Tempest in a Coffee Cup: Rabbi Wins Legal Battle

By Mark I. Levenstein

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
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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.

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