Dylan Klebold led life of religious contradictions

Friday, April 30, 1999 | by CHRIS LEPPEK

DENVER -- Dylan Klebold, one of two suspects in last week's bloodbath at Columbine High School, led a life of contradictions.

He admired Hitler, yet his great-great grandfather was a respected Jewish philanthropist in Ohio.

His mother considered herself Jewish, yet the family belonged to a Lutheran church.

Dylan recited the Four Questions at a Passover seder recently held at his family home, yet he was buried in a Lutheran service on Saturday.

Klebold, along with classmate Eric Harris, killed 12 fellow students and one teacher on April 20 before they committed suicide. Both were seniors at the Littleton high school, apparently members of a shadowy clique known as the Trenchcoat Mafia. Police have identified neo-Nazism and a fascination with Adolf Hitler as among several hate-oriented themes that influenced the pair.

Reports of the Klebold family's Jewish ancestry first appeared last Friday in the Columbus Dispatch of Columbus, Ohio, where Dylan Klebold's maternal great-grandfather, the late Leo Yassenoff, was a Jewish community leader and philanthropist. Also known as an outstanding football player for the Ohio State Buckeyes in his youth, Yassenoff had such lasting influence in Columbus that the city's Jewish community center still bears his name.

The elder Yassenoff and his son, Milton Yassenoff, were members of the Columbus Reform congregation, Temple Israel, the Dispatch reported. Milton and his wife, Charlotte, who was not Jewish, raised their daughter Susan -- Dylan Klebold's mother -- as a Jew. Although by Orthodox standards Susan wouldn't be considered Jewish because her mother wasn't Jewish, she was active in the Reform congregation during her youth.

According to the Dispatch, Susan may have moved from the Columbus area in the 1970s. Susan and her non-Jewish husband, Thomas Klebold, who operate Fountain Real Estate Mortgage Management from their home, have been residents of Littleton since 1990. Susan Klebold, former director of disability services at Arapahoe Community College, also works as assistant director of Access to Employment Projects for the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System in Denver.

Since the tragedy at Columbine High, Susan Klebold has given several indications, indirectly to local media, that she considers herself a Jew.

On Saturday, the Denver Rocky Mountain News carried an interview with her hairdresser, Dee Grantz, who said that Susan had spoken to her about her shock at her son's deed.

She reportedly told Grantz: "It's so hard to see my son portrayed as a monster when that isn't the boy I know. I don't know where all this comes about prejudice. We never taught any prejudice in our home. [Dylan] never talked that way to me. I'm Jewish."

Similarly, Susan Klebold's cousin, Skip Yassenoff, indicated to the Denver Post last week that Dylan Klebold's act "must have been very difficult for [Susan], for any average American parent but particularly for someone brought up Jewish."

B'nai Chaim, the Jewish congregation nearest to where the Klebolds reside in Littleton, has apparently never had contact with the family. This was emphasized both by the congregation's former spiritual leader, Rabbi Judith Beiner, now of Overland Park, Kan., and its current president, Daniel Rothschild, in comments to the Intermountain Jewish News.

Signals about the family's religious practice grew even more mixed when it was reported that Dylan Klebold was buried Saturday in a Lutheran funeral. Skip Yassenoff also noted last week that Susan and Thomas Klebold had been members of Littleton's St. Philip Lutheran Church.

The pastor of that church, Rev. Don Marxhausen, has told Denver area reporters that he has been consoling the Klebolds since last week's tragedy. Telephone calls from the Jewish News to Marxhausen were not returned this week.

However, Marxhausen did speak to the New York Times this week and told its reporters that the Klebold family held a Passover seder in its home this year. Dylan Klebold "asked the traditional four questions," the Times reported.

It remained unclear at press time what forms of Judaism or Christianity, or what combination of the two, were practiced in the Klebold home. Except for issuing a statement last week expressing sorrow at their son's actions, the Klebolds have refused all media requests for comments or interviews.

Whether Dylan Klebold was on equal footing with Harris or simply a follower in openly admiring Hitler and white supremacy is also still unclear.

"Eric was the stronger personality," student Dan Holsey told the Denver Post. "Eric kind of let his feelings be known, his hatreds or dislikes. If Dylan had any hatred, he never told me or anyone I knew."

According to the Associated Press, there were signs that Klebold's father had concerns about his son. On Tuesday, as the Columbine massacre was already under way, the father apparently contacted authorities, suspecting his son was involved in the shootings. He was too late, however, to be useful as a mediator.

At the same time, the father must have believed that his son's future was still bright. Dylan Klebold had been accepted by the University of Arizona and planned to attend this fall.

Denver area Jews, meanwhile, have expressed discomfort at the emphasis being paid to Klebold's alleged Jewishness. Several phone callers to the Jewish News have complained that the media coverage might betray an anti-Semitic bias.

Rabbi Raymond Zwerin of Denver's Temple Sinai might have been speaking on behalf of many area Jews when he questioned the apparent media fascination with the issue.

"I wouldn't consider him to be Jewish in any way or form," Rabbi Zwerin said of Dylan Klebold. "He wasn't raised Jewish. I don't see anyone making a big deal about the fact that Harris was Catholic. Let's not blame religion for this. This has nothing to do with religion or the failure of religion."

As for Klebold's Jewish forebears, the rabbi said simply, "I'm sure the grandfather and great-grandfather are twisting in their graves."