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Kosher at KU: Dedicated kosher kitchen opens next week at Oliver Hall

Rabbis Zalman Tiechtel of KU Chabad and Mendy Wineberg of Chabad House Center of Kansas City kosher the kitchen at Oliver Residence Hall, making it a dedicated kosher kitchen on the University of Kansas campus.

Until now, the University of Kansas had a variety of ways for Jewish students to get kosher food. Now, according to KU Chabad Co-Director Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel, there is a permanent place for students to purchase kosher food.

Beginning Tuesday, Feb. 13, students can get kosher cuisine every Tuesday night for the remainder of the semester.

“We had all these pop-up scenarios where we were very limited to what kind of food can be prepared because we were using small spaces and very limited equipment. What we really needed was a real, full-blown, dedicated kosher kitchen and that was a vision that we’ve had for many years,” Rabbi Tiechtel said.

Rabbi Tiechtel has dreamed of a kosher kitchen on campus since the inception of KU Chabad 12 years ago. Through the years, they have successfully launched kosher initiatives, including a kosher concession stand at Allen Fieldhouse (closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays) and a lunchtime kosher deli currently open once a week at the Kansas Union. 

The university also attempted to offer kosher food in one of its dining halls for three semesters beginning in 2013.

The difference this time, according to Rabbi Tiechtel and officials from KU Dining, is a dedicated kosher kitchen located inside Oliver Residence Hall.

“Some previous things that we’ve tried to do with kosher haven’t been ideal compared to what we are looking at now because of facility space,” explained Jim Schilling, assistant director for residential dining, who is now in his 15th year with the university. “It’s almost impossible when you don’t have dedicated space. What we have now is the luxury of having a kitchen that we are not using for daily production for meals in our residence halls because of construction that we have done on campus in the past couple of years. That enables us to kosher that kitchen for nothing but kosher food production.”

KU Dining Director Mark Petrino noted the kitchen at Oliver closed when the new South Dining Commons opened this past fall in the area that is being called the Central District. The new dining hall serves Oliver and Cora Downs halls.

Because a facility was available, Rabbi Tiechtel said the time was ripe to offer kosher dining again. He said KU was interested in giving it another try because the university had seen the growth and success of the existing kosher programs.

“They see how the Jewish community has been growing,” Rabbi Tiechtel added. “It also took a lot of persistence from our part not to give up.”

Logistics of kosher

KU’s Petrino said there are 25,000 students on the Lawrence campus. Leah Swartz, program director at KU Hillel, estimates there are about 1,500 Jewish students at KU. Anyone, not just students, will be able to eat at the kosher facility.

“Any KU student with a KU dining plan may eat at the dining facility at no additional charge,” Rabbi Tiechtel said. “Anyone who does not have a KU dining plan can simply purchase a meal, like any other restaurant. There is a flat charge per meal and it’s unlimited, all you can eat.”

KU runs and operates this kitchen. KU Chabad provides logistical support. 

“We’re partners in this kitchen in the sense that we work with them in the preparation of the meals, ensuring that the process and ingredients are kosher. We provide an on-site kosher supervisor who is there during the entire process. We provide marketing to ensure that students are aware of this opportunity,” Rabbi Tiechtel said.

Benjamin Calmenson, a KU senior from Dallas, Texas, majoring in finance, has been hired as mashgiach. He will make sure “matters of kashrut are handled appropriately.”

“I am an Orthodox Jew and I am aware of the laws that the kitchen and food must uphold. What excites me most is the new kitchen will give KU Jews the opportunity to take initiative and start new clubs and programs that wouldn’t have been feasible without the new facility,” Calmenson said.

For example, Calmenson hopes the new kitchen provide a great opportunity for kids to help cook Shabbos dinners for Chabad.

“I think a club that would bake challahs every week would be very popular. Another club could make a dinner once a week and then eat the dinner together while learning with Rabbi Zalman. I’m confident kids will have no shortage of ideas,” the mashgiach added.

The mashgiach is being paid by KU Dining. While Rabbi Tiechtel did not wish to divulge amounts, KU Chabad is contributing funds toward the kosher dining initiative at the university. He did say the kosher program at KU is supported by friends and partners of Chabad at KU, and by the generosity of the Gortenberg family.

It’s important to note that the food is being prepared in the kosher kitchen at Oliver, but it will be served at the new South Dining Commons. Oliver has a kitchen, but no longer has a dining hall.

In addition to hot meals being served once a week this semester, KU Dining and Chabad are excited that in the near future the kosher facility will begin packaging meals that will be sold daily in all of KU Dining’s retail locations.

“We want to make sure we get all the quirks out, but we’re hoping to start producing retail meals around the same time we officially open the kitchen,” Schilling said.

Rabbi Tiechtel added, “If somebody wants a hot kosher meal on Thursday, they can grab it from the fridge and pop it in the microwave, and they have a delicious kosher dinner.”

Neither the rabbi nor KU Dining know exactly what the demand for kosher food is.

“I couldn’t quantify the number of requests we get, but we do get some regular requests for more kosher food options, especially in our residential dining facilities on a fairly regular basis,” Schilling said.

Rabbi Tiechtel said in planning the kitchen, “we have to think big.”

“How many kids keep strict kosher? Just a few. How many eat kosher meats? Quite a lot. How many kids don’t keep kosher at all but would take advantage of it if it was available? I’m also confident it would be quite a lot.”

Discussions are currently underway to determine whether the kosher kitchen will provide food during Passover.

“Hopefully this kitchen will be able to serve Passover meals, as well, which is very, very popular. But we’re still working on that,” the rabbi said.

All the menus are already mapped out for the semester.

“Everything will be meat or chicken. We are not doing dairy or pareve, because the demand is for kosher meat. That’s what the students are craving. That’s what you currently can’t get in Lawrence,” Rabbi Tiechtel said.

Next fall, Rabbi Tiechtel said, they hope to increase the number of nights dinner is served to every night of the week.

“The mashgiach will be there for many hours and as it grows we will need to add mashgichim,” he added.

Besides Jewish students, Rabbi Tiechtel said this kitchen is expected to attract members of the Muslim student community.

“I recently had a meeting with the University of Kansas Multicultural Student Government. There were many Muslim student leaders present, and they are very excited about it. We are also engaging them in the process and the marketing.”

Other kosher at KU

For many years KU Chabad has provided kosher food to Naismith Hall, the private residence hall many Jewish students call home. Kosher dinners are served about twice a month, every other Wednesday, and Rabbi Tiechtel said “that’s also very popular.”

For kosher food at Naismith, depending on the menu, some of it is made at KU Chabad’s kosher kitchen, which is just across the street from the dorm. Other things — such as hot dogs or burgers — are cooked on-site at Naismith using KU Chabad’s portable kosher grill tops, roller grills and slow cookers.

The kosher deli on KU’s campus is located at the main Kansas Union. Dedicated kosher equipment is stored there and is pulled out on deli days. Rabbi Tiechtel is the on-site mashgiach and is assisted by Ethan Scharf, a senior from Overland Park. It serves approximately 40 to 60 every Wednesday this semester.

Then there’s the kosher stand at Allen Field House 

“We keep expanding the menu and we keep moving to better, more prominent and centrally located locations each season,” Rabbi Tiechtel said. 

The future

This kitchen, according to Rabbi Tiechtel, is a huge step and it’s the beginning of “so many more exciting things.”

“Until now if someone wanted a kosher event at the Union, there was no way the Union could cater the event. If they needed kosher food, they had to get catering from Kansas City,” he explained.

Now, he said, this kitchen will be able to provide full-blown kosher catering for such events as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, academic symposiums or any activity imaginable. 

“The new union that will open next fall in the Central District is going to have a ballroom that will seat 1,500 people. Now this kitchen is available for kosher catering for any size event on campus and in the city of Lawrence. A lot of people will take advantage of that.”