The Kosher Kitchen Is a Hit at Caltech


Four years ago, Caltech officials were trying to lure a promising high school senior who was also being courted by Ivy League schools. Professors and administrators were all set to impress the prospect with Caltech’s academic resources. But the student’s parents raised an unexpected concern about sending their daughter to the Pasadena school for four years: What could she eat?

The young woman, who was Jewish, kept a kosher diet, and Caltech had no kosher meal plan. Not only was there no kosher food on campus, but the neighborhood has no kosher restaurants or grocery stores. So Caltech, a school with the means to spend what it takes to solve a problem, took a bold step: It built a kosher kitchen and hired a full-time chef--all before that student showed up for classes.

The new facility quickly became popular with other Jewish students and Caltech staff. But it evolved in a surprising way: Muslims on campus also began to take the kosher meals to adhere to their own similar religious dietary requirements.


Today, Caltech offers both kosher meals and halal dishes for Muslims. The meal program has also tapped into a previously unmet demand for religiously appropriate prepared meals beyond the cozy 2,000-student campus. Workers from nearby office buildings regularly stop in for lunch, and Caltech provides kosher and halal meals for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and two Pasadena private schools.

This year, Caltech has been contracted by USC and UCLA to establish kosher and halal meal programs at those campuses. Like Caltech, those universities “don’t want little things to stop people from coming to their schools,” said Joel Weinberger, the kosher chef Caltech hired to start the program.

In another sign of growing interest in upholding religious standards for food, California in July enacted a law making it a crime to fraudulently label meat “halal,” just as earlier laws outlawed phony kosher labeling.

Weinberger said he was attracted by Caltech’s willingness to spend whatever was necessary to maintain kosher dietary rules, which require the separation of dairy ingredients from meat and set standards for the killing and handling of animals. His kitchen is kept locked to ensure it is not used for non-kosher meals.

Even with the interest from off-campus, Weinberger said that on some days he serves only about a dozen kosher meals. The program “is not about money,” he said. “It’s to serve students.”

Weinberger, who has degrees in both restaurant management and Jewish law, sought from the beginning to use the kosher program to serve as broad a population as possible. When the kosher kitchen opened, he also started a vegetarian meal program, since his kosher setup made it easy to cook without using animal products.


In his first month on the job, Weinberger said, he began asking Muslim students how he could help them with halal meals. Kosher restrictions generally go beyond halal requirements. Pork is forbidden by both, but there is no ban on shellfish in halal rules as there is under kosher limits.

For most Muslim students, the kosher meals were acceptable, since they did not contain pork and God’s name is invoked in the slaughter of kosher meats. Because halal rules prohibit the use of alcohol, Weinberger does not use cooking wine.

“A kosher kitchen generally surpasses any halal requirements,” said Mahmoud Abdel-Baset, religious and social services coordinator for the Islamic Center of Southern California. While acknowledging some Muslims hold to more conservative standards, Abdel-Baset said he and other Muslims eat kosher meats. In 1999, Weinberger invited Abdel-Baset to view Caltech’s kitchen. Abdel-Baset wrote a letter affirming that the “ingredients and cooking facility are free from any Islamically unlawful components,” an endorsement posted on the refrigerator door. Weinberger is now trying to find a way to accommodate Muslim students with stricter requirements, such as those who believe their meat must be slaughtered by a Muslim. Such meat would not be kosher, and thus could not be prepared with the same pots and utensils used for the kosher food, Weinberger said. He is considering buying halal meat and having another staffer prepare it in the non-kosher kitchen. “We’re always trying to find the highest common denominator,” he said.

Barry Simon, a Caltech math professor who helped start the kosher program, said he never expected the school to offer kosher food because of its small size. “If a year before we started this you had told me we would have kosher food, I would have fallen on the floor laughing. It just didn’t seem to be an economically viable alternative.”

Simon, a professor at Caltech since 1981, said he thought it would have been acceptable for students who require kosher food to live off campus, where they could prepare their own meals, or to have kosher food brought in from outside. But he said Thomas Mannion, who heads the department overseeing Caltech’s food service, told him, “ ‘That’s second-class and not acceptable.’ Tom was adamant to not let food be a decisive factor” for a student considering Caltech.

The meal program has also enhanced campus life for Caltech’s faculty and staff, since meetings with colleagues over meals can now accommodate everyone.


Caltech’s program also is a valuable community service, said Issac Berkovits, who works at the nearby Indy Mac Bank on South Lake Avenue. On a recent afternoon, Berkovits and half a dozen bank colleagues, including Orthodox Jews and a Muslim, enjoyed a lunch of steak, chicken and vegetables at Caltech.

Berkovits, who lives in West Los Angeles, said that when he began working in Pasadena two years ago, he was shocked to find no kosher restaurants in the area. He learned of Caltech’s kosher program one day last year when he was searching the Internet for places to eat. Berkovits said he had been bringing food from home or eating at Baskin-Robbins.