Saturday, September 25, 2010

Halal shop to replace kosher Pita Plus

When Naumaan Hamid decided to expand his chain of halal restaurants, the diverse and bustling business of downtown College Park was too appealing to pass up.But the diverse population that initially attracted him to the location isn’t reacting the way he expected.

“Krazi Kebob,” a halal fusion of Eastern and Mexican cuisine, is scheduled to open in two weeks at the former location of Pita Plus, which unexpectedly closed two days ago. Although the replacement of the Mediterranean restaurant, students’ only source of off-campus kosher meals, takes away what many students considered a home away from home, it fills a void for another oft-ignored community.

The university’s Jewish community has expressed frustration at the closing of Pita Plus, which many relied on as a local spot to take families and visitors who keep kosher. Others argue that the lack of an off-campus kosher restaurant presents a challenge for getting meals that adhere to their religious dietary restrictions.

“It’s really upsetting,” said junior Stephanie Cantor, a member of the university’s Jewish Leadership Council. “I know there’s a really large population that definitely loved to have this as an alternative to Hillel, especially for freshmen living in dorms who don’t have the option to cook meals.”

Sophomore chemical engineering major Mohammed Shaikh, who is Muslim, said he sympathizes with Jewish concerns of having limited dining options.“I agree with them,” he said. “ We should be fair even with non-Muslims. They have the right to have their own restaurant.”

Mahir Maruf, a recent alumni and former member of the Muslim Students’ Association, said that when he was a student, he and his friends frequently had to travel to Greenbelt to eat at Pizza Roma — the closest halal restaurant to campus.
But while Muslim students expressed sympathy — and even solidarity — with the hardships the restaurant’s closure may impose on Jewish students, they feel the addition of a halal restaurant was much-needed. Shaikh previously advocated for the installment of a halal restaurant in the Stamp Student Union, by contacting university officials, creating a Facebook group and starting a petition. His requests were denied. “[Muslims] have the right to our own restaurant as well,” he added.

Naomi Henry, president of Muslim Women of Maryland, said that following halal restrictions has been a challenge for all three years she’s lived on the campus. “It’s hard when you live on campus and have no halal options,” she said, adding that the new restaurant will lessen her struggle. “Sometimes you’re forced to become a vegetarian. If I went to the diner, it meant I was either eating a salad bar, a tuna sandwich, or a veggie patty every single day. It’s kind of hard having to eat the same exact thing every day. I don’t even know if it’s necessarily healthy to have no variation.”

Other students, including Henry, said the new restaurant will benefit the entire College Park community, and not just those adhering to halal standards.

Senior Shabnom Khan, a member of the Muslim Students’ Association and an on-campus group called Female Religious Interfaith Endeavor, said there are several parallels in halal and kosher restrictions: Both religions are forbidden from consuming pork and may only eat other meats from animals that were slaughtered humanely.

“It is really too bad for the Jewish community,” said junior philosophy and Jewish studies major Hannah Spiro, a former employee of Pita Plus. “But since halal is stricter with their meat than other restaurants, maybe more lenient Kosher students will be able to eat [at Krazi Kebob].”
But Hillel engagement associate Tetyana Gutsol was less sympathetic.

“This campus is 30 percent Jewish, and this area needs to have a kosher place,” she said. “Sometimes people want a different atmosphere [than Hillel] or somewhere to go when their parents visit.”
Some commented on the irony of the switch.

“I just think it was very interesting that it was a Kosher restaurant and now it’s turning into a place for religious Muslims,” Cantor added.

Hannah Wenger, a mashgiah who oversees kashrut in the Hillel kitchen, said that it would be foolish to take the switch personally.

Junior Omnia Joehar, spokeswoman of the Muslim Women of Maryland, agreed. She said talk of the change reflects a larger issue: “When are Muslims able to do anything and it’s not a controversy anymore? ... They’re not opening up a shop based on Islamic beliefs; it’s just Middle Eastern food,” she said.

Others feel the switch in restaurants was simply a business decision. Pita Plus owner Liora Dahan, declined to comment on the closure.

Jared Barol, a senior Central European studies major who eats meals at Hillel, said the hype surrounding the issue is unnecessary. “We’re all members of the University of Maryland, first and foremost. Differences we put in the way like this will make us fall apart. These are not the biggest issues,” he said.

Hamid said he hopes Krazi Kebob can become a social sport for all students, and that he was attracted to the location because of its close proximity to a diverse campus.“I want to reach out to every community, not just the [Muslim] market,” he said.

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