On Friday nights at Williams College, the Jewish Religious Center — a distinctive white building topped with a ziggurat pyramid — welcomes in Shabbat with student-led services in the sanctuary followed by dinner served family-style in the dining room.
Up to 100 students of all backgrounds gather around communal tables topped with purple tablecloths for a festive meal prepared by all-student kitchen crews. And every week a different student collective helps with the cooking.
Since fall, participating organizations have included Chinese, South Asian and West African students; Muslims and Catholics; cyclists and rugby players; Gospel Choir singers, freshman girls and newspaper staff from the Williams Record. Jewish Association board members help often, as do some students who come just for the joy of cooking.
Group organizers choose the menu, with familiar dishes like salmon, beef chili and brisket, and multicultural recipes such as Harira, a Moroccan soup that traditionally breaks the Ramadan fast; Sichuan Mapo Tofu; West African Jollof Rice; and Middle Eastern Shakshuka, made from tomatoes and eggs. There's always room for dessert, including chocolate mousse, banana bread, fried doughnuts and brownies.
On a recent Friday, space is tight for a half dozen students — many from the rugby team — around a counter island. In this kosher kitchen, one side bustles with activity while the other remains empty, as dedicated areas are assigned to prepare either meat or dairy dishes. New cooks are taught how to follow these "kashrut" laws.
A young man browns breaded eggplant in a skillet, transferring slices carefully to a tray and brushing them with zesty lemon and garlic sauce. Another wraps challah bread loaves in foil, ready for warming; later they will rest under colorful ceremonial cloths embellished with beadwork and gold embroidery. A bowl of cucumber chopped the night before will be added to a quinoa salad.
Newly-appointed kitchen director Molly Berenbaum walks over to a pantry well-stocked with kosher food staples, along with special items left over from the recent Passover, when observant Jewish students prepare their meals at the Center due to the holiday's unleavened dietary restrictions.
Minnesotan Alvin Pacheco-Omana is new to Williams and to playing rugby but has already volunteered twice in the Jewish Center kitchen.
"I'm not much of a cooker, I'm more of an eater," he said, "but they threw me in and I learned pretty quickly what they wanted." His confidence frying eggplant confirmed that fact. "Now I know how to do that," he said of his new skill.
"He's a rock star," added Berenbaum, appreciatively.
Freshman Nicholas Sommer from Boston is an old hand at rugby and also cooked last fall. "It was a really positive experience," he said. At home, he likes to prepare pizza with his brother every Tuesday and bake cakes and cookies.
"Any organizations on campus should be helping out each other when they can," said third-time rugby volunteer Patrick Postec, who traveled from France to Williams for a liberal arts education. While happy to build on past cooking experience, he found the kosher rules of separating meat and dairy "a bit of a culture shock," he said, as Brittany cuisine "is all about butter."
Back home in Denver, Berenbaum cooks with her grandmother and considers preparing kosher food for large numbers of people a great skill to learn. "It's every Jewish grandmother's dream," she said, "I put my own family's spin on the latke recipes whenever I can."
While dinner attendance varies from week to week, nothing is wasted, she said, as leftovers from quieter nights are served for lunch the next day. Her dorm mates certainly appreciate the extra desserts she brings back to share.
The weekly dinner is not the only use of the kitchen facilities. "[There's] an organization called `Challah for Hunger,'" Berenbaum said, "and every few months we bake fresh challah and sell it for a suggested donation of $3 each, and then donate the proceeds to hunger organizations." Not surprisingly, the individual-sized braided loaves, some flavored with chocolate chips or cinnamon, sell out quickly.
"[Shabbat dinner] is a real opportunity for students to come together, to share community and a cooked meal," said Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Seth Wax, his 1-year-old daughter Mia in his arms. "We have a lot of Jewish students, a lot of non-Jewish students, a real variety. Sometimes, faculty and staff will come. It's a wonderful way to build community on campus, and a really focal moment for a lot of students."