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!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • 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.