For students at Pennsylvania State University who keep kosher, the options have been slim pickings.
Philadelphia native Aaron Goldberg was completing an internship in Pittsburgh during his junior year. He came back to State College one weekend for Shabbat and met someone who was looking at schools but kept kosher and was more religious.
Though she may have wanted to go to Penn State, she told him she decided to go to elsewhere because they had kosher food options, whereas Penn State was limited.
After he attended a Passover seder while in Pittsburgh, the family he was with observed he kept kosher for Passover but not the rest of the year.
He was staying in the dorms at Penn State’s Beaver satellite campus and called the dining manager there to ask if there were kosher options, which there were not. He was advised to take it up with the University Park managers.
So he did.
During the summer of 2016, while on vacation in Canada, he started making calls to Lisa Wandel, director of residential dining.
She told him when he got to campus they could meet and discuss what could be done.
“He brought in, like, 10 pages of requests,” Wandel recalled with a laugh, “‘Here are different phases of kosher that we would like Penn State to offer. … You can either work your way through them or start small and get bigger.’ But he really brought a good point, it’s really time that we look at this.”
He surveyed students, many whom he knew from Jewish organizations on campus, to see if there was any interest in a kosher dining option. Many said they kept some form of kosher.
The timing couldn’t have been better, Wandel said.
They were already in the process of renovating the Findlay Commons in the East Food District — an expansive space by the majority of the freshmen dorms — where they were putting in a space for allergy-free foods, such as gluten-free, peanut-free, dairy-free and the like.
When Goldberg pitched the idea of kosher food, this space immediately seemed probable.
With a separate self-contained kitchen with its own appliances, the kosher space, called Pure, opened Aug. 22 as students returned to school. Wandel noted Hillel, Aish and Chabad were given spaces for tables to meet with students.
“Our students don’t have the option of eating kosher downtown,” Wandel said. “We don’t have kosher restaurants, we don’t have kosher dining with the Hillel program, so we were missing opportunities for our Jewish students who came to Penn State [or] who might have come to Penn State if we had had a program to offer them.”
After researching several options, they signed a contract with the Star-K organization in Baltimore for rabbinic supervision; a mashgiach will oversee the kitchen, which will be open for Sunday brunch and dinner Monday through Thursday.
“Once we get our feet wet and we see how it goes, we hope to be able to do some packaged meals so that our students would be able to pick up stuff for lunch,” she added, “but it would be very long hours for one mashgiach” to be there all day for lunch, too.
Any student that has a meal plan will be able to enjoy the food prepared at Pure, which will include dishes like Thai green curry chicken stir fry with rice and roasted Tandoori turkey.
Throughout the year, they will assess how Pure is doing and determine putting another space in other parts of campus as renovations continue.
But for now, having a new option for kosher dining, she hopes, will appease the students who have long been looking for it.
For Goldberg, who will graduate this semester with a degree in industrial engineering, the effort to get kosher food on campus — which he emphasized was a community one — was well worth it.
“I was on vacation in Toronto and I was calling them internationally and wasting a bunch of money and my mom and brothers are like, ‘You’re crazy, Aaron, that’s never gonna happen’ — well, it happened and it’s amazing,” he said.
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