Kosher dining fosters community on campus

It’s often said that community centers around food, and for Penn students who are also observant Jews, a focal point is Penn Hillel at 39th Street and Locust Walk, and the tables in Falk Dining Commons.

Falk is the only kosher cafe on campus, and the University has gone a long way to make it an inclusive space. It adheres to the strictest level of kashrut, and whenever a kitchen is open, someone is there—Barry, he mashgiach, or the students he has trained—to oversee food preparation, dining, and clean-up.

“There’s a deep sense of appreciation about the lengths that Penn goes to to make students feel welcome,” says Mike Uram, campus rabbi and Penn Hillel executive director.

In the dozen or so years since Steinhardt Hall opened, Falk has become a place where students congregate—and not just those who keep kosher. The cafe accommodates anyone with a Penn dining plan, and many take advantage, creating what Uram describes as a mealtime “melting pot.”

“You get to learn in an intimate way about different religions and cultures,” he says. “You might not just do that in real life. Everyone has this great connector of being a Penn student, so there’s mixing that goes on.”

The dining option serves those following the dietary law at any level. Meat and dairy can never mix, even down to storing the food. All products entering the kitchen are double-checked in a holding area before use. Produce requires a particular washing regimen to remove insects, which are not kosher.

Conversations with students drove these initial decisions, and they still guide how Falk operates today, says Pamela Lampitt, director of business services in Penn’s Hospitality Services.

Following student requests, every meal at Falk is now meat-only, except for Tuesday and Thursday dinner, when the dairy kitchen also opens. On those evenings, a divider splits the room in two, with foods made in each kitchen consumed on their respective sides.

Friday nights the place transforms. “Shabbat dinner becomes a launching pad for all sorts of programming,” Uram says. “There’s a different vibe. It doesn’t feel like a cafeteria; it feels like a family dinner.”

The people who prepare the fare help facilitate this warmth. “Most of them have been working there since the inception, and they really do embrace each other,” Lampitt says. “It’s great to see the camaraderie that happens when love and care is being taken to produce the food.”

These relationships extend beyond people serving food to those eating it; Uram says the workers often know the students on a first-name basis, and vice versa.

Kosher dining at Falk became a model for a new Penn Dining halal food program. “We have a lot of students [with these religious beliefs] who would choose to eat vegetarian and not eat any meat. With guidance from the Muslim Students Association, we started the halal program,” Lampitt says.

Halal follows some similar rules to kashrut, for example, a prohibition of pig products and the requirement for animal slaughter and butchering in a particular way. But given the differences in the two religious food laws, Lampitt says Penn started the program to meet the needs of an even greater percentage of its student body.

As of January, King’s Court English House dining hall began serving halal food upon request every day, at every meal. Anywhere from 12 to 15 students take advantage of the offering daily, with more than double that expressing interest. It’s a pilot program that’s likely to grow into something permanent.