SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. -- Sehr Karim never expected to sit across the dinner table from a student with the religious background of Melissa Simon. Karim is a devout Muslim from United Arab Emirates, while Simon is a religious Jew from Boston.
But they are among many Muslims and Jews at Mount Holyoke College who have been breaking bread at a unique college dining hall that opened two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A main topic of conversation has been the tenets of Islam and how it differs from the hateful dogma preached by Osama bin Laden.
"Where I live, there aren't any Jewish people," Karim said. "It's unbelievable to me that we can share a meal together."
The dining is possible because the hall serves dishes in accordance with Jewish rules that define kosher food and with Islamic dietary laws, known as halal.
'Kosher and halal go hand-in-hand. If you're going to have a kosher kitchen, you may as well have a halal kitchen as well.' -- David Newlove Assistant director of dining services at Dartmouth College
While kosher and halal food is increasingly available on college campuses across the country, Mount Holyoke administrators say their kitchen is one of the few that cooks and serves meals that meet both religions' requirements every day.
"This place has been an important facilitator on campus for good talks about religion and beliefs," said Simon. "I think a lot of understanding and tolerance has grown out of just sitting down and eating together."
Until the new dining hall opened, students like Karim and Simon didn't know how much their dietary needs had in common.
"Kosher and halal go hand-in-hand," said David Newlove, assistant director of dining services at Dartmouth College, where a kosher and halal dining hall will open next month. "If you're going to have a kosher kitchen, you may as well have a halal kitchen as well."
Both Islam and Judaism prohibit eating pork and require animals to be slaughtered in a particular way. While halal meat is not automatically considered kosher, all kosher meat can be eaten by Muslims.
While some meals -- such as matzoh ball soup and dahl, a lentil soup -- draw on Jewish and Islamic cultures, most of the food isn't that different from what's offered at the 17 other dining halls on campus.
Meat and dairy courses are offered on rotating days, and pasta dominates the menu. Pizza is another favorite, as are fish sandwiches, which can be eaten with dairy under kosher laws.
The cost of meals is included in students' regular meal plans.
The idea for the dining hall came in 1999, when Jewish students approached the administration about having a place to eat that would comply with their religious practices.
"As we were talking about the idea of a kosher kitchen, we realized there were similar concerns coming from our Muslim students," said Beverly Tatum, dean of the college.
The kitchen in an existing dining hall was reconstructed and furnished with all new equipment, including separate storage and preparation areas for meat and dairy. Dishes and utensils are color-coded to ensure they're not used with the wrong kind of food.
All that effort appears to have paid off. The dining hall has become a popular place to eat, and not just among the 85 Jews and 100 Muslims attending the women's college.
"I think the food just tastes better than it does in the other dining halls," said Klara Ernemo, a junior from Sweden.
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