Kosher Halal Co-op Deserves Space on Campus


Madison Olsen

A student picks up dinner at Heritage, the kosher dining hall located in Talcott Hall. The space was previously occupied by the Kosher and Halal co-op.

For more than 40 years, Talcott Hall has provided a home for Kosher Halal Co-op, a student-run dining cooperative that follows both Jewish and Muslim dietary laws. Membership in KHC is open to all students, with priority given to those with religious dietary needs.

Oberlin College recently decided it will no longer rent Talcott Hall to KHC. Students responded with a petition that gathered over 900 signatures, an impressive feat for a co-op with only 35 members. Recent and long-graduated alumni alike wrote heartfelt testimonials about how their membership in KHC was a formative life experience. College administrators dismissed the petition and indicated that the College does not have an obligation to rent space to any co-op.

In their One Oberlin report from May 2019, the Academic and Administrative Program Review steering committee described how co-ops’ high operational costs drain the College’s dining revenue. However, at the time of its writing, AAPR also noted that “Campus Dining currently has extremely limited to no capacity to offer Kosher and Halal dining options to students and recommends that facilities investments occur to ensure equitable access to dining based on religious observance.” According to Kosher law, kitchens must have a mashgiach, a rabbinical supervisor. The Oberlin Hillel rabbi managed this responsibility for KHC, but if the College opts for a commercial Kosher dining hall rather than a co-op, it would need to hire a new employee, just by virtue of the scale of operations. Preparing Halal meat in a dining hall would also require new ovens and grills. It remains unclear how closing KHC would save revenue.

In 2020, all co-ops closed due to the pandemic. To provide for students who keep Kosher, Oberlin opened a new dining hall called Heritage Kosher Kitchen, and promised to provide Halal food in Stevenson Dining Hall. Unfortunately, the College did not do its research about Kosher dietary laws. In one infamous incident, a student was served chicken with yogurt sauce. Considering that the separation of meat and dairy is a core principle of Kashrut, this was no minor oversight. Students remain concerned about the College’s ability to manage Kosher dining, especially for the Passover holiday which requires a special form of Kosher and specific cleaning procedures.

Halal practice varies among different Islamic communities, and AVI should consult with Muslim students every year rather than rely on any assumptions. Haram (forbidden) ingredients, such as certain types of extracts, cheeses, and gelatins, may need to be stored separately from Halal (permitted) ingredients or disposed of completely. Unfortunately, Stevenson does not allow students to enter the kitchen to verify its Halal status.

One of KHC’s greatest strengths is its pluralistic community. The co-op has members who grew up in Kosher homes, Kosher-style homes, Halal homes, or none of the above; it provides space for Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and nonreligious students; and among the Jewish members there are no dividing lines between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform members. Many young adults grapple with questions of faith and identity as they grow independent from their parents, and the co-op provides a laboratory to explore their personal beliefs. The co-op has no political stances, and its membership covers the whole ideological spectrum on political issues. This makes it an ideal forum for respectful debate, and an irreplaceable discourse space on campus.

There is also the question of Ramadan. Since KHC was open 24 hours a day, students could begin their fast at dawn (fajr prayer) and end their fast at dusk (maghrib prayer). However, a dining hall would not necessarily be open during these times. In previous years, Muslim students received a Ramadan refund from KHC. Without the co-op, Muslim students may have to pay for meal swipes they can’t use, and then rely on dormitory vending machines to begin and end the Ramadan fast. Relegating Muslim students’ dietary needs to an afterthought is an egregious oversight, especially as America is just beginning to emerge from the toxic Islamophobia and Muslim travel ban of the Trump years.

Even if Oberlin College does find a way to provide for the dietary needs of all of its students, putting the Kosher community in one dining hall while Halal students eat in a separate hall destroys the unique KHC community. In a global climate where Islam and Judaism are often pitted against each other, KHC represents an interfaith community of radical love and friendship. KHC alumni recently held a social media contest for “cutest Jew and Muslim couple,” and competition was fierce.

After all, KHC is not only a space for Jewish and Muslim students, but a place where all members are free to be themselves, hang out at any hour of the day, and get to know each other over the course of a whole semester. All members agree to follow Kosher and Halal laws, but when people show up for an ordinary meal they are not attending a religious service. The atmosphere is casual, fun, and inclusive in a gentle way.

The lasting impact of KHC can be seen in the number of co-op alumni who have gone on to become cantors or other leaders in their religious communities. Others have carried on the lessons of KHC as community organizers, fundraisers and grant writers, educators, and lawyers. In my interviews with KHC alumni, dozens of people cited the co-op as a direct or indirect influence in their professional lives, and an enduring element of their social and educational experience at Oberlin.

KHC is certainly willing to share space with another dining hall. Talcott is a large, central facility that can accommodate multiple organizations. From the late 1970s until 2004, KHC shared the use of Talcott with the now-defunct Talcott Dining Hall. Each organization had its own kitchen and dining room, and KHC used the large dining room for weekly Shabbat dinners and major holidays.

Oberlin College’s administration needs to understand that “operational efficiency” is only one part of the picture. If you strip away the unique, innovative parts of Oberlin, then Oberlin will become indistinguishable from every other expensive liberal arts college. Further, if we want Muslim and Jewish students to feel welcome at Oberlin, banishing KHC from campus is the wrong approach. 

Ultimately, there is a short list of reasons why students choose Oberlin over its peer institutions, and the co-op dining experience is on that list. Sacrificing Oberlin’s cultural institutions for the sake of immediate financial gain is incredibly short-sighted and undermines the College’s ability to attract prospective students, enrich current students’ experiences, and elicit alumni donations.