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As the Israel Hamas war rages, can Oberlin College students revive a Kosher Halal dining co-op?

Students sharing a meal at the Oberlin College Kosher Halal Co-op pilot in early 2024.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Students share a meal at the Oberlin College Kosher Halal Co-op pilot in early 2024.

Overseas, the war between Israel and Hamas is threatening to escalate and continues to claim lives. At home, the conflict has elevated tensions between Palestinians and Jews and left both communities grieving.

On college campuses, protests have roiled students, faculty and staff, causing people on both sides to feel hurt and deeply saddened and sparking safety concerns and debates about free speech that seem both sharply fresh and grievously familiar.

It's against this backdrop that Jewish and Muslim students at Oberlin College are working to revive a 50-year-old tradition of dining together to expand meal options and share cultural connections, curate dialogue and build solidarity.

“We want to recognize where our little esoteric eating traditions have overlapped and be able to honor our traditions while also living with difference, sharing meals with others,” said Elijah Freiman, a Jewish student at Oberlin and president of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, the student-owned and operated nonprofit that manages the school’s co-ops.

Freiman is one of the students leading the efforts to reintroduce the Kosher Halal Co-op, created at Oberlin in 1972.

Fawad Mohammadi, a senior from Afghanistan, helped spread the word about the co-op to fellow Muslim students.

"Politicians usually use any conflict to put people against each other," Mohammadi said. "We see a lot of antisemitism happening on college campuses or outside or Islamophobia, and it’s not those two groups against each other. It's put there that way to create this divide."

"I always say it's so hard for someone to dehumanize us to each other if we talk to each other," he added.

The co-op served 30 to 40 students per semester for nearly five decades, but, like many aspects of college life, dissolved in 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic started.

In a co-op at Oberlin, students take turns cooking and cleaning for other members to serve meals, in lieu of eating in a dining hall.

Freiman created a pilot Kosher Halal Co-op for the duration of Oberlin’s most recent winter term — a four-week period dedicated to creative study between the fall and spring semesters.

Oberlin student Elijah Freiman (right) eating lunch with his current co-op group.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Oberlin student Elijah Freiman (right) eats lunch with his current co-op group.

“Building back up the spiritual energy, the buzz that was there at every meal back in the day through the stories that I’ve heard, that’s going to take time,” Freiman said. “But every revival starts somewhere.”

Being able to bridge divides, share cultures and learn about each other is what the KHC is all about, Freiman said.

“Being able to come together over these shared dietary intentions is really meaningful for the campus at large," he said. "I think it makes sense for the college to support that."

The KHC doesn’t set conversational prompts, but like any dining room table, organic conversations happen. Freiman said conversations at the pilot were sometimes mundane, touching on exercise and classes, but some topics included religious similarities and differences. And the Israel-Hamas war also came up.

“We’re looking at it at a time where it feels so urgent," Freiman said. "There’s this horrible war that’s in Gaza right now, and there’s a 50-year history of this solidarity [at the co-op]. This isn’t something new. This is showing that this old model has legs.”

The escalation of the Israel-Hamas war is not what sparked the resurgence of the KHC. Freiman and his team started working on the project well before Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, 2023.

Zane Badawi, a Palestinian American Oberlin student and the liaison for the school’s Muslim Students Association, is not part of the KHC, but said he sees value in the co-op.

“I think it’s an opportunity for Oberlin to kind of stand up for the ideals of diversity that it professes,” Badawi said. "A lot of the time... Muslim students haven’t necessarily gotten the support that we’ve been looking for. Our community is so small that it’s easy to fly under the radar.”

Zane Badawi is a Palestinian American Oberlin student and the liaison for school’s Muslim Students Association.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
Zane Badawi is a Palestinian American Oberlin student and the liaison for the school’s Muslim Students Association.

A KHC would help Muslim students feel more welcomed at the school, Badawi said.

“The Kosher Halal Co-op happening is great in this moment because I think there’s a lot of connection that needs to happen,” Badawi said. “Allying with Jewish students is something that can bring our interests to the forefront.

The KHC will need to find kitchen space to come back full-time, said Freiman, the co-op organizer.

The kitchen space the KHC used before dissolving in 2020 is now used as the college's Kosher dining hall, which makes it unavailable for the co-op. The college does not have a Halal dining hall.

But the university is behind the plan to bring back the co-op, a spokesperson said.

“We are excited by, and supportive of, efforts to revive the Kosher-Halal Co-op and any initiative that provides our students with more dining and community-building opportunities,” Oberlin College spokesperson Andrea Simakis said in a statement. “We have suggested that the Kosher-Halal Co-op work with OSCA to explore the possibility of using one of OSCA’s many kitchens for the KHC.”

The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association operates five kitchens which might be suitable, Simakis said.

Freiman said those kitchens are utilized by other existing co-ops and OSCA would likely have to dissolve a pre-existing co-op to make that space available for a KHC, a route he does not want to take and would have to be voted on by all OSCA members.

The association also could purchase an industrial kitchen space that Freiman estimates would cost more than $500,000.

While the logistics are still being worked out, the possibilities for what could be accomplished by sharing a meal are tantalizing.

"We see humanity in each other. We are not the enemy of each other," Mohammadi said. "KHC is one of those places to see that we can coexist together, we can understand each other, cook for each other and cook together."

Gabriel Kramer is a reporter/producer and the host of “NewsDepth,” Ideastream Public Media's news show for kids.