SOUTH HADLEY, Mass., Nov. 4 (JTA) — A few weeks ago, Sharon Adams, a Jewish student at Mount Holyoke College, sat down with a Muslim student and got into a conversation about the challenges of remaining religious in college.
An outgoing, newly Orthodox exchange student from London, Adams might have started the discussion anyway. But it was a little easier because the two women could share a meal — one that was both kosher and halal — while they chatted.
At a time when Jewish-Muslim relations in America are strained, many Jewish students find themselves on the defensive from anti-Israel rhetoric and Muslims are fearful of being lumped together with Osama bin Laden, this elite New England women’s college is a rare haven of relative harmony.
Two days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Mount Holyoke opened what is believed to be the first kosher- halal dining hall at an American college.
“This was just the best thing that could have happened at that time,” said Nadia Rahim, a Muslim senior from Bangladesh. “There was such a feeling of cooperation and partnership.”
Dartmouth College is opening a similar facility later this month, and there are preliminary discussions about creating kosher-halal facilities at other universities, including the University of California at Los Angeles.
The centrally located dining hall — a homey room with floral wallpaper, pink curtains and comfortable wooden chairs — serves 80 to 100 students per meal, the majority of whom are neither Jewish nor Muslim but simply live in the nearby dorm.
With its relatively small Jewish and Muslim populations — Jews make up about 6 percent of the school’s 2,000 students, and Muslims about 4 percent — Mount Holyoke might seem an unlikely spot for the country’s first kosher- halal student dining hall.
Some students new to kosher and halal restrictions are grumbling about the new rules, but most students praise the cafeteria for its tasty grub — by institutional standards, at least — and the implicit message that Jews and Muslims have “more in common than separates us,” as one Muslim student put it.
The project took off last year when Muslim and Jewish students approached the administration, complaining that they were outgrowing the small student-run kitchen they shared in the religious life building. Administrators warmed to the idea, saying it “resonated with the core values” of the school, which has a large number of international students.
After an anonymous alumnus contributed $250,000, the college scrambled to convert Wilder Hall. The kitchen was redone over the summer, new equipment was brought in and staff were trained on everything from separating dairy and meat items to scrutinizing ingredients like mustard and vanilla to ensure they are alcohol-free, a halal restriction.
Even before plans for the dining hall emerged, Jews and Muslims here enjoyed good relations, leaders of both communities say. The Muslim and Jewish chaplains have adjoining offices, the two communities used to share a small kitchen in the religious life building and they came together for an ecumenical celebration each winter called “The Festival of Lights.”
Some credit the smooth relations to what they say is a female tendency to be a little more peaceful and diplomatic than men.
“Because we’re all girls, we tend to be more calm about these things,” Adams said. “We’re a little less aggressive.”
But another element of the harmony may be the general environment. On the campus of elegant red brick Gothic Revival buildings, gracious trees and open grassy areas, genteel civility, friendliness and multiculturalism seem to be religions in their own right, and the two sides generally avoid discussing the Middle East, at least with each other.
Even in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when many American Jews draw comparisons between Palestinian terrorists and bin Laden’s network and when many Muslims blame the attacks on U.S. support for Israel, the topic of Israel seems to come up little in campus discussions.
For the most part, conversations about the war are focusing on opposition — quite common here — to the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. However, at a recent campus peace rally, a speaker — who is Jewish — compared Zionism to racism, upsetting many Jewish students.
Muslim students, at least when interviewed by a Jewish reporter, were reluctant to broach the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several Jewish students said they generally avoid talking about Israel for fear of creating conflicts.
“I don’t walk around wearing my Camp Tel Yehudah ‘Property of the Zionism Department’ T-shirt,” said Naomi Gates-Monasch, a Jewish sophomore from the San Francisco area, referring to the camp run by the Young Judaea Zionist youth group. “That would be asking for trouble.
“In general, it’s a very accepting community, but yes, obviously there are subjects we don’t talk about,” Gates-Monasch said.
Adams, whose mother is Israeli and who frequently travels to Israel, said she makes a point to avoid talking about politics.
“I don’t find it conductive to maintaining a peaceful atmosphere with other students,” she said. “It’s difficult for people to keep it an intellectual conversation. It’s a very emotional subject, especially if you have family there.”
Farrah Hamid, a Muslim freshman from New Hampshire, said Jewish and Muslim students “definitely mix,” despite “some differences of opinion.”
Hamid, who is of Pakistani descent, said she does not know a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As to the causes for the current conflict with bin Laden, Hamid grew quiet, saying “I don’t want to go into it.”
Efraim Eisen, the Jewish chaplain at Mount Holyoke, said he hopes to increase awareness on campus about Israel’s history, and is planning a teach-in about Israel.
Most students on campus “don’t know a lot about the history of Israel and why it exists,” he said, adding that he is concerned that anti-war sentiment on campus could lead to anti-Israel rhetoric here, as it has on some other campuses like the University of California at Berkeley.
There is also talk of creating a formal Muslim-Jewish dialogue group at Mount Holyoke, though some students are wary of the idea.
Rachel Hammerman, a sophomore from New York, said she is “kind of hesitant” about formal discussions on the Middle East.
“It’s nice to talk about, but unless you really know what’s going on it’s not helpful to discuss it,” she said.
It is unclear whether the new dining option will attract more Muslim and Jewish students. The administration says that’s not the goal, but individual Muslim and Jewish students are hoping otherwise.
The Jewish community is small compared to those at other prestigious East Coast schools but is growing more active and visible — though many of the most enthusiastic participants are non-Jews exploring Judaism.
A Jewish a cappella group is starting, the school recently acquired a kosher Torah and the Jewish student group this year became affiliated with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
However, the dining hall is unlikely to attract strict observers of either faith. The meat is not technically halal, though the Muslim community agreed to accept kosher meat, citing a Muslim tradition that kosher food is acceptable when halal is not available.
In addition, the kitchen is under Conservative, not Orthodox, rabbinic supervision. That wouldn’t satisfy most Orthodox students, who are far more likely than Conservative or Reform students to choose a campus based on the availability of kosher food.
Eisen, who is not Orthodox, said Orthodox supervision would have made the project too cumbersome and expensive, as the Orthodox rabbis consulted would have required additional walls to separate the dairy and meat sections of the kitchen, along with a separate ventilation system.
In any event, the dining hall has grown in popularity among many students who are neither Jewish nor Muslim.
That stems from the hall’s central location and a by-product of the strict kosher-halal demands: Most of the food is freshly made. That distinguishes it from the other dining halls, which rely on premade, processed ingredients such as canned spaghetti sauce and powdered mashed potatoes.
All baked goods are prepared fresh in the kitchen, whereas the school’s other 16 dining halls use a centralized bakery.
Emily Reiman, a senior who describes her religion as “pretty much nothing,” said some students initially were unsure what to expect from the new dining hall, with its more limited options.
However, said Reiman — as she waited to serve herself vegetarian lasagna, pureed butternut squash, casserole and pumpkin pie onto a green dairy plate — “The food’s better than average. That won over most people.”