STAR-K Goes to College: An Interview with Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld

Kashrus Kurrents, Spring 2023

Some of the top colleges in the U.S. boast a 10-25 percent Jewish student population. In 2022, Jewish students were well-represented at all eight Ivy League schools, with Columbia leading the way at 24%, followed by Brown (19%), Cornell and UPenn (tied at17%), and Yale (13%).[1] The continually increasing number of kosher and other Jewish amenities on the American college campus mirror these statistics – and act as magnets to attract Jewish students. For some, STAR-K’s presence on campus offers a first – and sometimes only – taste of Yiddishkeit.

Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, a STAR-K kashrus administrator, has been engineering and overseeing the agency’s many certified on-campus facilities since 1999, custom-designing those that were not pre-existing. I asked him to describe the kashruschallenges of certifying the ever-evolving college campus dining platform.

KK: Which U.S. colleges and universities are certified by STAR-K?

RMK: We currently certify kosher dining at American University, Cornell University, Franklin & Marshall College, Ithaca College, Johns Hopkins University, Muhlenberg College, Penn State University, Rollins College, Towson University, UMBC, Yale University and, most recently, University of Rochester. I constantly get inquiries regarding on-campus certification.

KK: Why would a regional college campus reach out to a national kashrus organization for certification?

RMK: One of the practical reasons is to attract more domestic and international students to their location. They understand that offering kosher on campus is a draw for some of their Jewish and Muslim clientele who prefer not to eat non-kosher or non-halal foods, and who – though they might not be religious – are interested in tradition .

Secondly, many times, it is demanded by the college itself to service all students. As part of their contract with the hired contractor (such as Aramark or Sodexo), it must also provide kosher for those who demand it – much as it must provide an allergen-free station or halal offerings.

KK: Have things changed much since you began certifying college campus facilities almost 25 years ago?

RMK: When we first started certifying college campuses, kosher was a self-contained program, with a separate kitchen area and a dedicated dining room. Students had to be on the kosher food plan and were charged more to be on it. That has become obsolete.

The new style is preferred by the students, since they don’t want an isolated kosher dining experience. They want to sit with their friends who may be non-Jewish and/or not interested in eating kosher food.

Today, kosher is served at one or two stations – depending on if it serves both meat and dairy, such as in our Muhlenberg and Franklin & Marshall programs. The setup is like a food court at a mall, where anyone can come up and pick up food; it is all-you-can-eat for one flat fee. We provide red and blue paper mats to differentiate between those eating meat and dairy or eating kosher and non-kosher at the same table.

KK: Are there any other restrictions necessary in such a dining setting?

RMK: Yes, since people are walking around with non-kosher food from the adjacent non-kosherfood stations, extra restrictions are put in place. Diners cannot approach the counter with anything non-kosher. If they do, they will be politely asked to place it on a dedicated table before they approach the counter. In addition, they get served on disposables and get new disposables every time they come back for more food.

True self-serve is only available in the colleges that still use the original self-contained kosher program – such as at Yale University’s Slifka Center and at Cornell’s primary kosher dining hall, 104 West. But Cornell’s newer satellite station, Kosher Dining (located in Toni Morrison Dining Hall) is using the food court model.

KK: Are there any other kashrus challenges in the food court model?

RMK: Yes, you must have a logistical setup which takes into consideration where to store the food. Since space in our station is at a premium, we dedicate it to kosher-specific ingredients and foods, such as bulk meats, poultry, fish, and cheese, for which we have our own designated storage and refrigeration areas. Kosher certified ingredients, such as condiments and oils that are used by the entire dining program, are kept in a general storage area.

Other challenges include how you deal within a non-isolated, non-kosher food court environment and how you deal with platforms that provide both dairy and meat. For example, if the location has a dedicated pareve prep area which services both the dairy and meat operations, how do you service these separate food genders? One can’t take the pareve keilim and bring them to the meat or dairy areas, or bring the meat or dairy keilim into the pareve area. The challenge is how to preserve each gender’s integrity.

You also must figure out how to travel kosher food through a mostly non-kosher area within the food court setup. And, since every college setting is different, I must set up a specific logistical system custom-tailored to each location, taking into consideration where the kosher counter in the food court is located. Is it on the same floor? In the basement?

KK: Do Shabbos and the Yamim Tovim present additional challenges?

RMK: Not every college has Shabbos and Yom Tov programs, but for those that do, yes, certain issues must be addressed.

On a Shabbos, all the rules that apply for a shul bar mitzvah, for example, apply to the Shabbos program on campus, with one major difference – how to figure out payment. Since the kosher food is available to both Jews and gentiles, you need to come up with a method by which they can get their meal without having to pay. You can’t have a customer carry money or swipe a credit card.

Another potential challenge is providing a viable entrance option for the mashgiach and students so they can get into the kosher dining facility without having to violate Shabbos.

Similarly, and at times overlooked, is to offer bathroom facilities that do not operate solely with electronic flush or have motion sensor lighting. And, if the mashgiach or mashgicha must stay on campus over Shabbos, the accommodations must be Shabbos-compliant and within reasonable walking distance of the kosher dining facility.

KK: Are there special challenges to running a Pesachprogram?

RMK: Pesach programs are particularly challenging. Both Yale and Cornell, for example, in addition to offering Pesachprograms, offer sedarim. Up to five hundred people can take part in Cornell’s first-night Pesach seder.

Since 104 West cannot accommodate that many diners, the Pesach program has to go to another, larger platform – one of Cornell’s food courts, Trillium, which is not kosher. First, we block off all the non-kosherfood stations with pipe and drape. All the space that we would be using, such as the dining room, food display areas, etc., has to be thoroughly cleaned for chometzand covered.

As caterers do at an off-site event, we have to first figure out a system of traveling the food there and set up hotboxes and a staging area from which to serve the food. It’s basically like setting up a one-night military operation! The second seder, attended by fewer diners, takes place back at 104 West.

KK: Is it difficult to find mashgichim to oversee the kashrus on campus?

RMK: Finding competent mashgichim to work on a college campus is a major challenge because they are often in isolated locations. Sometimes, a campus mashgiach job can be an 80-hour-per week job and it must be split between two mashgichim. If you want a mashgiach for a kosher program out in a far-flung place, you have to offer decent pay. They may have to move there, rather than commute. I try to get a husband-and-wife team, especially in a remote place; this way, if one of them needs to take off, there is an easily accessible substitute.

KK: With anti-Semitism rampant on college campuses today, does providing a kosher platform on campus provide additional challenges?

RMK: Overall, I have never had any substantial issues. But now that we instituted a partnership with halal through the Etimad certification agency on some of our campuses – such as at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida – it has been very helpful. It sends a message that the Jewish and Muslim student communities can work together.

KK: Thank you for this enlightening interview, Rabbi Kurcfeld. It’s amazing how you have kept up with the challenges of the college campus food service industry – kashrus and otherwise – through these changing times.

RMK: Thank you! I understand the dynamic of the kosher kitchen on campus, and I always assure our potential clients that we always try to find an amicable solution when problems arise. Administrating kashrus with a solution-oriented attitude and mutual respect strengthens kashrus both in the short and long run.

[1] Belasco, Andrew. “Best Colleges for Jewish Students.” September 2, 2022.