Orthodox Dartmouth Students Demand Stricter Kosher Fare

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2015
Hanover — Students at Dartmouth College are petitioning administrators to institute a higher standard of kosher dining, arguing the college’s current methods of food preparation don’t meet widely held standards in the Orthodox Jewish community.

A small group of Orthodox students say their religious dietary restrictions essentially prevent them from eating at Dartmouth, even though the school has a designated kosher cafeteria.

They worry that because of “leniencies” on the part of the college’s current kosher certifier, a service called Tablet-K, Orthodox students are avoiding applying to Dartmouth.

“Last year, I was forced to make compromises with my religious integrity that I was not comfortable with,” Cameron Isen, a rising sophomore who helped create the petition, said in an interview last week.

If the current practice remained in place, Isen said, “I would basically have to feel terrible about myself every time I eat.”

The petitioners have been meeting with administrators from different branches of the college — admissions, food and dining, religious services and even President Phil Hanlon. The college contends the current kosher certification is rigorous but acknowledges that not all Jews accept it.

Rabbi Edward Boraz, executive director of Dartmouth College Hillel, said he respected and admired the students for pursuing the matter, but raised two concerns: there is little demand on campus for the highest standard of kosher food and little support to be found in Orthodox communities near the college.

“It doesn’t mean by any stretch that their concerns are not valid,” Boraz said in an interview Sunday, “and we need to respond to them, and in fact we are.”

At the Pavilion, Dartmouth College’s kosher kitchen, the operating principle is “out, but not in.”

Cooking aprons hanging inside the card-locked chamber bear written warnings not to take them outside, and any food that enters the room does so with the stamp of a reputable kosher certifier. That food is served over a counter on paper plates, so that diners do not break the vertical plane between kitchen booth and cafeteria with an impure platter.

Often, sometimes twice a day, a supervisor called a mashgiach visits to enforce the exacting rules of kosher food preparation, which according to scripture must not happen without a Jew taking part. Among other duties, the supervisor walks around the kitchen, making such symbolic gestures as adjustments to stove temperatures in a ritual expression of his or her participation.

Stringent though those requirements may appear to a layperson, the petitioning students say they fall short of the needs of the Orthodox community, in large part because of the practices of the supervisors. Boraz, for example, is a mashgiach, but he does not follow the same observances as does a devout Orthodox Jew, among them the prohibitions of the Jewish Sabbath, which falls on Saturday: no driving, no writing, no turning on or off of electric lights.

Though students and administrators alike hesitated to discuss it, a significant factor in maintaining a stricter standard has been cost. The kind of watchfulness needed amounts to a near-full-time job, Boraz said, and Orthodox Jews who are willing to take the position are few and far between in the Upper Valley.

To find a mashgiach suitable to everyone, Dartmouth might have to go as far as Manchester or Boston, where there are larger Orthodox communities.

When the Pavilion opened in the early 2000s, Boraz said, an Orthodox graduate student helped supervise the kitchen and maintain the highest standard of certification, known as glatt kosher. She eventually graduated, Boraz said, and without her, the “economies” of kosher certification resolved in favor of contracting with Tablet-K.

Many communities that keep kosher do not accept Tablet-K, according to Isen, who said the supervision of the kitchen was “symptomatic of larger difficulties” in the agency’s practices.

In response to those concerns, managers at the Pavilion no longer use food provided by Tablet-K and rely instead on products certified by generally acceptable agencies such as Orthodox Union. All the same, Tablet-K still serves the kitchen where the meals are prepared.

“The students have promoted some change,” Boraz said, “though maybe not as much as they wanted.”

Isen said he and other petitioners would not be satisfied unless the college switched from Tablet-K to another service entirely, such as Vaad Harabonim of New England, the agency that initially oversaw the Pavilion.

But administrators who toured the Pavilion kitchen with a reporter on Sunday appeared attached to Tablet-K and to the rabbi who serves as the agency’s chief certifier.

“He’s great,” said Robert Lester, who is culinary operations manager at the kosher kitchen.

“We depend on him,” Boraz said.

Dartmouth is the sole Ivy League school not to offer a glatt kosher standard — largely thanks to the college’s rural surroundings, according to Boraz.

“We are not in a metropolitan, Jewish area,” Isen said, “and I get that ... that’s fair, but we can get around this.”

Administrators have offered some workarounds, among them the option of eating frozen kosher meals — but that, Isen said, had not been acceptable; the food was too salty and fatty to be eaten three times a day.

“We’re really starting to feel like we’re being ignored and disregarded and it’s not acceptable for us,” he said.

That feeling, Isen said, is what led to the petition, which now has more than 500 signatures.

One point of common ground is the possibility that observant Orthodox students may serve as supervisors at the Pavilion, an arrangement that Isen said he would be willing to entertain if the college stopped using Tablet-K.

Last year, when a number of guidance counselors from Jewish day schools visited Dartmouth, Boraz asked them what they thought of the college’s kosher dining. One counselor’s re sponse, the rabbi said, was that some students would rule out Dartmouth because of its certification.

Dartmouth Hillel’s website says the college has about 400 Jewish students out of a undergraduate population of 4,300. Strictly Orthodox Jews could be counted on both hands, Boraz estimated .

Were glatt kosher food available, Isen reasoned, there would be more.

The college’s current certification, he said, “means that we are not able to compete with (other Ivies) for a very bright, able community, which is the Orthodox Jewish community.”

“We do not want to lose qualified applicants for any reason,” college spokesman Justin Anderson said in a statement last week. “We are confident we can provide a welcoming, inclusive environment for students from any and all backgrounds. If and when students have special requests, particularly when it involves adherence to religious beliefs, we will work closely with them to try to meet their needs.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.