Details, Details: The Making of a Kosher/Halal Dining Facility


FRED LEBLANC

David Aminia, ritual director for Temple Beth El in Springfield, speaks with Dale Hennessey, director of dining services, in Wilder Hall's new kosher/halal kitchen.

If the full recipe for the first night's menu at Wilder Hall were written out, it would begin: First, demolish your kitchen.

That start-from-scratch approach was necessary to turn Wilder into the home of the College's new kosher/halal dining facility, one of a handful on American college campuses that provide for the dietary needs of observant Jews and observant Muslims. On Sunday, when returning students came together for that first dinner of baked lemon chicken or Spanish-style baked tofu, they took part in a meal that had been months in preparation.

Transforming Wilder into a kosher/halal facility meant creating a new kitchen in an old building. In accordance with the kosher proscription against mixing meat with dairy products, a new floor plan for the kitchen had to be drawn, with one area set aside for meat preparation, a second for dairy, and a third for parve items-those that are neither meat nor dairy. It is really two kitchens in one, with separate refrigerators, ovens, grills, and preparation areas for dairy and meat items.

No sooner had the last student moved out in May than carpenters, plumbers, and electricians went to work. Over the course of the summer, they would gut the room, build new walls, lay a new tile floor, construct new cabinets, and install a full complement of large and small appliances. The work was largely funded through a $250,000 donation by an anonymous alumna.

Overseeing the work was John Fortini, associate director of dining services. Fortini spent his summer researching the new kitchen's needs and finding suppliers for the dozens upon dozens of color-coded spatulas, measuring cups, saucepans, serving utensils, and other items that would be needed. Because kosher laws dictate that meat cannot touch items meant for dairy use, and vice versa, two sets of everything had to be ordered, from ovens to knife racks to dishwasher racks for drinking glasses and plates.

Screening the list of hundreds of food items the College stocks was the duty of Renee Kroll, chef/manager of the new kitchen, and David Norton, assistant director for purchasing in dining services. Among the items that fell prey to their black markers were Grey Poupon mustard, scratched from the list because the white wine it contains runs afoul of the halal proscription on the use of alcohol, and Campbell soups, which are not certified kosher. Heinz soups are taking their place. Over the summer, Kroll and Norton spent many hours researching products and vendors.

It was tedious and detail-oriented work, but Kroll was determined that every product on her kitchen shelves be acceptable under the rules of the Torah and the Qur'an. She is no newcomer to things kosher and halal. For four years, she worked in the modest kosher/halal kitchen at Eliot House and has in the past catered kosher meals for gatherings at the National Yiddish Book Center, up the road in Amherst.

After the renovation of the building and the provision of the food comes a third major component: education. The eight full-time and six part-time dining services employees who will work at Wilder have undergone training with David Aminia, the ritual director of Temple Beth El in Springfield, a Conservative Jewish congregation. Aminia this spring agreed to be Wilder's meshgiach, the representative of the rabbi who certifies that the kitchen is kosher, and will make weekly inspections.
College officials recognize that students, too, will need to understand the workings of the dining hall. For example, on days when meat is served, milk cannot be served. That means that, rather than having a five-gallon milk dispenser available at all times, as in other dining halls, Wilder will use one-gallon jugs that can be locked away in their refrigerator on meat days-with soy milk offered as an alternative. Locked cupboards and enclosures are one way to minimize the chance for mistakes.
The dishes will be unlike the plain white china used elsewhere on campus. Rose china will be used for meat dishes, and sea mist green for dairy. And those plates must stay in the dining hall-once removed, there is no way to be certain that they haven't been misused. As nothing goes out of the dining room, so nothing will come in-and the checker at the door will make certain.

Students will also get the message that kosher and halal food is not for observant Jews and observant Muslims alone. One of the reasons Wilder was chosen was that its 100-seat dining room is larger than the number of Jews and Muslims expected to eat there. Messages to be placed on tables in all dining halls drive home the message that Wilder's offerings will not be limited to matzo balls and Middle Eastern bread.

Efraim Eisen, the College's Jewish chaplain, and Sister Shamshad Sheikh, the Muslim chaplain, expect that there will be many questions in the dining room's first days, and both are prepared to spend a good deal of time in Wilder making themselves available to students.

More than simply a convenient way for Muslims and Jews to observe their relatively similar dietary laws, Wilder's kitchen represents an affirmation of the religious pluralism that thrives on campus. It is, in fact, a product of a remarkable level of understanding and respect between members of the two faiths, one that will be celebrated in a blessing ceremony scheduled for September 13.
Plans for the dining hall grew out of discussions that Beverly Daniel Tatum, dean of the College, entered into with a group of students in the spring of 2000. Jewish and Muslim students felt that the kosher/halal kitchen that had been operated at Wilder since 1989 had been taxed beyond its capacity, and petitioned the College to do better.

Although kosher and halal laws are similar, they are not identical. Along with forbidding the mixing of meat and dairy, kosher laws prohibit eating pork, shellfish, or the meat of any animal that does not chew its cud or have split hooves. Animals must be slaughtered in a prescribed way, and all the blood must be drained from the meat.

Halal laws are less comprehensive, prohibiting alcohol, pork and pork products, and meat from animals not slaughtered according to strictures. To be deemed halal, the animal that will be consumed must be healthy, a prayer must be made before its slaughter, and the blood must be completely drained from its body. Although the Jewish and Muslim laws on the slaughtering of animals are not the same, the Muslim students and Sheikh agreed that Muslims often eat kosher meat when true halal meat is not available. That accommodation, an outgrowth of the healthy interfaith dialogue that has become woven into the life of the campus, made the kosher/halal kitchen possible.


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