On the day before the start of spring semester last week, Rabbi Aharon Simkin spent five hours on the Cal State Northridge campus immersing pots and food preparation utensils in rapidly boiling water, washing down metal work surfaces with equally hot water and subjecting knives to the intense heat of blowtorches.
Simkin is a mashgiah, a rabbi who ensures that food preparation is done in accordance with traditional Jewish law, and his job that day was to remove all traces of non-kosher food from the Flight '82 ice cream shop tucked away in a corner of the Student Union. When the task was completed, Flight '82 had been transformed into the only kosher eatery on the campus of any public or private college or university in Southern California, not counting strictly Jewish institutions, according to Rabbi Richard Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.
It is a modest start. Kosher regulations prohibit mixing of meat and dairy foods, limiting Flight '82's menu to ice cream, hot and cold drinks, bagels and cream cheese, muffins and Danish rolls. However, Vernon K. Hale, the university's food services director, said a separate kosher deli restaurant serving a full range of meat sandwiches is also being planned.
First-day business totaled almost $400, nearly triple an average day last semester, Hale said. "We went with the ice cream parlor first because it was easy to do and required minimal cost," Hale said. "Providing kosher food is part of an overall upgrading of our food services while satisfying the university's various student communities. All students enjoy quality ethnic foods."
At Cal State Northridge, conventional wisdom has long presumed a major Jewish student presence on campus. But because it is a state school, constitutional considerations have precluded any formal survey of religious preference.
However, the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation, the world's largest Jewish campus organization, took what amounts to an educated guess in 1989 and concluded that the university, with an estimated 7,000 Jewish students, has the largest Jewish student population of any non-Jewish college or university west of the Hudson River (followed by UCLA with about 6,000).
Nationally, Cal State Northridge trails only New York University, which has 15,000 Jewish students, and Brooklyn College, which has about 10,000. Columbia University and Barnard College, which are administratively linked, also have about 7,000 Jewish students between them.
Jewish students are believed to constitute more than 20% of Cal State Northridge's student population, which is also the highest proportion of any school in the Western United States, noted Ruth Fredman Cernea, Hillel Foundation's Washington, D.C.-based publications and resource development director.
"We sort of figured that," said Ann Salisbury, university public affairs director, when informed of the Hillel Foundation's findings. "But no one here really knew for sure."
The university has long drawn a large number of Jewish students simply because it is situated in the west San Fernando Valley, which has one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the nation. About half of Los Angeles' estimated 600,000 Jews live in the Valley, according to the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
Jewish students are also attracted to Cal State Northridge's strong undergraduate business, engineering and science programs, subjects they have historically gravitated toward, said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the university's Hillel chapter director. In addition, he said, the Northridge school is perceived by Jewish parents to have fewer interracial and inter-ethnic tensions than other schools, including UCLA.
"At some semiconscious level, the campus is viewed as safer," he said. "I suspect that's truer for parents than students, and parents have a big say in where their students go."
As the university has grown, its Jewish population has increased proportionally. Despite that, the level of student involvement in Jewish activities on campus has remained low.
Today, however, Jewish activity is on the rise, campus observers say, and the conversion of Flight '82 into a kosher restaurant is one tangible sign of that.
"Since I've been here, I've sensed an increasing desire on the part of Jewish students to do something Jewish," said Michael Katz, the university's associate Hillel director the past four years. "The activity level is definitely up."
Still, the vast majority of the university's Jewish students do not have any formal relationship to campus Jewish activities. The Hillel chapter, for example, is the largest Jewish organization on campus, yet it only has about 250 dues-paying members and a mailing list of about 1,100.