The Bar-On Brief: USC must commit to campus-based kosher food option

The Bar-On Brief: USC must commit to campus-based kosher food option


As of last week, it is year 5780 in the Jewish calendar. Jews around the world are celebrating the first month of the Jewish calendar, filled with happiness and holiday celebrations. This is no different for the Jews at USC. While the University hasn’t always been the most welcoming of places for Jewish students, times are drastically different today. There is a vibrant Jewish community that flourishes through various campus organizations, religious groups and even academic departments. But the University still lacks a key aspect of providing for its Jewish students: meeting religious dietary restrictions.

Yes, the University has made great strides and has looked into the issue several times before. In the early 2000s, USC invited kosher food trucks, which eventually left because their profits weren’t as high as they could be if they operated in more heavily concentrated Jewish areas. As of 2018, the University caters three kosher meals a week in USC Village dining hall. However, there are only certain hours they can be picked up, it only exists three evenings a week and it certainly isn’t the same quality food as the non-kosher meals provided by the University. These attempts at providing for religious students make it clear that the University must put students over profit and invest in a permanent, on-campus kosher food option.

Dean Varun Soni and Rev. Jim Burklo of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life see an on-campus food option as the best solution, and they have been pushing for kosher and halal options for some time.

“What our goal has always been is to, at some point, develop a full-time resource where we have a kosher and halal station in one of the dining halls so that anyone on a meal plan — Jewish, Muslim or otherwise — [can swipe in and eat],” Sonni said. “If the food is tasty enough, it doesn’t matter, people will eat it.”

Soni listed the Good Karma Cafe as an example of how a kosher and halal option could work. The cafe, which recently reopened in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, complies with the needs of Hindu students, but also attracts non-Hindu students because of the food’s quality.

There is no doubt that a kosher dining hall section would require more investment than a vegetarian option; there are many factors at play when converting a section of a dining hall to accommodate the laws of kashrut. For this to work, the dining hall would need to have a separate kosher kitchen, kosher utensils and a trained rabbi who oversees the daily operations of the facility. It’s no easy feat.

But if we boil it down to the main issue, we find that any reluctance comes down to only one obstacle: cost. It would be a shame if, of all things, unwillingness to spend is what prevents one of the wealthiest universities in the world from becoming a more welcoming environment.

Soni notes that pushback against building a kosher dining hall section stems from the argument that the current number of observant Jews on the kosher meal plan — currently in the single figures, according to Sonni — does not justify the cost. However, he supports the initiative because of what he describes as a “chicken and an egg problem.”

“Everytime we run a kosher or halal program we don’t have enough students to justify the expense of a full-time resource,” Sonni said. “But without that full-time resource, we won’t get enough students to enroll here to sort of get us there.”

He said he believes implementing a kosher section of the dining hall will cause more students, regardless of their background, to discover and enjoy Jewish food traditions.

Even if the University is unwilling to build an entirely new kitchen, there is a simpler solution it should consider in the meantime. Chabad Jewish Student Center at USC — a Jewish organization that hosts religious services, social events and meals during the Jewish Sabbath and holidays — is in the process of renovating its space. In a few months, the Chabad House will have a new kitchen that will comply with the needs of observant Jewish and Muslim students. At the very least, the University should allow students to use their meal swipes and dining dollars at the Chabad kitchen after it is fully constructed.

Chabad Rabbi Dov Wagner said he has spoken with USC Hospitality about the construction plans and said he is willing to make any accommodations to satisfy University requirements. He said he is waiting on USC Hospitality to fully inspect and approve the kitchen plans. Representatives from USC Hospitality did not comment in time for publication.

President Carol Folt was clear in her inauguration speech that her tenure as the University’s leader would emphasize listening to students and putting their needs first, even if it means spending a little extra. Endorsing a kosher and halal dining hall section — or at least allowing University meal swipes to be used in the new Chabad kitchen — would show she really means it.

Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.