Students complain of few kosher options

Freshman Meryl Fontek is more worried about what she will eat for dinner every night than making friends or finding her way to classes.

With no kitchen in her Thurston Hall room, Fontek, an Orthodox Jew who follows a strict kosher diet, said she was shocked to find that her meal choices at J Street were limited to a half-filled refrigerator with sandwiches and salads.

“My mom shouldn’t have to call me every day, worried about what I’ve eaten,” the New Jersey native said. She said she has eaten mainly fruit, yogurt and reheatable frozen meals from Whole Foods, though she cannot eat from the store’s hot bar because it is cooked with other non-kosher food.

Without Nosh, the kosher deli at J Street that shuttered this summer, Fontek said she has not been able to find meals with separately prepared meat and dairy products at the dining hall or elsewhere on campus.

Forty to 50 students adhere to kosher meat and dairy guidelines, GW Hillel Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth said. But he said many more students follow other kosher eating practices and added that there is a “sense of frustration” within the Jewish community.

About 30 percent of undergraduates identify themselves as Jewish. The national Hillel organization ranked GW the fifth-most Jewish university in the country in 2012.

Orthodox upperclassmen have opened up their kitchens to freshmen like Fontek, who are unable to cook in their buildings.

Gabriel Felder, president of the Jewish Student Association, said he cooks for about five students – mainly freshmen – every week.

“They want to keep kosher as best as they can, but they don’t have a kitchen in their dorm. Preparing food, on the whole, is very difficult for them,” he said. “The Orthodox community is very close on campus. We’re always going to help each other out.”

The closest kosher eatery to campus is Eli’s Restaurant in Dupont Circle, he said – which would be impractical and expensive for students to frequent every night.

“For the freshman, it’s a big slap in the face. They never really got to experience kosher food on campus at all,” Felder said, adding that the group plans to host an education series to teach students how to cook kosher food in their own halls.

Kaiser-Blueth said Hillel, which is undergoing about $225,000 in renovations this year, is considering including an in-house kosher restaurant to expand options for students, following the shutdown of Nosh and outcry of complaints from the Orthodox community. The project is still moving through the city’s zoning process.

Hillel, which regularly caters meals and had a contract with Nosh last spring, would determine who runs the restaurant. Kaiser-Blueth said he wants to “source locally,” potentially leading to another Sodexo-run option.

“My hope is that the prepackaged food [in J Street] will be the short term solution,” Kaiser-Blueth said.

Ed Schonfeld, senior associate vice president of administration, said that since a kosher option arrived at J Street in 2008, it has had “a limited following.” He said Nosh’s introduction last fall was in an effort to attract more students.

“Despite the changes, the popularity of the deli continued to further decline with even fewer people patronizing the deli,” Schonfeld said. “The University concluded that a better approach to meet this modest demand for kosher food at J Street was to make available prepackaged kosher options such as sandwiches and salads now in the ‘grab-and-go’ section of J Street.”

Rabbi of GW Chabad Yudi Steiner said he has told the many students who have approached him about the lack of kosher food on campus “to make their voices heard.”

“My perspective is that there has to be a way to make it work. For a school like GW, we deserve to have a real kosher option,” he said, calling the fridge in J Street a “nice gesture” that does not suffice for kosher students who are looking for hot meals.

The Chabad puts on kosher dinners every Friday for Shabbat and other kosher events throughout the year, but Steiner said his organization can’t afford to expand its meal programs.

Sophomore William Jemal said he is angry about the lack of kosher food available for students, calling it a betrayal. He said he feels like the University has forgotten about its kosher-keeping population.

“It hurts. It’s just wrong,” Jemal said.

At his Orthodox Jewish high school, he said, GW marketed itself three years ago as a place where students could easily keep up their religious and kosher practices.

“How could GW have said, ‘Yes your son can do this,’ when we can’t,” Jemal said. “It’s mind-boggling.”

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