With East Coast prices high, Orthodox students are now building communities on UC campuses


Tamar Willis

UCI’s Chabad and Hillel put up a joint sukkah this year. Students participated in a sukkah hop.

By Tamar Willis, Features Editor

   Transitioning from a school like Shalhevet—where students don’t need to think twice about keeping kosher or observing Shabbat—to a public university with 22,000 undergraduates and no kosher meal plan can be daunting.  But for alumnus Zev Hurwitz ‘11, it was just something to overcome.

When Zev arrived at UC San Diego last year, he planned on maintaining kashrut and keeping Shabbat.  Since there was no kosher meal plan, he petitioned the school’s dieticians to have prepackaged kosher meals sold on “dining dollars” that UCSD’s meal plan system uses to pay for food.

He succeeded, and now he is able to buy kosher food at his dining hall instead of just eating salad there or shopping in the kosher section of Ralph’s, as he had to before.  In addition to keeping kosher, he also observes Shabbat and attends Friday night dinners at the Hillel when he can.

“I’ve been told by a number of people that the kosher food has made a lot of people’s lives easier,” said Zev, who is the co-president of United Jewish Observance and a board member of the Union of Jewish Students at UCSD.

“It’s still a struggle because I can’t go anywhere I want to eat,” he added.  “Shabbat is really frustrating because I live with three non-Jewish people. But this is something that Shalhevet has really instilled in me—that it’s important to keep Shabbat and kosher after high school. It’s part of me and I’m not ready to let a couple things get in the way of it.”


     Shalhevet graduates have been going to UCs in increasing numbers in recent years as the economy worsened and east coast universities with great Jewish life went out of financial reach.  Perhaps for that reason, the eight main campuses of the University of California, never known for their vibrant Jewish communities, have gradually improved.

The University of California has 10 locations throughout the state, eight with at least a Hillel location affiliated with the school.  UC San Francisco does not have an undergraduate program, and UC Merced has no established Jewish community that The Boiling Point could find.

But a Boiling Point survey found some form of Jewish community at each of the other eight campuses. Along with Hillel, some schools have chapters of Chabad and also JAM, or the Jewish Awareness Movement. JAM is a smaller organization than Chabad or Hillel but offers similar events for Jews on campus at UCLA, UCSB, and UCSD.

In addition, eight have chapters of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity; and four have chapters of its Jewish sorority counterpart, Alpha Epsilon Phi.

All of the Hillels, Chabads, and JAMs provide students with kosher Shabbat dinners, holiday meals, prayer services, and social activities.

At UC San Diego, along with the new kosher foods available on campus, there are a slew of Jewish organizations, including Hillel, Chabad, AEPi, AEPhi, a Jewish LGBT group, and a Klezmer band.

According to Zev, there is an Orthodox synagogue a half-mile south of campus, but not many students attend services there.  The Hillel offers no daily minyan but does host Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform services on Friday nights. There is no programming on Saturdays except for the occasional meal that happens once or twice a quarter.


     Probably the most Jewishly active and diverse UC campus is here in Los Angeles at UCLA. There are 2,600 Jewish students according to the Hillel website, and options for eating, praying and even living in observance of kashrut and Shabbat.

For Keren Meir ’11, now a sophomore there, maintaining Jewish traditions and being involved in the Jewish community at UCLA is as easy as she expected it would be.

“UCLA happens to have a huge Jewish population so maintaining my Judaism is not difficult at all,” Keren said.  “They even have a Coffee Bean on campus with all the kosher pastries marked, as well as a Coffee Bean in the Hillel where everything is kosher, but that’s off campus.”

UCLA’s Hillel hosts weekly Shabbat dinners in its three-story building across the street from campus on Hilgard Avenue.  According to Jason Leivenberg, Hillel’s Director of Student Life, between 150 and 200 students attend its free Shabbat dinners each week.  The Hillel also offers Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv services every day, along with Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform services on Shabbat.

There’s also an informal Jewish dormitory for UCLA students who would like to live in a Jewish environment: the Westwood Bayit, a housing co-op that has a strictly kosher kitchen for both dairy and meat.

The Bayit is located within walking distance of UCLA’s campus, and it is co-ed.  It houses anywhere from 15 to 22 students at a time, according to Shalhevet alumnus Ben Steiner ’07, who lived in the Bayit for his sophomore and junior years at UCLA.

“It’s a great place to network with other Jews at UCLA,” said Ben in an interview. “If I had not lived at the Bayit, I wouldn’t have made the friends that I did.  It’s a community that looks out for itself.”

Shalhevet’s college counselor Dr. Steven Mercer said that of all the UCs, UCLA is the best choice for Jewish students.

“For a Modern-Orthodox family, I think UCLA has the strongest Jewish life of the UCs,” he added.  “It’s because of the number of Orthodox students, the amount of kosher food, and the types of Chabad and Hillel activities that the campus has.”


     At UC Berkeley, Shalhevet alumnus Ari Feuer ’12 describes his transition to practicing Judaism “seamless.”

“Admittedly, this probably stems from my connection to Judaism being more value-based than halakhic-based,” Ari wrote in an email to The Boiling Point.   “But I’ve met people that keep Shabbat and have not eaten non-kosher meat here for years.”

Hillel provides three free kosher meals a week to freshmen, and two for sophomores and upperclassmen. Chabad has Shabbat dinners every week and both Hillel and Chabad host High Holiday services.

There is also the Jewish Greek Council, which has events for Jews in the fraternity-sorority system, and the Jewish Student Union, which Ari describes as an umbrella organization for the smaller Jewish groups like the Greek Council and AEPi.

“AEPi includes Jews ranging from non-practicing to Modern Orthodox, so it’s more value-centered to cater to everyone,” Ari wrote.

“All these organizations really work to make sure all Jews on campus have multiple opportunities every week to connect with Judaism and/or other Jews.”

Berkeley doesn’t currently offer kosher food in its dorm cafeterias, but Shalhevet alumnus Ricky Spronz ’07 said the Hillel rabbi is working with the administration to change that for the 2013-14 school year.

Like UCLA, Berkeley also has a Jewish cooperative house, called the Berkeley Bayit.  Ricky, who is the brother of sophomore Rachel Spronz, is living there now.  He said it’s about a 10-minute walk from campus, is coed and currently houses 12 people.

Since the house is a cooperative, the students living there maintain the highest level of observance of the current residents.  Right now the residents vary from completely unobservant to Orthodox.

“I decided to live here because freshman year I became really good friends with people who lived in the house, so that was the beginning,” said Ricky, a senior who has lived in the Bayit since his sophomore year.

“Then on top of that, the Jewish community that is created by it was appealing.  It’s a sort of a family, homey environment. It’s wonderful to live here. It’s comfortable to be Jewish here.”


     Shalhevet alumna Nicole Bazak ’11 attends UC Santa Barbara. Jewish events at UCSB, which are often communicated to the students via Facebook, are always extremely festive and lively, she said.  They also provide her with a familiar sense of community.

“I like the company,” said Nicole.  “Having gone from a Jewish school to a large public school, it’s nice to have that sense of community even if it’s only once a week.  It’s comforting to know that it’s still here and I can always go back to it.”

With Jewish students making up almost 14 percent of undergraduates at UCSB, there is no shortage of events to choose from, such as “Sundaes in the Sukkah” or “Torah Talk,” where students can discuss the week’s parsha.

UCSB’S Hillel and Chabad each host meals twice a week or more to accommodate all the students.  However, the school does not provide a kosher dining hall meal plan.

At UC Santa Cruz, where Jews make up over 15 percent of the student body, there are kosher food options on campus but no kosher meal plan.

According to UCSC senior and Shalhevet alumnus Mark Rad ’07, it is not difficult to keep Shabbat on campus.  Mark attends Friday night dinners every week at either Chabad or Hillel, but prefers Chabad.

“You’re not going to get a lot of questions about your practice,” said Mark. “People tend to shrug any real questions about practices under the rug. Santa Cruz is very inclusive.”

Eli Willis ’11, a sophomore at UCSC, said she has encountered only a handful of observant Jews on campus, and that it’s difficult to find kosher food, observe Shabbat, or find a minyan.

“Jewish life at UCSC is geared towards students who want to practice Judaism more culturally,” said Eli.  “There aren’t really a lot of accommodations for religious observance.  For students who identify more culturally and communally, UCSC is a really good place for Jews.”


     One of the smallest but most famous Jewish communities in the UC system is at the Irvine campus.  Jews make up just four percent of the undergraduate student population at UC Irvine, and its Hillel also caters to students at nearby Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton.

While anti-Semitism can be found on almost any college campus, UC Irvine made headlines after its Muslim Student Union (MSU) disrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech in 2010.  Their interruptions prevented Ambassador Oren from giving his speech, and 11 students involved were arrested.
The trial was highly publicized and 10 students were eventually convicted, sentenced to probation and the possibility of six months in jail.  But the Jewish community there still thrives, with events like Shabbat dinners and a sukkah hop at hosted by Chabad.

“We have a strong, vibrant Jewish community here that doesn’t care what happens around it,” said Eran Hoch, the Israeli shaliach at UCI’s Hillel, in an interview. “We’re too busy being proud of our Judaism.”

The Director of UCI’s Chabad, Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum, believes people have a misconception of Jewish life at UCI’s campus.

“Aside from isolated incidents that happen once or twice a year, UCI is a very friendly place for Jewish students,” said Rabbi Tenenbaum.
The Chabad hosts social and educational activities, such as “Pizza, Politics, and Parsha,” and also service ones, like a challah bake-off to raise money for soup kitchens in Israel.

“The Jewish community is getting bigger, stronger, and we have more events,” Rabbi Tenenbaum said. “Basically people should realize aside from these incidents, we have vibrant Jewish life, and a very tight-knit Jewish student community.”

According to Rabbi Tenenbaum, there has been a kosher meal plan in the past, but this year there isn’t because of the small number of Modern Orthodox freshmen who keep kosher.  Rabbi Tenenbaum said that he could think of three students who had requested a kosher meal plan this year, and he has been in touch with the Food Services department to try to accommodate them.

No Shalhevet alumni currently attend UCI.  But for Robert Berkson, president of UCI’s chapter of AEPi, the anti-Israel sentiment that can be found there does not change his attitude toward the school.

“I actually was not aware of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on UCI’s campus before deciding to go to school here,” Robert wrote in an email to the Boiling Point.  “I would do it all over again.”

At UC Riverside, where Jews also make up four percent of the student population, Jewish life is less active. There’s a Hillel on campus, and a nearby Chabad which caters to the students of UCR as well as the Jewish community in Riverside.  Since the Chabad is located six miles off of campus, it isn’t accessible for students without cars.

“We do have programming occasionally but we’re not a campus Chabad house like UCLA, for example,” said Chabad Riverside’s director, Rabbi Shmuel Fuss.“We have a Sukkot party at UCR and Shabbat dinner from time to time and Hanukkah celebration but it’s very limited. We’re here for students but by no means is it a Chabad student center.”


     Finally, in the Sacramento area, UC Davis has 2,500 Jewish undergrads, comprising 10 percent of the total undergraduate population.  There’s no kosher meal plan, and the Hillel, which is one block off campus, hosts Reform and Conservative services on Shabbat. Chabad, located three-and-a-half blocks from campus, offers services as well.

There is also a “Kosher House,” ironically part of the Cal Aggie Christian Association, which is an organization that oversees six houses that students can live in, also including a Muslim House and a Sikh House. The Kosher House offers a kosher kitchen to residents and an free kosher meal once a week to other UC Davis students.

The Hillel offers students a kosher kitchen too, as well as free meals on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Sari Kosdon, a student and intern at UC Davis’ Hillel, thinks it is harder for observant Jews to live at UC Davis because of the lack of k0sher restaurants and limited accommodation from the university.

She said one of her friends asked a professor to move a midterm in order to observe Shabbat, but the professor denied the request.

Additionally, the Hillel is trying to start a program called Challah for Hunger, where students bake and sell challah to raise money for social justice. But the university has not allowed it, even though other groups and clubs can sell baked goods on campus.

“They’re not overly supportive but they’re not condemning us in any way,” Sari said.

Responding to inquiries from the Boiling Point, UC Davis officials said the challah issue had to do with county regulations, and that the Shabbat midterm was an aberration.

“I believe it is against University rules to ,” said Prof. Diane Wolf, who heads the Jewish Studies Department at UC Davis.  “Had I known about this, I would not have been shy to go to the very top of our administration for help.”

     For Dr. Mercer, the UCs are not number one when it comes to Jewish life in college.

“Compared to similar campuses in other states, like Michigan, Maryland, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Binghamton, UCs just don’t compare,” Dr. Mercer said.

“I’m not saying that individuals won’t have a good Jewish experience at a UC, but the experiences, support and kosher food options are much better at other campuses across the country.”

Some of these out-of-state schools have kosher cafeterias or meal plans, multiple options for davening and even Jewish a capella groups—the University of Maryland even has two Jewish a capella groups.  Many of these schools also have high numbers of active Orthodox students, according to previous reporting by The Boiling Point.

Regardless, Dr. Mercer is a strong advocate for the UCs because of their strengths in other areas, both academically and financially.  UCs today rank above those schools according to US News and World Report.  Among national universities, Berkeley ranks 21st, UCLA 24th, and UCSD 38th, while NYU ranks 32nd, Boston University 51st, and Maryland 58th.

Moreover, according to the University of Maryland website, tuition, room and board for an out-of-state student there total $41,473.  At NYU, it’s $41,836 for tuition alone in the College of Arts and Sciences — room and board runs an additional $10,000 or so.

By contrast, the in-state price for UCLA this year is $31,902 – including on-campus housing, tuition, meal plan, transportation, health insurance, books and supplies, and personal needs.

For these reasons, Shalhevet grads and other Jewish Californians will most likely continue heading to UCs, and it’s likelyt that Jewish life on UC campuses will continue to improve.  And if a UC doesn’t have a kosher meal plan or weekly Shabbat dinners in place, count on a Shalhevet alum to make it happen.

“I started at the bottom, but finally we got to where we are today,” Zev said of UCSD’s dining halls.

“It was absolutely worth it.  When you live on campus and have to buy the campus meal plan, if there is nothing kosher then you end up with lots of salad and too many Oreos.”

This story won First Prize, the Boris Smolar Award for Enterprise and Investigative Reporting of the American Jewish Press Association’s Simon Rockower Awards.