Dietary Restrictions Bring Jewish and Muslim Students Together
by Andrew Michaels
For students with religious dietary obligations, be they kosher, halal, or religious vegetarians, going to college can be difficult. Most schools require students to purchase a meal plan (though some allow for students to opt out for religious reasons), and plans often either have inadequate options for religious restrictions or lack options entirely. But many students have found unity in these restrictions, and some Jewish students feel their dietary restrictions have not only unified their school’s Jewish communities, but also lead to inter-religious dialogue.
Hart Levine is the founder and director of The Heart 2 Heart Project, an organization that works with the Orthodox Union to bring together Jews on college campuses through, among other things, regular Shabbat dinners. The project displays a map on its website, which can be used to look up the kosher programs at various universities. “Having a kosher community builds a place for people to gather, where connections are formed,” says Levine, who was inspired by the many connections forged among Jewish students by eating together in the kosher eatery at the Hillel of his alma mater, The University of Pennsylvania. Georgetown University’s lead Hillel rabbi, Rachel Gartner, was instrumental in establishing Georgetown’s kosher program in 2014. “The precipitating event was I had two incoming modern Orthodox students,” she says. “They were really serious candidates and really wanted to be here, and I used to joke, ‘Well, you can eat once a week, on Friday nights, because we have catered kosher Shabbat dinners every Friday night.’ …or I can use this as an opportunity to sort of revitalize our kosher program.” Eytan Gittler, one of the students who motivated the introduction of a kosher dining program, says, “Even though I’m an Orthodox Jew, I can be here with people who are less religious and don’t keep kosher.”
Gartner says that developing the program meant not simply working within the Jewish community, but working with the campus Muslim community. “At the same time that that was happening nutritional services was saying, ‘We feel like there’s a little more interest in kosher food right now, and there’s also considerably more interest in Halal food from the Muslim community.’” The result was a meeting between Nutritional Services, Rabbi Gartner, campus Imam Yahya Hendi, and Father Kevin O’ Brien, Georgetown’s vice president for mission and ministry. “They really asked us some questions: ‘How does kashrut work, how does halal work, how can they work together? Collectively can we do something, because then we have a critical mass that really makes us a viable program,’” Gartner says. Surveys distributed to the Muslim and Jewish communities revealed that “most students didn’t want separate halls or rooms. They didn’t want to be sequestered, because they saw dining as a time to really connect with everybody. But at the same time, they really wanted their kosher and halal food,” says Gartner. “The conversations that we were having around food between the communities, it was another one of our venues of connection.” Gartner says the connections between Jewish and Muslim students has become effective in the formation of campus groups. “This semester we have a Jewish-Muslim women’s group that started because of Muslim students who came to Shabbat to see what it was like, so we had women in hijab coming to Shabbat. And the women started talking and said ‘let’s have a dialogue group’ and started their own group.”
Georgetown’s commitment to interfaith dialogue has played a heavy role in making discussions between Jewish and Muslim students successful. “Things arise, but the commitment to a dialogue of respect here is very high, so that commitment can override the differences, and the real tensions. They’re there, but that commitment smooths the way, and I’m proud of that, I’m really proud of that,” says Gartner.
Daani Iqbal, a freshman and member of the Georgetown Muslim Students Association, says, “I think we both talked about the overlaps between our two meal requirements and came to a good, bipartisan conclusion as to how it was to work out.” Iqbal called the plan on food “a decision between two close organizations on campus that act as a family.”
There have also been talks of a “Shalom Salaam buddy system,” in which Muslim students bring Jewish “buddies” (and vice-versa) to Muslim events.
In October, the Muslim Students Association and Hillel at Stockton University in Galloway, NJ came together to promote a Halal/Kosher night. Club treasurer Bazam Bakhat says that the University already had positive interfaith relations and the event was held “to show the rest of the students that Jews and Muslims can work together happily.” Ramsha Malik, president of Stockton’s MSA, said the unifying power of food provided a perfect venue to bring the communities together. “Food is kind of like an example that different things can come together to create a beautiful masterpiece. You have the spices, fruits, vegetables, and different ways to include all those ingredients to make different but delicious dishes. Humans can do the same thing. They just have to realize they can work together and create a balance,” he says.
Other universities have also brought Muslim and Jewish communities together over culinary concerns. In 2014, Jewish and Muslim students at UC San Diego came together over similar concerns over Kosher and Halal dining, several years after significant tensions between the communities. And at Oberlin College, a kosher and halal co-op is operated by various students.
Though tensions between Muslim and Jewish communities continue to exist on campuses, a shared hunger seems to continue bringing students together, and at a variety of universities, the need to act upon culinary traditions has smoothed out political tensions, brought people together, and maybe, in Bakhat’s words, created a masterpiece.