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Keeping it kosher — or not

Qatar, Israel and Pakistan number among the countries whose flags hang in the Commons. However, adherents of the majority religions in these countries have tremendous difficulty finding food to eat in that same building.

Observant Jews and Muslims adhere to religious dietary restrictions that complicate on campus dining. If religious students live on campus, they are sometimes forced to compromise their religious principles. A school truly dedicated to fostering a diverse and inclusive community needs to create an accessible campus space where students can comfortably practice their religion.

Yusra Ahmed, a sophomore biology and psychology major, is the secretary of the Muslim Student Association. Last year, Yusra had to modify her stance on halal foods to maintain a nutritious diet.

“I was living on campus as a student when I first came here last year,” says Yusra, “I was trying to eat [halal] but it was very difficult so I changed. I now eat chicken and beef.”

Even students who only eat halal meat have difficulty knowing whether their food is actually halal. At a meeting between MSA and dining services, MSA President Ahmed Wadi reported that several Muslim students saw Commons employees using utensils that have touched non-halal meat to prepare halal food.

When Muslim students need to remind staff to change their gloves or use clean utensils, it shatters the trust between the Muslim community and UMBC dining. Students cannot always verify that employees are properly separating food when there is no student there to remind them.

Jewish students also have a difficult time finding food because the only kosher options on campus are prepackaged foods from Outtakes and the Kosher Korner in True Grit’s, which is only open from dinner on Sunday through lunch on Friday.

Jewish students cannot live comfortably or healthily with these limited options. Additionally, MSA representatives articulated that they are alienated by a dearth of authentic Middle Eastern food.

Inclusive kosher and halal dining options must include food that people can enjoy. Asking a group of students to exclusively subsist on cold-cuts for two days a week or completely Americanized halal food is not inclusive.

Rabbi Jeremy Fierstien, the Executive Director of UMBC Hillel, insists that poor meal offerings have practical repercussions.

“The problem is that if we can’t offer a comfortable Jewish communal life, the national Jewish community is not going to take this place seriously,” says Fierstien.

The Muslim community has been able to effect some change through student voices. Conversations between the MSA and Dining Services yielded several food truck collaborations. Soon colored utensils will be used to decrease the chance of cross contamination with non-halal foods. In the meantime, however, Muslim students choose to live off-campus or compromise their morals to maintain a healthy diet.

The picture for UMBC Jews is even grimmer. Due to scant kosher offerings, religious Jews do not have the option of living on campus. Consequently, there are few student voices demanding more kosher options at UMBC.

According to the Chartwells Resident District Manager Tom DeLuca, despite ongoing talks, the current kosher dining options are not expected to provide observant Jews a comprehensive meal plan. This effectively renders it impossible for observant Jews to live on campus.

“Seven meals a week 3 meals a day … [our kosher program] is not at the moment currently designed for that,” says DeLuca.

A diverse, inclusive school should not force religious minorities to violate their principles or choose other universities because of limited options. True inclusivity requires UMBC to design kosher and halal preparation spaces into future infrastructure so that all UMBC students can enjoy a healthy and happy campus life while practicing their religion.

With hate crimes against Jews and Islamophobia on the rise, it is critical to send a clear message now.