Kosher dinners now on the menu at George Mason University

George Mason University students and Chabad and Hillel rabbis celebrate the beginning of kosher meal service on Jan. 23. Photo courtesy of George Mason University

Jewish students at George Mason University in Fairfax will have an easier time keeping kosher on campus thanks to the college’s partnership with the Hillel and Chabad student centers.

A kosher menu and food station debuted at the university’s Southside Dining Hall on Jan. 23, just in time for students returning from winter break.

This is the first time that George Mason University has offered kosher-certified food. Until now, the only kosher meals were served by the campus Hillel and Chabad, primarily on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The new station, catered by Char Bar in the District, will serve dinner from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday.

Rabbi Daniel Novick, the executive director of Mason Hillel, said that for the university, the kosher option is part of a larger goal.

“The university has been focusing more on inclusivity and diversity this year,” Novick said. “With that focus, they decided they would make it work and bring kosher dining to campus. They partnered with us in making it happen, and we made sure the students knew about and can access it.”

The project has been in the works for several years, with Mason Hillel and Chabad at GMU working closely with Mason Dining, the university’s dining services.

Kosher food must be prepared in a fully kosher kitchen, so the university was unable to use its preexisting kitchen spaces. Kosher-keeping students made their own arrangements and compromises.

“I didn’t keep an extremely strict kosher diet, so I ate the pescetarian options in the dining hall,” said junior Ilan Nabatkhorian. “I had to eat at the salad bar, but a lot of times it was hard for me to find protein for my diet. I would have to go home to my family or out of my way to the grocery store to get kosher food, so it was hard to stay healthy.”

Nabatkhorian said he was dissatisfied with the selection of kosher food on campus. So he started attending weekly dining staff meetings where students were able to voice their concerns about the school’s menu. Now he has a kosher menu that better accommodates his needs.

One thing that sets the kosher station apart at the university is its rotating menu. Char Bar has set up a monthly menu, so that every day there are different dishes available, such as kosher BBQ and deli sandwiches. This is in contrast to some of the other dining hall stations at GMU, which offer the same few dishes every day.

“It’s great-quality, freshly cooked food,” Nabatkhorian said. “They have vegetarian options, too, as well as dessert. I get to try a lot of different kosher meats, and I’m really enjoying it. I think that other students are, too.”

Bracha Wiemer, co-director of GMU Chabad, said it is important that the menu has variety. Helping create a kosher menu was a major priority for her and her fellow co-director and husband, Rabbi Ezra Wiemer, when they arrived on campus last year.

“This venture is for every single Jewish George Mason student — for students who value kosher food already, or who want to try it for the first time,” she said. “The menu has different food every day, with the intention that students will be able to eat there every single night.”

The kosher dining station at Southside Dining Hall does not operate on Fridays or Saturdays. But for students who still want kosher meals on Shabbat, Wiemer said they can come to Chabad or Hillel. She hopes this will lead to more involvement in Shabbat activities on campus.

“Not only is [kosher dining] a mitzvah, it helps bring Jewish people together in a wholesome and organic way,” she added.

The kosher menu has only been in operation for a few days, but it has already proven popular among GMU students, Novick said.

“Students are thrilled that the university is living up to its values of inclusivity and diversity, and providing for the Jewish community on campus,” said Novick. Even non-Jewish students and Jewish students who don’t keep kosher have been utilizing this option because they want to support it.”

Wiemer said that Mason Dining will continue to work with Hillel and Chabad to bring kosher food to the university’s other dining halls.

“It’s great to not have to choose between my faith and my health anymore,” said Nabatkhorian. “I don’t have to feel separated from my non-Jewish friends when I go to the dining hall, and it’s one less stress factor in my life. Now, I don’t have to focus on finding adequate kosher food, and have more time to relax and focus on my studies.” ■

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