Why Kosher?

Often when one talks about Jewish life in college, the conversation starts and ends with one thing: Kosher food. Now I know it’s an important aspect of Jewish life, and that it’s a $12 billion industry, but why the obsession with kosher food on college campuses?

This includes universities, who in efforts to attract Jewish students, often take the sole step of building kosher dining halls or starting kosher meal plans (these articles from 2010 talked about it). We also have a whole list of resources regarding kosher food on campus, including our map, which was recently featured in Tablet Magazine. And college guidance counselors, who in seeking to determine appropriate destinations for their Jewish students, judge colleges solely by the presence or absence of kosher food. We’re not even just talking about kosher-observing individuals – you’ll have Reform Jews (whose movement abandoned kashrut) and unaffiliated Jews who will only send their children to colleges with kosher food.

For some, the core issue is really a desire for Jews to go to colleges with other Jews. Why is that? Probably so there’s a better chance that they meet and marry Jews – because obviously stopping intermarriage is the main goal of Judaism 😉 Thus kosher food on campus is often just an attractant and proxy for Jews on campus – Jews want college with kosher food because Jews go to colleges with kosher food (similar to the cyclical issue of the previous post).

On another level, food is often the backbone of a community. Eating is the most common of daily activities, it bookends one’s waking hours, and it’s often the most social of daily interactions – besides for the religious, spiritual, and communal significance that Judaism places on eating. So it makes sense that kosher food is the core of Jewish community, perhaps even more than prayer – which people do at most 3 times a day, but more likely 1/day and even more likely 1/week or 1/year – or anything else. And in college especially, when people are starting out on their own, making friends and building community independently for the first time, kosher food is the best place to support Jewish life and Jewish community. Which helps explain why this is a unique issue in college – you don’t see so many offices building and hospitals with dining halls or cafeterias (although there are some, including some kosher cafeterias and local restaurants).

There’s a supporting story told by a previous head of the Young Israel movement, Rabbi Ephraim Sturm, about the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. It was in the 1960’s, and the Orthodox establishment was starting to worry about Orthodox students going off the derech in college (I guess some things never change). Rabbi Sturm went to many leaders of the time and their suggestions ranged from introducing more Orthodox professors, to banning out-of-town colleges, to banning college altogether. The Lubavitcher rebbe’s suggestion was to build kosher dining halls – because that’s where Jews could gather together, form a community, and stay connected and committed to Judaism. As noted above, this approach has been adopted wide and far, and perhaps more than Chabad: there are many more kosher dining halls and plans set up by Hillels and the universities themselves than by Chabad rabbis (only 12 out of the 130 colleges with kosher food).

It’s also interesting and perhaps counterintuitive that in the intellectual and academic environment of the university, it’s the social and gastrological field of dining in which the Jewish community invests the most. Perhaps that’s because we’ve given up on combatting the external world in the intellectual arena, or because the way to a man’s (or woman’s) heart truly is through their mouth, or maybe we’re just underestimating the social nature of the college experience.

For whatever reason, kashrut on campus is in, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. As shown by the graph above, the number of colleges getting kosher food or looking to get kosher food has been increasing exponentially. While I welcome the news and the support for Jewish life on campus, I’ll just add that I think this step is necessary but not sufficient for vibrant Jewish life. Great, there’s kosher food – but are people eating it? Is there a community being build around kosher dining? Are there opportunities to deepen people’s connections to Judaism other than merely the food that they eat and the people with whom they socialize? That will be the next challenge for American Jewish college students, and it’s one we’re gearing up to face!

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