Got kosher Cal can now say yes to observant students

Keeping kosher just got a bit more palatable for observant students at U.C. Berkeley.

At the urging of a Jewish student who despaired of eating “cereal and oranges” while living in the dorms, the university recently started offering a small selection of prepackaged kosher products at two campus mini-markets.

The inventory of add-water soups, pita bread, hummus, baba ganoush, cheese and other so-called “grab-and-go” items appears to be selling briskly. The kosher food is available at The Den, a store just off campus at 2415 Bowditch St., and the Golden Bear cafe near Sproul Plaza.

“We don’t have a large population that stays kosher,” said Shawn LaPean, head of Cal dining services, which operates dorm cafeterias and four separate campus eateries. “My attempt was just to provide options.”

Those options were welcomed by Adam Weisberg, executive director of Berkeley Hillel. He noted that until now, the nearby alternatives for kosher students consisted of vegetarian food in the dorms and Wednesday barbecues and Friday night Shabbat dinners at nearby Hillel.

“To my knowledge, the university has never been able to provide a kosher option for students,” said Weisberg. In fact, even Hillel has been unable to sustain a kosher cafe such as the one that operated periodically at its facility. Noting that parking is hard to come by, “ultimately there was not a big enough clientele,” he said.

Still, said Weisberg, “I think that students who keep kosher are really appreciative” of the new kosher offerings.

For Spencer Raiskin, a 19-year-old sophomore who lobbied for kosher food, “this is a big triumph.”

Because he is on leave from Cal this semester, he will have to wait until January to take advantage of it. Last year, he said his diet was often severely limited — he ate oranges, cereal and microwave food — because of a lack of kosher alternatives.

“If you were kosher, there was nowhere to eat,” he said.

Fellow sophomore Hanina Stettin now keeps kosher in an off-campus apartment, but “if I had [this option] last year as a freshman, that would have been amazing. You end up eating high-carb, high-fat foods.”

And 22-year-old senior Talli Hogen said, “I remember being completely shocked by my friend who had to live like a goat,” eating mostly cold salad while in the dorms.

Several students were happy that two kosher eateries opened recently in the area — Sophia Café in Albany and Raphael in downtown Berkeley — but restaurant meals aren’t an everyday option.

Last year, Cal’s student government passed a resolution seeking kosher and halal dining choices for Jewish and Muslim students. The measure is not binding on university officials, however.

But Weisberg said such a dining hall could also provide a non-confrontational meeting ground for students who often clash on political issues.

Meanwhile at Stanford University, kosher students do their own cooking at the on-campus Kennedy Kosher Co-op. As a long-range goal, Stanford’s Hillel would like to team up with the university to operate a full-service kosher dining facility.