Had he graduated from high school a year earlier, Josh Grinberg would not have chosen to go to Stanford University.
Instead, the native of Newton, Mass. would likely have enrolled in Harvard, Princeton, Yale or MIT, his top choices that had what Stanford lacked — a kosher dining program.
But Grinberg visited Stanford after October 2010, when, following longstanding efforts by the Stanford Jewish community, a campus dining hall began serving hot kosher dinners three times a week.
Even though he doesn’t keep strictly kosher, Grinberg decided to give Stanford a second look. The kosher dining program was an indicator to him that the school’s Jewish community was growing.
“I was excited,” he said. “The kosher food option was one of the reasons I decided to come to Stanford.”
Maybe it has had an effect on others, too. The Class of 2014 was accepted before the kosher dining program was up and running, and only 4.3 percent of that class self-identifies as Jewish, according to data cited by Rabbi Mychal Copeland, Hillel at Stanford’s rabbi and senior Jewish educator.
But in the first class to enter Stanford after the establishment of the program 18 months ago, 6.4 percent of the students identify as Jewish, Copeland noted.
“Not having kosher food here had barred some phenomenal students from even looking at Stanford,” Copeland said. “No one should have to cross Stanford off their list of potential schools because we can’t feed them here.”
Currently there are 229 colleges and universities in the United States that offer kosher meals at least once a week, in addition to Shabbat, according to Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
At Stanford, the kosher dinners are served Mondays through Wednesdays. A campus chef prepares the dinners in Hillel at Stanford’s kosher kitchen, after which they are loaded onto a motorized cart for a three-minute ride to Florence Moore, a dining hall that also serves non-kosher food.
Why serve the meal there? “Because essential to the philosophy of Stanford is that all students are integrated into the larger campus community and that one group isn’t off in its own area,” Copeland explained.
Any Stanford student can eat the kosher offerings — which include many common products that come with a kosher seal, such as Minute Maid juices, Hellman’s salad dressing, A-1 steak sauce and Silk soy milk.
Grinberg and about two dozen others have signed up to eat the meals every night they’re offered. In addition, kosher meals are served at Hillel on Friday nights.
“The kosher program is one of the most significant ways that I connect to the Jewish community,” Grinberg said. “In addition to having a great kosher food option, it’s a way to meet new Jewish faces every dinner.”
Stanford also has a popular halal program for students who observe Muslim dietary customs, but signups are not required since halal meals are prepared in the dining hall kitchens. The kosher program, on the other hand, does require a commitment from a minimum amount of people — so to help keep it going, some Jews who don’t keep kosher have signed up and continue to eat the meals.
“There has been an incredible outpouring of support for the Jewish food program on campus,” Copeland said. “Students who would have never thought about keeping kosher as part of their Jewish identity are flocking to Florence Moore because there’s a sense of community there and because they’re helping their friends who do keep kosher.”
In addition to keeping the numbers up, Hillel at Stanford must also raise money to fund the program. The university pays for the food at the dinners, but Hillel must cover the program’s operating costs of approximately $20,000 a year, which include paying a mashgiach to certify the food as kosher. Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of the Orthodox Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto, or one of his representatives, supervises the certification process.
The S.F.-based Koret Foundation has supported the program with a sponsorship of $10,000 a year, but Hillel says it still needs to raise more than $20,000 over the next two years.
The Stanford Jewish community has received a good amount of financial backing in recent years: the Taube Hillel House opened in 2004 and the Koret Pavilion in 2008. Both are located at the Ziff Center for Jewish life.
“My freshman year, there was an upsurge in involvement in the Jewish community with a new building and increased event attendance,” said Jacob Portes, a junior from New York City who serves as the kosher program’s student ambassador. “Even this year, I see that the number of freshmen involved in events is bigger. It’s very nice to see the Jewish community growing.”
Before the meal program began Portes, who keeps kosher, would often cook dinner in his dormitory. He calls the food in Florence Moore “practically gourmet” and is thankful for the kosher dinners.
“It’s pretty easy to keep kosher for breakfast and lunch,” he said. “It’s dinner and it’s kosher meat that people really want.”
Portes believes the meals, which always include meat, vegetable and starch dishes as well as a soup and salad, represent an important step for the Stanford community as a whole.
“Stanford has a big halal program, options for people with allergies and vegan options,” he said. “Having the kosher option shows that Stanford really cares about the diversity of its student body. I really think this was the missing piece.”