ARTICLES / United States

The Jewish Advocate: “No more pigging out at Brandeis”

Pork and shrimp were quietly taken off the menu at Brandeis University’s non-kosher dining hall at the start of this school year – upsetting some non-Jewish students.

Ham, bacon, shrimp and scallops vanished after a new company took over the traditionally Jewish university’s meal service, according to the Vice President of the Brandeis Student Union Charlotte Franco.

“There is a portion of students who’d like the university to serve pork products on campus,” she said. “If you consider how much students are paying for a meal plan, and then being told they can’t eat certain things, there’s an equity and fairness issue with that.”

Last year, scallops and shrimp were occasionally served at Usdan, the university’s non-kosher dining hall, Franco said. Eggs and bacon were available during weekend brunches, and a Quiznos restaurant had bacon in the sandwiches. This year, the Quiznos was replaced with a kosher deli.

Franco said that many students are required to buy a meal plan – which can cost as much as $6,000 from September to May and can only be used for food purchased on campus.

She added that while some students simply like the taste of pork and shrimp, others are defending the principle of inclusiveness.

“Our university is very active in social justice,” she said. “It says we’re here to foster the diversity of the greater community. We want to see that this aspect of inclusiveness is being seen through every aspect of (life on) campus.”

But Brandeis University’s spokeswoman Ellen de Graffenreid said no changes have been made to the food policy at the start of this school year.

“The students always complain about food and they’re sort of making an issue where none exists,” she said. “We’ve had a long-standing policy that we don’t serve pork or shellfish.”

She suggested that perhaps the pork that students thought they were eating last year was actually turkey-bacon or turkey-pepperoni, and added that real pork is now available at the Dunkin Donuts restaurant that recently opened on campus. Shellfish is not available anywhere on campus.

But students said there is no question that what they were eating really did come from pigs.

Joseph Lanoie, 21, a non-Jewish student who is allergic to several food products, said he used to buy pork in the cafeteria last year– and he is sure it was the real thing because he double-checked what kind of meat it was to avoid an allergic reaction. Now the pork has been replaced with turkey-bacon – which doesn’t taste as good and is made with unhealthy chemicals, he said.

“Brandeis has a big kosher community and that’s great, but the thing is there are a lot of people here who don’t keep kosher. They’re neglecting the people who don’t keep kosher,” he said. “It’s like a parent telling a child, ‘Your sister is allergic to nuts, so we’re not going to give you a peanut butter sandwich.’”

Brandeis University, which was founded in 1948, has had a long debate about pork in the kitchen.

In September of 1987, the university’s first and only female president Evelyn Handler changed the school’s longstanding policy by introducing pork and shellfish to campus meals in order to encourage more Asian students to come to Brandeis, according to a New York Times story from that year. The New York Times reported that clam chowder quickly became one of the most popular dishes in the cafeteria.

The decision created an outrage among the school’s Jewish students and donors. They staged protests, built mock houses for the three little pigs, and told the New York Times that throughout history Jews had chosen to die rather be forced to eat pork.

Handler resigned in 1991, and the next university president took pork and shellfish off the menu in the early 1990s, according to the New York Times.

However, at some point the non-kosher animals made a comeback. By 2006, the Boston Globe reported that pork was once again available at the Brandeis dining hall “upon request.”

Brandeis professor of American Jewish history Jonathan Sarna suggested that pork snuck back into the non-kosher cafeteria because no one paid attention.

“I think this policy was never changed, but was simply not communicated or forgotten, and with the coming of the new (meal service) provider, suddenly it became known,” he said.

He added that he keeps kosher and has no problem with what is being served in the non-kosher cafeteria.

“I don’t think kosher food needs to be imposed,” he said. “It seems to me it’s simply good manners – just as I’m grateful when people go out of their way to have kosher food available, we should also accommodate other cultures.”

While the university does not collect statistics on the religion of the students, it is estimated that about half of those who attend Brandeis are Jewish. It is not clear how many of the Jewish students keep kosher.

Back in the 1980s, about two thirds of Brandeis students were Jewish, according to the New York Times.

The university’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Elyse Winick, said Brandeis does not serve pork or shellfish out of respect for its Jewish heritage.

“It’s one of a number of ways it honors its unique heritage,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “The university dining halls are an expression of the university.”

A representative from Brandeis Hillel has suggested, in the student newspaper, that pork should not be available even at the non-kosher cafeteria because some Jewish students who do not keep strictly kosher might prefer to avoid it. Rabbi David Pardo, who made that statement, could not be reached for comment.

But Brandeis Chabad Rabbi Peretz Chein, who is not affiliated with the university, said he also has no problem with pork at the non-kosher cafeteria. The religious prohibition against mixing milk and meat is actually stronger than against eating pork, he said.

“I understand Brandeis’s desire to project its Jewish character in the food served in the university cafeterias. Nonetheless its unfair to impose on non-Jewish students the Biblical prohibition against certain foods. Or at least (they should) be consistent and also ban cheeseburgers,” he wrote in an email.

Noam Cohen, the president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, also has no objections to pork at the non-kosher cafeteria – since he wouldn’t eat there anyway, he said. Rather what he and other observant Jewish students want is more options for everyone on campus – both kosher and non-kosher.

Cohen is very happy about the new kosher deli that opened in January. The deli offers matzo-ball soup and sandwiches – and saves him a ten minute walk to the other side of campus three times a day, where the kosher cafeteria is located. Since the kosher cafeteria is an all-you-can-eat facility, the deli is helping him save time too.

“It’s just nice to go somewhere else to eat,” he said. “If you don’t like the food that’s being served (at the kosher cafeteria) – or if you don’t have enough time to sit down and eat – you can get a sandwich to go.”

The kosher deli opened in the very spot where a Quiznos that served sandwiches with bacon used to be – and some of the students who keep kosher have already eaten there dozens of times, Cohen said.

It is worth noting that other Jewish universities in the United States do not offer non-kosher meats.

Tauro College in New York that has both Jewish and non-Jewish students, does not sell pork or shellfish at any of the school’s campuses, according to Hedy Shulman, the spokeswoman. Yeshiva University where all the undergraduate students are Jewish keeps all its cafeterias kosher, said Matt Yaniv, the director of media relations. The same is also true for the American Jewish University in California, according to receptionist and student Michelle Yates.

So should a historically Jewish university be serving pork even if many of the students aren’t Jewish?

Most of the local Jewish organizations would not voice their opinion on the subject.
“At this time we are going to decline commenting on this story,” Liz Goodwin, the spokeswoman for Combined Jewish Philanthropies wrote in an email.

AJC, Global Jewish Advocacy Boston, chose not to make a comment either, assistant director Rebecca Keys wrote in an email.

The president of Brandeis University Fred Lawrence was not available for an interview.

Representatives of Sodexo, the French multinational company that manages the food service at Brandeis, did not reply to emails and phone calls. Sodexo has food service contracts in many countries, including Israel, according to its website.

While the university has no plans to change its no-pork and no-shellfish policy – students might put some pressure on the school.

Before the end of the school year, the Brandeis Student Union plans to conduct a survey to find out what percent of students eat pork and shellfish and to submit a petition to the administration.

“(We want) to see if we can have a compromise to have pork and shellfish be served to some degree, to see if there are some spots on campus to have non-kosher food and be treated as we treat allergens,” Franco said.

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