OPINION: Dining halls must adapt to Jewish dietary needs

Los Angeles is a metropolitan hub for Jews. After the New York City area, Los Angeles has the most Jews in the United States. And yet, in a city with over 600,000 Jewish people, USC does not adequately offer dining hall food that meets the religious dietary restrictions of this community.

Observant Jews follow strict dietary restrictions and can only eat foods that are “kosher,” as delineated in the Hebrew Torah. The religious laws are extensive and include a particular way of slaughtering animals, several forbidden types of food, utensils that have not touched any of the forbidden foods and supervision of the cooking. The food at USC dining halls, which does not separate items like meat and dairy, is inherently not kosher. The utensils and plates at the dining halls, which cannot come into contact with pork, do not meet the basic kosher requirements either.

There are easy solutions to satisfy the needs of the observant Jewish community that numerous major universities have already implemented: a kosher-option meal plan or a kosher restaurant on campus. Over 350 campuses across the country have kosher options in their dining halls or a kosher restaurant on campus. Every Ivy League school has one, USC’s crosstown rival UCLA has one and even Colorado State University in Fort Collins — a school with just 500 Jewish undergraduates comprising 2 percent of the total undergraduate population — has one. The question is, why doesn’t USC?

According to USC Hillel, it should. Of all private universities, USC has the 12th most Jewish students. Roughly 11 percent of USC’s undergraduate population is Jewish, and six percent of all graduate students are Jewish, for a total of some 3,500 students.

Reports from USC Hillel and USC Chabad — two Jewish organizations on campus —  as well as the Office of Religious Life indicate that USC Hospitality is looking into a kosher meal plan. According to an email sent by USC Hillel on Jan. 3, the University is “working hard to ensure the availability of Kosher meals on campus” and is planning to offer three kosher dinners every week for students who sign up in advance.

According to an email sent by the Office of Religious Life, no date or location has been finalized for the plan.

USC Chabad Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife Runya Wagner both said they have tried to convince the University to offer kosher food for over 14 years, and that there have been several previous attempts by the University to meet the dietary needs for observant Jews, none of which have lasted.

For instance, in the early 2000s, the University agreed to host kosher food trucks around campus. These food trucks would not accept dining dollars or meal plan swipes. The food trucks decided not to return to campus after realizing their profits were not as high as they could be operating in a more heavily concentrated Jewish neighborhood.

The University has a responsibility to make sure all of its students have proper meals available on campus. A student should not have to decide between living off snacks and not freely practicing his religion as a result of the University’s lack of action; students have a basic right to be provided with food that meets their religious standards. If prisons are mandated to provide their Jewish inmates with kosher food, then surely USC can make an effort to provide its tuition-paying students with the same.

The reality is that Jewish life at USC is vibrant and thriving. Wagner said that Chabad at USC reached over 1,000 students last semester. Additionally, he said that the Fall 2017 semester was one of the most successful semesters in his 18 years leading Chabad at USC. And while Chabad at USC and USC Hillel are providing for the growing Jewish community when it comes to spiritual meaningness, classes and social activities, the University has an obligation to provide them with adequate dining options.

USC is a leading global university that competes internationally in academics, research, diversity and infrastructure. But the reality is there are hundreds of schools — plenty with a fraction of the number of Jewish students USC has — that outcompete USC when it comes to providing its students with food they can eat without breaking the rules of their religion. This needs to change.

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