DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — The menu at Yalla is as Middle Eastern as it gets: hummus, falafel, shawarma — in a pita, a bowl or on a plate.
This food truck on a concrete patch beside a grassy lawn, a close walk from the Duke University dining hall, is the campus’s latest interfaith venture. Earlier this semester, it began serving food that meets the most stringent dietary needs of two constituencies: Jews and Muslims. The food is both certified kosher and halal.
Yalla, from the Arabic word “hurry,” commonly uttered by Hebrew speakers as well, is a proactive attempt to build bridges among students of both faiths at a time of growing tensions, mostly over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We want to push Jewish and Muslim students to get together,” said Rabbi Nossen Fellig, a Chabad leader on campus who came up with the food truck concept alongside a Muslim colleague, Abdullah Antepli, a professor of the practice of interfaith relations.
On campuses nationwide, tensions around Israeli-Palestinian conflict are boiling over.
In August, nine law school affinity groups at the University of California, Berkeley, voted to adopt bylaws banning campus speakers who support Zionism or “the occupation of Palestine.”
Last semester, a staff editorial at The Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, expressed support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Later, several pro-Palestinian students and activists were doxxed by pro-Israel groups.
Duke, too, is no stranger to these hyperbolic clashes.
Last semester, a controversy erupted over a $16,000 fee to three pro-Palestinian speakers, one of whom has made virulently antisemitic statements. A newer group on campus, Students Supporting Israel, last month hosted a controversial pro-Israel Palestinian human rights lawyer.
The food truck is, in part, an effort to find common ground.
“I thought, we’re going to do a kosher food truck, why not add halal?” said Antepli, who earlier in his career served as a Muslim chaplain on campus. “Let’s bring Jewish and Muslim students together over food and culture.”
So far, fewer Muslim students have eaten at the Yalla food truck.
One who did, Hana Hendi, treasurer of the Muslim Students Association, said she liked it. Hendi ordered a chicken shawarma at the food truck, which she said was heavy on the hummus but otherwise very tasty.
“It was a kind of fusion of Middle Eastern and an American way of consumption,” Hendi said. “It was very good.”
Jewish students who eat kosher have few options on campus. The Freeman Center for Jewish Life has a kosher cafe, and the Fleishman Chabad House’s free Friday night dinners are popular with many students. But neither is on the main campus.
Muslim students do not have a halal cafe, though chicken entrees in the main Duke dining hall are, with few exceptions (boneless wings and chicken tenders), halal certified.
Islamic dietary law requires that chicken and beef be ritually slaughtered. So does Jewish dietary law, though the requirements are not identical. Kosher dietary laws are more elaborate and include a ban on mixing meat and dairy products. Both Jewish and Muslim dietary laws forbid cooking or consuming pork.
Providing kosher meals is especially important for the Hasidic group, Chabad. Fellig, who serves Duke’s nearly 1,600 Jewish students, both undergraduate and graduate, has long wanted to provide ongoing kosher dining, not just the Friday night meals he and his wife host at the Fleishman House Chabad.
For a while, Fellig thought he might get Duke to provide a kosher station in its dining hall. When that didn’t work out, Jewish donors came together with the idea to buy a food truck, which cost upward of $200,000. Staffing it with a full-time kosher supervisor who inspects the food operations is not cheap.
“We’re here to provide a service to the community,” said Fellig. “We didn’t open to make money. But I’m hopeful we’ll cover our costs.”
Several other university Chabads have experimented with kosher food trucks, including Vanderbilt University, George Washington University and the State University of New York at Oneonta.
None is halal certified as well.
Antepli oversees the halal compliance, though generally, he said, anything that is kosher is also acceptable in terms of halal meats. Fellig said he strictly bans any alcohol on the truck, in keeping with Muslim tradition. (When the cook wanted to introduce a chocolate ball dessert item, Fellig quashed the idea since the recipe called for rum.)
Alexandra Ahdoot, a sophomore who is president of Students Supporting Israel, stood in line for lunch a few weeks ago.
“There aren’t many options to have during the week that also include meat,” she said. “This is definitely great food and I’m very happy it’s here. It’s also halal so it opens the door for more students to come.”