Oberlin Blogs

Kosher-Halal Co-op Is Back, Baby!

February 7, 2024

Ilana McNamara ’24

As an incoming college student, I had a lot of the normal fears surrounding food: Where will I eat? Will I be able to find healthy options? Will the food actually taste decent? And most concerning of all, who will I eat with? I was very overwhelmed by the prospect of having to eat in a huge, impersonal dining hall with people that I didn’t know. But as I perused the options, one stuck out to me: a place where I could practice my religious dietary restrictions, a small environment where I would know everyone that I was eating with, in a beautiful building with people of different faiths. The Kosher-Halal Co-op was obviously the place for me. 

I was very lucky to get into a co-op in my very first semester of being at Oberlin. Everyone in KHC really helped my transition into college and I was welcomed into the co-op with open arms (literally - thanks, Paul!). I gained comfort from the fact that I knew exactly what time and with whom I was eating every day, and I made some very close friends in the Talcott kitchen. I got to cook some amazing meals (my favorite was probably the crazy falafel and hummus bonanza) and I had the opportunity to learn more about the laws of kashrut and halal in my time as the Kosher-Halal Co-ordinator, or KHC, of the Kosher-Halal Co-op, or KHC. KHC is the only student-run dining co-operative in the world that caters to both Muslim and Jewish dietary needs, and provides a space for interfaith compassion through truly understanding one another, and I found it so meaningful and important to be a part of such a project. 

Then, in March 2020, disaster struck. My beautiful co-op community was taken away from me as we were all sent home in the pandemic, and we received a fatal blow when we heard that the college was not allowing KHC to operate at all in the future due to questionable legal concerns on behalf of the administration. I and other students spent the next four years fighting for our beloved co-op to come back to campus. We received setback after setback, mostly inflicted by the Oberlin administration’s legalistic and financial preoccupations. However, we have a strong group of students and alumni who were able to help with getting the word out and fundraising efforts, and I’m pleased to say that in Winter Term 2024, we did what many believed to be impossible - we brought the Kosher-Halal Co-op back to life on Oberlin’s campus. 

I could write a whole other post (a whole book, really) on what I went through and what I learned in the past four years trying every way to allow the co-op to operate, but for this post I want to focus on what we accomplished during this Winter Term. I worked with the Office of Winter Term (shoutout to Karen Reynolds, who was so helpful throughout the whole process!) and the incredible Religion Professor Cindy Chapman to put together a Winter Term Project called Kosher-Halal Co-op Revival, which I and four other students took on in January 2024. We additionally worked with OSCA - the Oberlin Student Co-operative Association (big shoutout to OSCA President Elijah Freiman, who believed and made it happen!) - and Pyle Co-op to create a functional dining co-operative over Winter Term 2024, where over 30 students cooked, cleaned, and ate in community for all of our meals throughout the month.

Winter Term is a special time on Oberlin’s campus where, historically, many initiatives have been started, including Hebrew Heritage House (still around as J-House) in Oberlin’s inaugural Winter Term in 1969. In my personal experience of Winter Term, each location that I’ve chosen to pursue my project in has progressively gotten more “exotic” (or at least further from home): my first year, I spent Winter Term in Minneapolis with my string quartet (which you can read more about here). Sophomore year, I spent time with my friends in a house in rural Vermont. Although not an official Winter Term project, I did a non-credit practice intensive. During my junior year Winter Term, I visited London and stayed with my sister, currently studying contemporary dance at Trinity Laban Conservatory in Greenwich, while exploring the city. Last year, I ventured to Indonesia and the Phillipines to learn more about traditional and contemporary music in both countries (which you can read more about here). And finally, for my last year, the pinnacle of all of my Winter Term experiences, I was in the great city of Oberlin, Ohio!

But seriously, I’m really glad that I stayed in Oberlin for this January and made KHC happen again. I feel like it’s the most important thing that I’ve worked on during my time at college, and I’ve learned more through the process of figuring out how a co-op that keeps both halal and kosher works than in many of my academic classes. If you want learning and labor, as Oberlin promises in its motto, join a co-op. 

So what is it that you actually did, Ilana? I’m so glad you asked! For the Winter Term Kosher-Halal Co-op, all of the 30 or so students that had chosen KHC as their dining plan over Winter Term had to each work five hours a week, split between cooking and cleaning. We had some really delicious meals - some of my favorites were the matzah ball soup and the vegetarian shepherd’s pie. Of course, there were many focaccias, flatbreads, and even bagels, along with all kinds of cookies, cakes, and scones. We ate lunch and dinner together at long tables in Pyle’s Hogwarts-like dining hall, and many laughs were had over the course of the month. 

Because of our situation as a co-op that observes both Muslim and Jewish religious dietary law, we had to do a few things differently than regular Oberlin co-ops. We had a special meal on Friday lunch for the Muslim Juma’ah prayers, which had more people on the shift to cook exciting and meaningful meals for our three Muslim members. For our observance of the Jewish Shabbat, we could not cook or clean from sunset on Friday night until dark on Saturday night, so we prepped food ahead of time that was special for the holiday, like traditional challah bread and the casserole-like dish known as kugel. There were a few other laws that had to be observed as well, like checking all eggs for blood spots, making sure every item had the rabbinical seal of approval called a hechsher, and ensuring that no items had any alcohol, which is haram, or forbidden in Islamic law. 

In addition to the daily operations of the co-op, however, we also had the Winter Term Project. I was the student leader on this project, and helped facilitate many activities and events related to KHC, which I will explain in detail below. Each of the five members of the project had their own angle on KHC that they were working on: as we all learned more about the history of KHC, we chose our own passion projects that we worked on to help the co-op. One member made a ten-minute documentary on the past and present of the co-op, one member inventoried a number of boxes of KHC’s old things, one member wrote an essay on the history of KHC and importance to their life, one member moved all of KHC’s old boxes into a new storage area and organized them, and I worked on policy and documentation for KHC to continue in the future. On a day-to-day basis, we met to share our progress on our individual projects, and work through any difficulties together. 

Every day brought with it a new activity or event to participate in that I helped to put together. In the beginning, the first two days of Winter Term consisted of kashering the kitchen. The ritual process of making a kitchen fit for kosher use involves a deep cleaning of everything, and then subjecting all items in the kitchen to a literal trial by fire in the form of boiling water or blowtorches. We spent a day organizing items that could be kashered (made kosher), like metal pots, pans, and cooking implements, and ones that could not, like ceramic plates, plastic cutting boards, and knives with plastic handles, as these materials can never be made kosher once used with non-kosher food. We then had to figure out what process we had to go through for each item, and then operate serious blowtorches and pour boiling water over many surfaces to kasher them over the next day. I think it was a great learning experience, and it was really cool to get to do all of this work ourselves. A big shoutout is necessary for Rabba Amalia Haas ‘91, who helped so much with all of the logistics of this process!

Some items that were purchased for use specifically in the co-op had to be toiveled, which is a process where one dunks said item into a source of running water. In our case, we used a lake in nearby Wellington, Ohio. As I stood at the dock of the lake dropping 48 individual ceramic plates into a laundry basket placed in the shallow water (so as not to lose any items), I thought about how cool my culture is that we have such a unique relationship to food. It’s also interesting to me that kashering and toiveling were some of the only “cleaning” methods that were being used back in the day. I also felt a little bit crazy.  

We were lucky enough to have some really great events with our incredible KHC alumni. Naeem Mohaiemen ‘93, now a professor of Visual Arts at Columbia University, offered to host a showing of his film Tripoli Cancelled for the co-op. The film was really beautiful, and showcased the life of a man living in an abandoned airport for ten years. It was a really interesting commentary on immigration, the Holocaust, and humanity. We then had a great discussion over Zoom with Naeem and Eliyana Adler ‘91, now a professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State. It was cool to see how two people who had met at KHC had such a lasting friendship and were able to continue the interesting conversations that were started when they were at the co-op. 

We also had a talk with Helen Kramer ‘17, who now works in dialogue across differences with the transformative communication organization Resetting the Table. She gave a great presentation to the Winter Term Project where we examined our past experiences with Muslim-Jewish interaction and the Israel/Palestine conflict. What I gained the most from this was the activity that we participated in where we had to share a personal story, then others would ask us questions that arose from that story. However, the catch was that we couldn’t respond to the questions right away. I thought it was really interesting in that it made me think about how I sometimes rush to defend my own opinion or say what I think my interlocutor wants me to say, instead of pausing to think about what it is that will be really crucial to the relationship we are building through dialogue. 

We were fortunate to have the wonderful Professor Cindy Chapman give a talk on “The Radical Act of Sharing a Meal.” This was one of the most interesting talks I’ve been to in a while, and Professor Chapman brought passages from the biblical Book of Ruth and her archeological expertise to elucidate the historical ties between land, labor, food, feeding and kinship, which she related to the experience of being in Kosher-Halal Co-op. Also really cool was that Professor Chapman’s parents actually met in Pyle Co-op, where KHC was hosted over Winter Term!

One of my favorite parts of the co-op was the numerous alums that stopped by to visit informally just because they were so excited that the co-op was back. Michael Appel ‘83 drove from Ann Arbor just to help us kasher the kitchen for a day, Samia Mansour ‘10, current director of the Oberlin Office of Religious and Spiritual Life came by for lunch, Rabbi Peter Schaktman ‘82 joined us for Shabbat, and many others stopped by just to say hello. It really goes to show that KHC was an important place for many on Oberlin’s campus historically (and currently!).

The Winter Term Project was able to visit a few key locations on campus as well. The Oberlin Archives gave us a tour of their extensive collection on Jewish Life at Oberlin, which contains many cool pieces of ephemera from various organizations that have existed on campus throughout the decades. They also have a great archive of Kosher-Halal Co-op specifically, which was an important resource, along with speaking to alums, for learning about KHC history. 

We were also able to take a tour of the kosher kitchen in Talcott, thanks to Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Elkan. He gave us a full breakdown of all the kashrut practices they employ in the kitchen, and showed us how they make it happen in the space. It was very interesting for me personally, as KHC used to operate in the Talcott kitchen, and I haven’t been inside since 2020. Some things are the same, but some things have changed a lot, like the former co-existence space, which was a room in the co-op with couches, prayer rugs, and books. Co-opers had to take our shoes off to enter, and we could hang out and talk, do homework, or learn and pray with the vast amounts of religious books and objects in the room. I have great memories of that room, which is now a storage room for the Talcott kitchen, with its beautiful bay windows covered up by massive AVI stickers. 

Every week on Thursday afternoons, we held a joint event with the Jewish Languages Winter Term Project led by Professor Shari Rabin where we cooked traditional Jewish foods in the co-op. The first week we made delicious bagels and pita bread with the bagel queen of rural Georgia herself, Professor Matt Berkman's mother. The next week we made bourekas and knishes, traditional Jewish potato pastries that I absolutely love. And the final week, we made the classic rugelach cookies, as well as sugar cookies in the shape of the Yiddish and Hebrew alphabet. I think everyone really enjoyed the yummy food, and it was also cool to open the co-op to others in the community. 

One thing that I wish had been able to get off the ground more was our Kosher-Halal Learning. We had planned to hold discussions about religious dietary law every weeknight, but as we got into the groove of Winter Term we realized this wasn’t really going to be possible. Our wonderful OSCAlums KHC Fellow, Elliot Diaz ‘23, put together source sheets on various aspects of halal and kosher law and their similarities. We were able to host some of these sessions, but not as many as we would have liked to, due to the practicalities of the amount of work that everyone was putting in. We did have a lot of informal learning going on, as people found out how to cook in a halal and kosher space and talked to each other over meals about different dietary and religious practices. 

We were also able to put together a field trip to Cleveland to experience Jewish food. We were supposed to go on a separate one for Muslim food, but unfortunately this had to be cancelled due to a variety of factors. We started out our trip by visiting and speaking to Rabbi Shimon Brand, former Hillel director and advisor to Jewish students at Oberlin, who helped found Kosher-Halal Co-op in the 1970s and was involved with it until he left the college in 2015. He has a really interesting and lengthy perspective on the co-op, so it was cool for everyone to hear his story and what he thought about the future of KHC. 

For lunch, we went to Mendel’s KC BBQ, a kosher meat restaurant in Cleveland. We had a delicious lunch, including a “BBQ sundae” and an incredible amount of brisket. We got to speak to the owner, Mendel, who had a really interesting story of living in Kansas City and wanting to try the famous barbeque there, but being prevented because of his adherence to Jewish law. So he did the natural thing: began to make it himself. This turned into multiple restaurants and lots of great kosher BBQ. We were able to take a tour of the kitchen, where we again learned how others incorporate the practice of keeping kosher into an industrial kitchen. 

We then traveled to the Cleveland dish mikvah, a ritual bath for the immersion of vessels (toiveling). It was interesting to see how the Cleveland Jewish community incorporated this necessary practice into their daily lives. We then finished off the day by stopping by the Kosher supermarket The Grove, where we were able to stock up on some essentials for the co-op. It was cool to see a supermarket where every single item was certified kosher. 

The event that I was most excited about was the Tu B’Shvat Seder. The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees, happened to fall during Winter Term, and as it’s one of my favorite holidays, I decided to take the initiative to host a seder, a traditional ritual meal that I had been a part of but never led before. Similar to a Passover seder, at a Tu B’Shvat seder one drinks four cups of grape juice to represent the four seasons, eats certain special fruits, and talks about texts related to trees. I prepared a vast assortment of fruits with different meanings, and compiled a source sheet with various Jewish and Islamic takes on the importance of trees and nature. I think this was a really successful event, and I was really proud that I was able to set up and lead something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. 

Before we knew it, Winter Term came to a close. The Winter Term Project celebrated everything that we worked on over the month of January with a display and presentation at the Winter Term Festival of Ideas, an event put on by the Office of Winter Term where everyone in the community can share what they accomplished over the month of January. We created a poster board with pictures, and answered questions about the co-op to those interested. We also participated in a showing of the mini documentary which one of the students put together about the co-op. It was great to show off all that we had learned about KHC!

Something that was really lovely to me was the extent to which younger co-opers took the lead in making things happen for the co-op. Many people chose to run for positions where they had to learn about the laws of halal and kashrut, run discussions, or make a permanent work chart for the co-op. I also really loved all the impromptu singing that occurred in the space. Additionally, people had a lot of fun with the opportunities that the co-op provided. In tandem with the official events that the Winter Term Project put on, students took the initiative to have screenings of three movies in the space (all the classics: Anastasia, The Producers, and Barbie Mermaidia). A group chat was also started by members of the co-op who all went to the gym together, and while I never had the strength to join them, I was told that they’re still going and it’s leg day today :) 

We had a lot of help from alumni: I want to especially thank Michael Appel ‘83, Helen Kramer ‘17, and Hassan Bin Fahim ‘18 for their tireless support of the co-op. Rabba Amalia Haas ‘91 was indispensable in the knowledge that she was able to provide for our operations. And of course, my co-Kosher-Halal Co-ordinator and the Ernie to my Bert, OSCAlums KHC Fellow Elliot Diaz ‘23, who has somehow continued to work with me throughout the whole process (even when he should probably, like, take a break). 

All in all, I’m so happy and proud of what I and the team around me were able to accomplish this Winter Term with the revival of Kosher-Halal Co-op. I have a lot of hope for the future that people will recognize the significance of this space and give KHC a permanent place on Oberlin’s campus again. This was a perfect last Winter Term Project for me, and I’m so glad that I was able to pass on the institutional memory of this incredible organization. 

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Thorin Finch

An eclectic collection of poetic musings on the everyday experiences of Oberlin students.
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