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Over Coffee

Rella Kaplowitz and Syed Hassan

Kosher and halal dining options began to pop up in the dining halls and other spots on campus over the past few years. Why? A big reason was a joint multiyear effort by a number of groups on campus, including UMBC’s Hillel, the Jewish Student Union and the Muslim Student Association. UMBC Magazine talked with Rella Kaplowitz ’06, psychology (right) and Syed Junaid Hassan ’09, biochemistry and molecular biology about the collaborative process to achieve this common goal.

Why kosher and halal food on campus?

Syed: The main reason was so that Muslims would have an easier time adhering to religious standards without having to compromise. I certainly foresaw a better relationship between Muslims and Jews on campus – and also an opportunity to recruit more students from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds to campus as residents and commuters. Food is a key way to bring people of various cultural or religious backgrounds together.

Rella: Growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community in Pikesville, many of my peers chose other universities. To them, a kosher meal plan was synonymous with a strong Jewish community; if UMBC did not have kosher food, the community must not be very vibrant.

Of course, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. But UMBC’s lack of kosher food was a roadblock for many potential students. As someone who kept kosher, it was hard when my friends would grab food in the Commons and I’d sit and have a soda.

As a leader in the Jewish community at UMBC, I felt it was my responsibility to help enhance the college experience for Jewish students on campus. And once we started talking about kosher food, it made sense to see if we could work on halal food as well, so we contacted the Muslim Student Association. I saw this partnership as a way of building community on campus, especially between two groups that don’t always get along on other campuses.

How did joining forces assist the ultimate success of the project?

Rella: UMBC is one of the most diverse universities of its size, and I think that characteristic carried through to our partnership for kosher food. Jewish and Muslim students, as well as vegetarian and vegan students and those with food allergies, all benefit from having kosher meal options. It didn’t even cross our minds to go at it alone. I hope (and believe) this partnership has encouraged Jewish and Muslim students to collaborate outside of this project as well.

Syed: Unfortunately, the process to bring halal food to campus is still ongoing, though we are getting some assistance from Chartwells (the current food provider at UMBC). It has added volume to the call for UMBC and state universities in Maryland to provide services for students of varied religious backgrounds. It has also given the Muslim students an added sense of responsibility in both working for their own benefit as well as working with other organizations.

How do you both feel about this effort as a legacy that you are leaving to campus life?

Syed: As far as my own legacy is concerned, I was only a participant, trying to be humble and not overstep my bounds. Ideally, more than remembering who did the work, I hope that there are new individuals after I leave UMBC who are willing to take on this responsibility.

Rella: There is an old Jewish tale about a man who is planting a carob tree. Someone walks up to him and says: “Why are you planting this? It won’t bear fruit for at least 70 years, and you will be long dead by then.” The man replies: “I eat from the carob trees that my ancestors planted for me, so I plant this tree for my children.” It wasn’t easy to work on a project I was skeptical would ever come to fruition, and most certainly would not happen in my time at UMBC. But at the same time, it taught me a lot about thinking of future generations of Jewish UMBC students.

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