On any given Tuesday and Thursday, students and staff at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., line up and pay a nickel at a booth to have their questions answered.

The booth does not belong to a traveling mystic or a palm-reader. It houses instead Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein and his "Ask the Rabbi" program. The rabbi, co-director along with wife Chaya Klein of the Tannenbaum Chabad House serving Northwestern, has been manning the structure for 22 years.

Klein had just proposed to his fiancée Chaya in 1985 when the Chabad-Lubavitch regional director in Chicago offered the future couple a proposal of a very different nature: Move to Evanston to open a full-time home for Jewish activities at Northwestern.

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At the time, Jewish life on campus was largely just skeletal support for religiously-observant students. According to the Kleins, most were used to seeing Judaism as a necessary burden rather than an extraordinary opportunity. While they wanted to help change the mindset, their background was more community-oriented and, as such, they were not keen on moving to college.

They looked to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, for guidance.

"I wrote to the Rebbe with some concerns," says Dov Hillel Klein. "The Rebbe circled the words 'Northwestern University' and added a blessing for success in our work there." In effect, "the Rebbe sent us to Northwestern."

In the mid 1980s, Jewish students still did not feel very welcome at Northwestern, which until 1962 placed a quota on the number of Jewish applicants accepted to the university.

"When we first arrived," explains Chaya Klein, "I can't tell you how many Jewish students lied about their religion on their applications just to get in."

They created the "Ask the Rabbi" booth shortly after moving to town as a way to personally connect with students.

It took a lot of work, though, to get the word out. At first, having 10 to 15 students at an event was considered a big success. Says Dov Hillel Klein: "Now, we're pretty well known. We never have a Friday night meal with less than 80 or 100 students."

All these years later, the Kleins' influence on Northwestern's Jewish life is evident everywhere you turn. Because of the Chabad House, the school now offers a gourmet kosher food plan. The thriving chapter of the largely-Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi owes its creation to the rabbi. The school's Jewish Theatre Ensemble was founded by two student actors who were inspired by Chabad at Northwestern.

Even non-Jewish students have been touched.

According to Rev. Tim Stevens, head chaplain at the university, most students know about the Kleins and the Chabad House.

"I hear students talking about the 'Ask the Rabbi' booth," says Stevens.

But while students and other faculty members know they can stop for a chat, the reverend has never personally availed himself of the service.

"If I need to ask him something, I just call," he confirmed.

A Personal Touch

Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, shown here shortly after arriving to Northwestern University, established his “Ask the Rabbi” booth on the campus more than 20 years ago.
Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, shown here shortly after arriving to Northwestern University, established his “Ask the Rabbi” booth on the campus more than 20 years ago.
Shari Weiss, a junior at Northwestern, turned to Chabad when she was looking to connect to her faith in the shadow of a jarring campus experience.

Though raised Conservative, the Long Island-born Weiss had never associated herself with any one Jewish group. Upset by a professor's outrageous comments promoting Holocaust-denial, Weiss went looking for her place.

"I checked around and I really came to love Chabad," she relates. "The rabbi and Chaya are like second parents to me."

More than a place to pray, Weiss, now a board member of the center, found in Chabad a welcoming family, a warm home and a very positive atmosphere. In short, the perfect antidote to the negative feelings inside her.

"On the surface, people would be surprised," she admits, "but the wonderful thing of our Chabad is that it takes all kinds. Rabbi Klein genuinely appreciates every single student for who they are and what they believe. It's more about Jewish community and harmony than anything else."

Sophomore Daniel Blumenthal, an AEPi brother, says Klein's influence is "definitely felt" in the fraternity the rabbi helped establish and which he now serves as a faculty advisor and honorary brother: "He does a very good job engaging students and he provides something that Jewish students are really looking for."

The influence of the Chabad House can also be felt in Northwestern's calendar. At the Kleins' insistence long ago, graduation now occurs on Fridays instead of on Shabbat, and tests are routinely rescheduled so as not to fall out on Jewish holidays.

But for all of the recognition and high profile they've earned in their activities, the Kleins are adamant that each and every student remains their No. 1 priority.

"The mainstay of our mission is, and has always been, the opportunity to talk to students one-on-one," the rabbi, who's led 16 trips to Israel as part of Taglit-birthright israel-Mayanot, emphasizes.

To that end, their house is always full, their phones are always ringing and the rabbi reads and responds to an average of 250 e-mails from students and alumni daily. This Chanukah, the Chabad House sent a gift to every Jewish freshman's mailbox consisting of a menorah, candles, a dreidel and a holiday guide.

And in more than 20 years, the rabbi, who also serves as chairman of the Evanston Police Clergy Team, has never adjusted the fee he charges at the advice booth.

With age, he says "I may be giving better advice. But the price hasn't changed."