Every evening during the school year, students head to the Chabad serving Drexel University for a kosher meal that includes a protein, a starch or carbohydrate, soup and a salad bar.
“It’s a nice opportunity to see each other,” said Rudi Weinberg, treasurer of the Chabad House’s student board and president of the kosher meal plan. “We’ll come, we’ll talk, we’ll sit. We can take [the food] to go, or we can sit and eat at Chabad. I know there are students who have only come to Drexel because they know that the meal program exists.”
Drexel’s Orthodox community is fairly small, especially in comparison to its neighboring community at the University of Pennsylvania. But over the last few years, efforts by Orthodox students on campus to enlarge their profile has led to growth. This year, the community expects about 15 Orthodox students in the incoming freshman class, about double the number of previous years.
The Chabad House’s kosher meal plan began in April 2016, when Weinberg told Moussia Goldstein, the organization’s co-director, that he was struggling to eat kosher meals while living in the dorms. He had intended to rely on food from Drexel Hillel’s cafe, but the cafe was not yet ready when he arrived.
Goldstein told him that she would cook meals for him and other students if they paid for the ingredients.
That was the beginning of Chabad’s kosher meal plan, which expanded in its first year from just a few students to 15. Chabad serving Drexel hired a cook (and then another, subsequent cook when the first one married and left the position) to handle the growth.
With the anticipated influx of Orthodox students, Weinberg expects Chabad’s meal plan to further expand. To accommodate, the Chabad House plans to hire a professional staff, either a more professional chef or a catering company, and will begin offering a lunch option as part of its meal plan if enough students express an interest.
Weinberg said the Chabad House is raising funds to renovate the basement to create a larger eating space for the students.
“I would not have been able to stay at Drexel if not for the kindness of Moussia and Rabbi Chaim [Goldstein],” Weinberg said. “Even now, there’s not much kosher food at Drexel other than this, a little bit, but nothing fresh.”
Hillel at Drexel University has worked with the university’s housing department for four years to provide freshman students with the option of kosher housing. First-year students can request kosher housing through Drexel Hillel, which arranges to have suites at Van Rensselaer Hall kashered so that students can prepare their own meals. The deadline to make this request for the upcoming year has already passed.
Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, Drexel Hillel executive director and campus rabbi, said the number of students requesting kosher suites for this school year has doubled. In past years, five to seven students would request these suites, but 13 students have done so this year. Additional incoming Orthodox students have chosen housing outside the kosher suites.
“Our goal is to make Drexel an accessible campus for every kind of Jewish student,” de Koninck said.
She said the growth has come from deliberate efforts to recruit students from Orthodox day schools, as well as from the work of student leaders in the Orthodox Minyan Group (OMG) at Drexel Hillel.
Five years ago, OMG set up SMASH, which involves programming for Shabbat Mincha, Seudah Shlishit, Maariv and Havdalah. That kicked off the Orthodox community’s growth, said OMG President Liam Shamir. SMASH created a sense of community for Orthodox students, who began to see each other regularly.
When Shamir started at Drexel four years ago, there were only about 10 or 15 Orthodox students there. Last year, the number grew to nearly 30, he said.
Shamir said he hopes that, with the growth, OMG can begin offering services throughout the week.
“[The students] would love to see a nightly Maariv or a Sunday morning davening,” Shamir said. “Not to say we don’t go to Penn. We do go to Penn for a lot of davening, for a lot of services. To be able to say we have our own is a big step, and that is definitely something we hope to have happen, as well as just continued growth.
“Once others start seeing that it’s possible, and that it’s not only just like, ‘OK, it’s a minor inconvenience that we have to do X, Y and Z to make it manage,’ rather [they see that it’s] easily doable to be an Orthodox Jew on Drexel’s campus, we’ll have even more continued growth.”
SMASH started in the spring of 2015.