Oberlin students, alumni reopen Kosher Halal Co-op, hoping to get Jews, Muslims to bond over food

After 30 years on campus, the cooperative was shut down in 2021; but after a temporary reopening last month, students are eager to start it up again

Elijah Freiman grew up on his father and aunt’s stories of their days as Oberlin College students in the 1980s where some of their best memories were at the Kosher Halal Co-op, a student-run dining cooperative that adheres to both Jewish and Muslim dietary laws. It was a space where Muslim students learned why kosher-keeping Jews check eggs for blood spots and get ready together for Shabbat. Jewish students, meanwhile, got to help make the Ramadan break fast meal known as iftar.  

But after Oberlin’s administration decided in 2021 that it would no longer rent space to KHC after more than 30 years, Freiman figured he would never get to share meals and engage in meaningful conversation as his family members did. Freiman, a junior majoring in food studies, finally got the chance to experience KHC during winter term when the co-op returned for a one-month period in January. Now Freiman, alongside classmates and alumni, said that the one-month return of KHC has strengthened resolve to permanently bring back the co-op — even while the administration won’t provide assistance and as the Israel-Hamas war has strained relations between Jews and Muslims.

“We are lobbying the college to provide us the space that KHC lived in historically, where there were two kitchens, one of which is being used as storage right now,” Freiman, president of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, which provided space for KHC, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “It would honestly be a slam-dunk for the college to work with us,” he continued. “Here is this time when the barrier between Jews and Muslims seems impermeable, and all you have to do to see that people can come together and bridge differences is look back at this 30-year history.” 

The month-long revival of KHC was a joint effort created by students for their winter term personal project. Students and alumni fundraised entirely outside of the college. Some 30 students — Jewish, Muslim or of neither religion — prepared food, cooked, cleaned, learned about one another and received winter term class credit.

Elliot Diaz, who graduated from Oberlin last spring, was a member of KHC in 2020. He returned to the Ohio campus over winter term to help out with KHC’s revival — taking photos, writing policy and other logistics. “I would describe the last month as very successful,” he told eJP. “Students seem very sad to now have the co-op shutting down. It’s a great community space.”

The one-month revival raised $12,500 in total pledges and donations from 75 KHC alumni, friends, and family, according to Diaz, who said that KHC’s long-term goal is to raise $500,000 to buy and retrofit a location in Oberlin with an industrial kitchen in order to reopen. Donations ranged from $18 to $1,800.

KHC was first shuttered, as were all on-campus co-ops, in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To provide for students who keep kosher, Oberlin opened a new dining hall called Heritage Kosher Kitchen. According to the Oberlin Review, the Oberlin kosher dining hall did not start out adhering to dietary laws — for example, a student was served chicken with dairy yogurt sauce. Students also expressed concern that given other oversights, the hall would not adequately clean for Passover. The Chabad rabbi on campus has since provided hashgacha (religious supervision) for the dining hall, while Chabad has never been involved in KHC. There is currently no Halal dining hall. 

In 2021, when other co-ops reopened, Oberlin announced it would no longer rent space to KHC, citing the existence of the new kosher dining hall. Students responded with a petition that collected over 900 signatures — while the co-op itself had only 35 members. Alumni of all ages wrote passionate testimonials about how their membership in KHC was a formative life experience. College administrators ignored the petition and indicated that the College does not have an obligation to rent space to any co-op.

A spokesperson for Oberlin told eJP in an emailed statement that “Oberlin College is one of only a handful of liberal arts colleges throughout the country to offer students a certified kosher kitchen experience. We provide kosher meals to our students as part of our dining program at our Heritage Kitchen, a communal space where students can come together to share food, conversation, and culture. Heritage Kitchen provides 1,500 kosher meals per week.” The spokesperson did not provide comment specifically about KHC. 

Students and alumni said KHC’s greatest qualities were the pluralistic community and lifelong bonds it provided.

“KHC was a formative place for me, both as a Jewish person and as a person in the world,” Helen Kramer, a 2017 Oberlin graduate who serves on KHC’s alumni advisory committee, told eJP. “Having grown up in a kosher home, Kramer said she chose Oberlin in part because of KHC. I made some of the most formative friendships of my life eating and cooking alongside students at KHC.” 

Devastated by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Kramer was looking for opportunities to volunteer. “That was right around when I heard about the revival of KHC,” she said. “Because it’s a positive space for interfaith connections, it was a place that felt like my experience would make a direct meaningful impact.” 

Among the long-term friendships Kramer made while dining at KHC was with Hassan Bin Fahim, a student from Pakistan. 

“As an unsuspecting international student from Pakistan, landing in Oberlin was a culture shock in more ways than one. Little did I know that my culinary journey would take an unexpected turn, leading me to help cook in the kitchen of what I affectionately dubbed ‘Oberlin’s Kosher Pakistani Restaurant’ — better known as the Kosher-Halal Co-op,” Bin Fahim wrote for the Oberlin Review in November.

“Looking back, the Kosher Halal Co-op was more than a dining experience; it was a cross-cultural feast that nourished friendships, sparked conversations and, yes, left us with a few oven burns to remember,” he continued. “Oberlin’s Kosher Pakistani Restaurant, a culinary fusion like no other, remains etched in my memory as a testament to the magic that happens when diverse flavors come together in a shared space.” 

Rabbah Amalia Haas, a 1991 graduate of Oberlin, now the senior Jewish educator and campus rabbi at the college’s Hillel, was a member of KHC during her five years as an Oberlin student, and for another five years after graduating. 

“It was a huge honor and very exciting to help in bringing the co-op back,” she said. “Being in the co-op, you all but live with these people; you cook, clean, share music, celebrate holy times, get frustrated with each other when someone misses making their meal, there’s so much cultural sharing that builds intimacy.”  

“We did study over lunch about the same stories that appear in the Torah and Quran,” Haas recalled, “We’d bring in rabbis and imams to facilitate discussions.” 

Haas noted that “very few of the students involved were observing in their outside lives kosher law or Halal. They were there to learn and be part of a community.” 

The timing of KHC’s temporary reopening — as rates of antisemitism and Islamophobia spike amid Israel’s war with Hamas — was not lost on students and alumni. Diaz said the conflict “came up in passing” at the co-op. 

“But the focus is really on meals, food and learning about our similarities and differences in food practices,” he added.