The great knish controversy erupted at Harvard in the spring of 1992. It began with a toaster oven. The unassuming appliance was introduced into the dining hall of Dunster House—one of Harvard’s 12 residential dormitories for upperclassmen—as a courtesy to kosher-keeping students. Until then, observant Jews had been restricted to consuming the few kosher staples on offer, like sliced bread and tuna fish. Now for the first time, with the aid of their new toaster, they could sample such delicacies as rabbinically certified frozen knishes and pizza bagels.
But this did not sit well with Noel Ignatiev, a tutor in History and Literature at Dunster. In a letter to the dining-hall manager, he protested the use of “public funds” to finance “sectarian” concerns, which he deemed an unacceptable breach in the “separation of church and state.” It was a curious complaint, given that Harvard is a private institution with its own Divinity School and that the money for the $40 toaster was essentially coming from religious students, who would otherwise be paying for a meal plan from which they could not actually eat. “I don’t know whether to be offended, annoyed, or simply to laugh,” then-Hillel President Shai Held told the Harvard Crimson. Students decided to split the difference, and Ignatiev was alternately condemned and mocked in the pages of the school paper, which reported the outcry under the immortal headline “Students Support Kosher Toaster.” That May, Ignatiev’s contract with Dunster House was not renewed.
But while the “anti-knish tutor” has long since departed Harvard, his unwitting legacy lives on—in the form of kosher microwaves, toaster ovens, and well-stocked fridges in every house dining hall. It’s a success story that has repeated itself across the United States, as kosher food makes inroads into many of the most unlikely of campuses: from east coast to west, public universities to private ones, historically Christian colleges to the avowedly secular.
“It’s not just New York, it’s not just the top five colleges, but this is really something that American universities across the country are really putting considerable time and resources into,” said Hart Levine, director of Heart to Heart, a grassroots organization that supports Jewish religious life on campus. Heart to Heart tracks the spread of kosher food with an online map that provides up-to-date information for prospective students, parents, and college guidance counselors. To date, it counts 140 campuses with some form of kosher fare—over a third of which launched their programs in the last decade—each with its own idiosyncrasies and backstory.
Chef Emil Boch is known as the “kosher king of Ann Arbor.” He runs the kitchen at the University of Michigan Hillel as well as a word-of-mouth kosher catering service for the area. He’s also not Jewish. “I just answered an ad for a chef,” he said with a chuckle. “I had no background in kosher cooking. I grew up in a town with no Jewish families and didn’t know anything about the Jewish faith until I got this job.” Eight years later, Boch has cooked hundreds of daily meals for students at Michigan and hosts weekly Shabbat dinners that can draw up to 500 attendees. For a 2008 Hillel fundraiser, he held a cook-off with chef Ilan Hall—the Jewish winner of Top Chef Season 2—in which both participants were restricted to appliances and kosher ingredients typically found in a dorm room.
Perhaps the most innovative service Boch provides is a matzo ball soup hotline, which delivers the famous Jewish remedial stew free-of-charge to any sick students who request it. Needless to say, Boch takes great pride in all of his offerings. “I would say that if you weren’t Jewish and you just came here blindfolded, you would have no idea it was kosher,” he said.
Some such programs are housed in Hillel and subsidized by the host university as part of its meal plan. But recent years have also seen many schools incorporating kosher food into their dining halls and other facilities. For example, the only kosher restaurant in Boulder, Colo., is located in the Center for Community at the University of Colorado, where it was established in 2010. There, Executive Chef Paul Houle and his team run a kosher meal station for students and members of the general public on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. It’s part of an array of ethnic offerings provided by the university. “We have a kosher restaurant,” Houle explained, “and then we have an Italian restaurant and a Latin restaurant and an Asian restaurant and a Persian restaurant and a sushi restaurant.”
Colorado’s program is one of several found in public universities, many of which offer full kosher meal plans, like SUNY Albany, University of Connecticut, and Wayne State (the latter two launched in 2003 and 2012). Other campuses offer joint kosher-halal dining options, including Wellesley, Brown, and Oberlin. And kosher cuisine can even be found at exclusive private functions, like the meetings of the fabled Yale secret society Skull & Bones, whose personal chef has been known to accommodate the laws of kashrut for some of its recent Orthodox Jewish members.
What accounts for the increasingly rapid spread of kosher food on campus? Sometimes it’s a matter of one person being in the right place at the right time. Benjamin Epstein, now a graduate student at Berkeley, served on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s blue ribbon panel on dining reform in 2010. At the time, aside from some ad hoc meals and short-lived co-ops, there was essentially no daily kosher programming at MIT. “For the most part,” Epstein recalled, “people would live in dormitories that had kitchens and cook their own food.” One incident on the panel, however, helped changed that.
“Every meeting that we had, they would order a kosher meal for me from a caterer,” said Epstein. But one day, the food was late. “We’re all sitting in the room waiting for the meeting to start, and one of the administrators isn’t there. She bursts into the room, kind of panting, and comes over and dumps a handful of things in front of me. It’s a bagel, one of those Sabra hummus and pretzel packs, and a package of Oreos.
“She says, ‘I’m so sorry, I forgot to order a kosher meal for this week so I ran all around campus trying to find something for you to eat, and this is all that I could find that was kosher,’ ” Epstein recounted. The implication was not lost on the panel. “I think not until that moment did it really sink in what it actually meant that there was nothing for the kosher community to eat on campus—that this was actually a serious problem.” In 2011, MIT’s newest dormitory inaugurated a dedicated kosher meal station, which is now frequented not only by Jews, but halal-observant Muslims for whom its ritually slaughtered kosher meat is also permissible.
This diversity of culinary communities points to another reason for the proliferation of kosher food on campus: the effort on the part of universities to accommodate a wide array of dietary preferences, from vegetarian to vegan to gluten-free. Where once it might have been difficult to convince administrators to provide for an unusual student regimen, today it is quite fashionable.
It is also not lost on colleges that kosher cuisine can serve as a valuable recruiting tool. In recent years, some schools with small Jewish populations, like Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University and Illinois’ Bradley University, have gone so far as to build extensive kosher meal plans to attract additional Jews to their campus. CalTech famously hired a chef and constructed its entire kosher kitchen in order to woo a single student. (She enrolled.)
None of this is to say that the process has been without its hiccups. After 10 years and glowing coverage in the Los Angeles Times, the CalTech kitchen closed when Jewish life failed to take off on campus. “There were kosher students, but they never created a nucleus,” said Joel Weinberger, the former campus chef. Today, observant students are limited to pre-packaged meals.
Even where there is a critical mass of student demand, the extra cost of kosher food can place significant financial strain on the university, making the program a victim of its own success. In one unfortunate incident in 2012, the Harvard dining staff attempted to offset a budget deficit by reducing the number of students attending Hillel’s kosher dinner, which was drawing many more than expected. A sign was posted outside the dining hall requesting that students partake “only if you are a member or an invited guest of Harvard’s diverse Jewish community.” After impassioned outcry from the Hillel community, as well as coverage by the national Jewish media, the sign was removed.
On the flip side, some campuses, despite substantial Jewish populations, have failed to provide commensurate kosher dining options. The University of Florida counts the highest number of Jews of any college—over 6,500—but aside from semi-regular dinners at the local Chabad, kosher food has not been readily available in recent years. As a consequence, many Orthodox day schools in Florida discourage their students from attending—fueling a cycle in which there is insufficient religious demand for more kosher programming.
And then there’s the fact that not all kosher options are created equal. “There’s a lack of standards sometimes,” said Hart Levine, “where colleges will advertise ‘we have kosher food,’ when really they mean ‘we have some frozen meals hidden away in some freezer which you have to request two weeks in advance.’ And students will go there because the college advertised that they have kosher food, but that’s very different than actually having a meal plan.” One of the goals of Heart to Heart’s campus kosher map is to make these differences apparent to prospective students and hopefully spur some healthy kosher competition among the colleges who want to attract them.
Such quibbles aside, however, there’s never been a better time to keep kosher on campus. “Often, people think about Jewish life on college campuses and their first reaction is ‘anti-Semitism and anti-Israel stuff,’ ” Levine said. “I think people should realize that colleges really are trying to accommodate and develop Jewish life on their campuses, and we should try to respond in turn and work with them on that.”
In fact, Levine and Heart to Heart have already set their sights on wider horizons. “Are there rabbis? Are there learning opportunities? Minyan? Eruvs? Are there all the amenities, in other words, that are needed for religious life?” he asked. “That’s the next step.”
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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.