Oberlin’s campus is small, but you’d probably still miss the college’s Kosher Hallal Co-op if you didn’t know where to look. (You heard that right, kosher and halal!) Nestled within Talcott Residence Hall, a hulking and ancient building that stands at the heart of the college, the co-op boasts a 35-student membership, four rooms, two kitchens and one fork that has been mysteriously stuck into the dining room ceiling for as long as anyone can remember. KHC is so tiny that even most Oberlin students haven’t heard of it.
In almost every way, the Kosher Halal Co-op functions just like the many other food cooperatives on campus. Every member pays a small fee and works four hours a week cooking or cleaning. In exchange, all members are ensured two prepared meals a day, as well as unlimited access to the co-op’s food and kitchens.
But it’s obvious, of course, that this isn’t your normal co-op. As the name implies, it’s a dining space fully committed to maintaining a strict adherence to both kashrut and halal dietary restrictions. It is believed to be the only such co-op in the nation. KHC is comprised almost entirely of Jews and Muslims who do their own cooking and cleaning, and acts as a non-judgmental space where observant students are free to express their religious identity in a college that is often militantly anti-religious.
In fact, KHC’s most resounding — even dumbfounding — achievement is that it can feel equally comfortable to its Jewish and Muslim members. Samir Husain, a Muslim fourth-year, said KHC is a place that lets him “feel comfortable being of my faith.” For Gavi Shandler, who is Jewish, the co-op is “one of the most Jewish places on campus. It feels closer to home to me” than anywhere else on campus.
And what makes KHC’s strong interfaith community even more dumbfounding is that the co-op doesn’t even try to act like an interfaith space at all.
Many such organizations have an overly scripted approach to overcoming religious difference. Identities need to be endlessly talked through, dissected, challenged, questioned — and only then, painstakingly, can divisiveness be overcome. KHC prioritizes exactly none of this. That’s not to say that conversations between Muslims and Jews about their respective backgrounds never happen. As one student put it, “Challenging conversations aren’t exactly par for the course, but they do occur.” Another says that such conversations “[aren’t] particularly encouraged” by the co-op, either.
Indeed, the co-op is a pretty casual place. Except for pragmatic questions about kashrut or halal, on a day-to-day basis religion comes up only sporadically; it’s why KHC is so successful. It brings people of different identities together, but lets them get to know each other as people, instead of representatives of their religions. As one student says, “I think that’s what’s so powerful about it. It’s so routine, so everyday. It’s just lunch and dinner.”
For Maryam Ghazala, a second-year Muslim student from Iraq, joining KHC was hard. “Coming from a majority-Muslim country … there’s always this fear of being rejected.” Maryam initially worried that she didn’t belong, and that the co-op community, which is more Jewish than Muslim, wouldn’t accept her because of who she was. However, she quickly realized that “in the co-op there’s this really strong sense of community.” Her worry “didn’t last more than the first few days.”
It quickly became apparent that within the co-op walls, Maryam’s religion didn’t change how anyone looked at her, and what helped her realize this was KHC’s hyper-laid-back atmosphere. “What helped me overcome that feeling [of not belonging] was actually the jokes that we had. Like we would jokingly make fun of each other’s religion and traditions. Joking helped me realize that everyone knows and acknowledges our differences.”
Yet, KHC is not without its share of difficulties. Though the co-op has officially claimed to be both kosher and halal since 1995, only in recent years has it taken steps to represent its Muslim students more fully. Samir Husain recalls that four years ago, when he first joined, “as long as you didn’t have alcohol or drugs in the co-op … that constituted halal.”
Starting two years ago, with the arrival of more Muslim students who pushed for better co-op integration, KHC has started to, as Samir Husain puts it, “[pay] better attention to halal and to the specifics of halal.” A new elected position, Muslim life coordinator, is now in place. Halal meals with halal meat are now cooked three times a semester.
“We can really be people instead of representations of our religions and upbringings. Where we’re just ourselves.”
Despite the changes, the co-op still has far more Jewish students than Muslim ones (27 to 7; one member is neither). Oberlin’s demographics, in part, help explain this since far more Jews than Muslims attend the school. Parity is far off.
KHC is a work-in-progress, sure — but it’s a beautiful one. At the co-op, no one “makes dumb assumptions” about anyone else’s religion. Jews and Muslims are brought together — not by often-uncomfortable interfaith work — but through humor and in a casual way. And, most of all, KHC is home. A place where people are people. Where, as Gavi Shandler sums it up, “we can really be people instead of representations of our religions and upbringings. Where we’re just ourselves.”
Rami Teeter is a sophomore at Oberlin College.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.