U.C. Berkeley gets full kosher dining in school-run hall

After years of making do with occasional frozen kosher entrées, a Passover meal plan and some kosher vegetable dishes, Jewish students at U.C. Berkeley finally have access to full kosher meals every day in a university-run dining hall.

The kosher food station opened Aug. 20 as one of the options in Café 3, the dining hall in the Unit 3 residential complex at 2400 Durant Ave. Food preparation is overseen by  Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California and trained university students.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Rabbi Gil Leeds, 34, who with his wife, Bracha, 32, directs and oversees programming and events at Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center in Berkeley.

For almost a decade, the Leeds have worked with others to start a kosher dining station. The menu includes roast chicken, beef stew, leg of lamb, salmon, brisket, a sushi bowl bar, sandwiches, vegetables, grains and more.  

Bracha and Rabbi Gil Leeds show off kosher dishes at U.C. Berkeley’s Café 3.

“The fact that now a Jewish boy will sit across from a Jewish girl while both eat a kosher meal is a tremendous accomplishment at a state-run university,” Leeds said. “It’s a positive step, and will stimulate growth of the Jewish community here.”

Café 3, which already offered kosher vegetarian and vegan food as options, is open for brunch and dinner seven days a week. No pork or shellfish is served and all meat is halal at other dining stations in Café 3, which is open to students and the public. (For nonstudents, brunch costs $11 and dinner is $12.) The dining hall holds about 450 people and serves some 2,000 meals a day.

“Now Café 3 is the hall for all,” said Shawn LaPean, executive director of Cal Dining, who worked with rabbis, faculty and students to open the kosher food station. “This has always been something we wanted to do, and it seemed like it was something we could do.”

LaPean credited Thierry Bourroux, director of residential dining, and Jose Martinez, senior executive chef of residential dining, with getting the kosher dining station ready for business just as students returned to campus.

“This will bring together groups of diners who previously may not have come to Café 3,” LaPean said. “There are not a lot of public institutions with certified kosher food available, and we want full inclusion.”

Josh Woznica, president of the campus’ Jewish Student Union, said the kosher dining station shows school officials care that Jewish students have what they need.

Woznica, 21, said 2,500 undergrad students on campus are Jewish, as are  “another couple hundred” graduate students. “What percentage keeps kosher? I don’t know. I also don’t know why there is such a small traditional community on campus, but this new dining option will increase it,” he said. He plans to eat at Café 3, he added.

A kosher food station has been a long-held dream for the Leeds, who met as students at U.C. Berkeley in 2001. “I lived in the Chabad house, where Rabbi Yehuda and Miriam Ferris nourished my body and soul,” Gil Leeds said. “Bracha tried to keep kosher in the dorm, where she survived by eating cereal and bread and butter.”

Soon enough, the two were eating home-cooked kosher meals at the Ferris’ Chabad house every Shabbat. The Leeds married in 2006, and a year later they established the Rohr Chabad Student Center. The couple has five children, ranging from 1 to 9.

Natan Bentolila, a freshman from Los Angeles, plans to take full advantage of the kosher food station. “When I first chose to come to Berkeley, my biggest concern was finding a dorm room where I could make my own food,” he said. “Eating habits are important, and affect how you perform.”

In July, Bentolila, 18, met the Leeds at their Chabad house, and that’s when he learned about the new kosher food station. “I think this is going to change what it’s like for Jews on campus,” Bentolila said. “It’s almost impossible to keep kosher on your own.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.