Tension in KHC Membership Review

Duncan Standish

The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association’s board of directors is currently in the process of reviewing Kosher-Halal Co-op’s membership in the organization. The assessment was spurred by a policy conflict over OSCA kitchen inspection and food-buying policies.

While the OSCA general management team wants 24-hour access to Kosher-Halal Co-op’s kitchens and wants the co-op to purchase its food through a central buyer, members of the co-op say these policies conflict with kashrut, the guidelines that comprise Jewish dietary law.

The OSCA board has talked with the College administration about handing over operations of KHC to the College and Oberlin Campus Dining Services if a compromise cannot be reached. As OSCA is set to renew its rent contract with the College this year, the policy conflicts are receiving particular attention.

A perceived lack of transparency in the decision-making process has led to high stress for KHC members and lasting uncertainty over the future of their co-op. Paul DeRonne, double-degree fifth-year and president of OSCA, declined to discuss the details of the problems, citing potential legal liabilities as well as the principle of respecting the privacy of individual co-op operations.

Unfortunately, many KHC members themselves also feel left in the dark.

“There’s been a lot of talk, and as far as I know there’s no one in KHC who really has a definite idea of what is going on and exactly why this is happening,” said Conservatory sophomore and Dining Loose Ends Coordinator Sivan Silver-Swartz. Silver-Swartz said that KHC’s main religious advisor and kashrut authority, Rabbi Shimon Brand, was notified midway through last semester that OSCA had approached the College regarding the conflict.

“We didn’t really hear anything at all for the rest of last semester, and we were just left to speculate and to be, in general, pretty nervous about it,” he said.

Part of KHC’s mission is to provide a space where Jewish and Muslim students can feel comfortable practicing and expressing the dietary aspects of their religious culture.

Lauren Good, double-degree senior who works as a mashgiach, a person certified to ensure and maintain the kashrut of a kosher space, emphasized the impact of the general anxiety pervading KHC regarding this issue.

“The possibility of being removed from OSCA is extremely stressful for us. Members started saying that it was difficult to come into the co-op and use it as a safe space and just relax when there were these very stressful conversations going on all the time,” she said.

In a recent letter to OSCA members, OSCA board members stated, “We’ve been in contact with Rabbi Shimon Brand, and he maintains that allowing OSCA staff members into the co-op without members of KHC present will violate the laws of kashrut, which KHC must follow. We have offered that our staff be trained by Rabbi Brand in kashrut, and many staff already have been, but this is not acceptable under his interpretation of kashrut.”

Good said that referring to Rabbi Brand’s knowledge of kashrut as his “interpretation” was an unfair questioning of his training and authority.

“I think that’s a very offensive thing to say, honestly. He’s studied for years; he knows what he’s talking about. He’s more than qualified,” she said.

Good also said that she believes this shows a lack of respect and an unwillingness to understand the complexity of the situation.

Afraid and puzzled as to what to expect of the future, some have begun to actively appeal to the Oberlin community for support. Malachi Kanfer, OC ’12, Oberlin’s junior Jewish Student Life Coordinator, created a Facebook page entreating viewers to “Stand with KHC as OSCA tries to eliminate KHC from OSCA.” College sophomore Justine Neuberger, a member of KHC, published an article last week in The Grapethat accused the OSCA leadership of harboring an anti-religious, pro-secular bias.

DeRonne said that Neuberger’s article was full of misinformation.

“KHC is not being attacked or singled out. There is absolutely no threat to the continued existence of KHC. This review is not in any way motivated by anti-religious or anti-Semitic sentiments in OSCA. We are doing these things for all of our co-ops. We are putting all of the options on the board, and one of those options is that KHC won’t be operated by OSCA anymore. We talked to the College as merely a precautionary measure to protect [the KHC] community and its essential purpose at Oberlin.” DeRonne also responded to fears that central aspects of KHC would change.

“The cost to eat in the College-operated KHC would be comparable to OSCA. It would be student-run, with cooking, cleaning and food-buying done by students,” he said. “The College would have a CDS manager in the kitchen for all food preparation. This is the kind of infrastructure that OSCA cannot provide to ensure the health and safety of our members.”

Despite this, members of KHC remained uneasy.

“We would have much less administrative and organizational freedom than we do right now, because we wouldn’t be the ones making the final rules,” said Silver-Swartz. “And if we don’t have any individual membership from OSCA, KHC’s community will completely, fundamentally change. It will basically destroy the community.”

Silver-Swartz believes KHC’s membership in OSCA is also about increased accessibility to OSCA for students who keep kosher and halal, adding, “I think the positive aspects of that increased accessibility far outweigh any practical difficulties. And really, we’re the ones dealing with the practical difficulties.”

Samia Monsour, Oberlin’s Jewish Student Life Coordinator, expressed frustration over the conflict’s history and the implications stemming from a lack of transparency on the issue.

“We don’t know much, but we do know that the College administration and OSCA have been in the works to push Kosher [-Halal Co-op] out for a long time — longer than Kosher has known, longer than I’ve known. This has been going on behind the scenes for probably a year or more,” she said.

“I think we should demand full disclosure from the OSCA board and the College administrators. It is unacceptable that they are working behind our backs, the students’ backs, the whole OSCA membership. This doesn’t just affect Kosher, this affects all of OSCA, because if they can push Kosher out they can push anybody out.”

DeRonne expressed a desire to communicate about the issue more directly.

“OSCA values KHC’s mission and purpose and we want to make sure KHC is getting the support it needs,” he said. “Let’s open up communication on this issue. Let’s talk one-on-one and come up with a solution to your concern.”

He encouraged those who are concerned to e-mail the OSCA board of directors or to contact him personally.