human rights activist, filed an official complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights two weeks later, charging the Nations Café with unlawful discriminatory practice. Attorney Robert Miller, a Steinberg acquaintance who decided to represent the rabbi pro bono starting in 2000, said that “the reason why the rabbi brought the case, the reason why I got involved in the case, was a point of vindication… people’s beliefs should be accommodated when possible.”

After a prehearing conference in 1993, the case was dormant until May 2003, when a notice of hearing was sent to the Nations Café. Denise Ellison, deputy commissioner for public affairs at the New York State Division of Human Rights, said that she could not discuss the exact details of the Steinberg case. However, she said, “The division of human rights inherited an enormous case load back in 1995.… We have been working diligently to eliminate the backlog, which has been reduced by about 68%.”

Despite the ruling, the question of who should pay the judgment remains.

According to the Nation’s Café’s general manager, Mike Aronis, in 2000 the restaurant was sold to his father by Jerry Kalas, the man listed as the Nations Café’s owner in all of the State Division of Human Rights’s notices. The younger Aronis said that his family had no connection to the incident, and therefore they are not obligated to pay the $500. Neither Ellison nor Steinberg’s lawyer would say who should be responsible for paying the penalty.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.