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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Fair
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Are UW's kosher kitchens, er, kosher?
Food service worker says they amount to an endorsement of religion

Carlos Gonzales: 'This is basically religion in the workplace.'
Carlos Gonzales: 'This is basically religion in the workplace.'
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Carlos Gonzales is not anti-Jewish, or even anti-religious. He just doesn't approve of "religious figures supervising state employees." And that's exactly what he thinks is happening at the UW-Madison.

Gonzales, 50, has worked for two years as a cook at Pop's Club, a residence dining hall in Gordon Commons, on the UW-Madison campus. Recently, the kitchen began preparing a weekly meal for Hillel Foundation, which is building a new campus facility. And this, he says, has caused some faith-based disruption.

"Any surface that food is going to come in contact with has to be covered in foil," he explains. "Any package you open has to be used right away. It can't be later used for a kosher meal." If Pop's convection oven is needed for the Hillel meal, it can't be used for student meals beforehand.

"This is basically religion in the workplace," says Gonzales, noting that many rules observed in kosher cooking are not necessary for food safety or health-code compliance. Plus Hillel members use religious texts - put in place, says Gonzales, by kitchen staff.

Gonzales would "like to know why students can't erect a Christmas tree in the dining hall" - he says it's come up - "yet we can prepare this kosher meal and serve it to a group that's holding a religious service in our building." His objections "would be just as strong if the Lutherans were in there praying over coffee and donuts."

Greg Steinberger, Hillel director, says his group brings in prayer books for these dinners, but that's no different from other groups that rent UW space for religious purposes. Hillel's fee for the food covers its use of the room.

The UW-Madison also runs a kosher kitchen within Rheta's, a cafeteria-style restaurant in Chadbourne Hall. Here the preparation of food is overseen by a mashgiach, Chonnie Perlow.

A mashgiach is someone trained in preparing kosher meals and certified by the Chicago Rabbinical Counsel. According to a UW-Madison handout on its kosher kitchen, a mashgiach "is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, or a person appointed or approved by such a rabbi."

Perlow, who is not a rabbi, says no prayers or blessings are involved in preparing kosher food, which is also favored by some Muslims and vegans. Pork and dairy products are not used, and vegetarian offerings are purely vegetarian. Besides, says Perlow, "Lots of people purchase kosher for its cleanliness."

Perlow's UW salary is $40,403. A second mashgiach position is now vacant, with a starting salary of "between $34,253 and $56,520." Gonzales, who calls mashgichims "state employees hired for a specific religious purpose," says most food service workers make much less even with overtime.

"I think the university has some explaining to do," says Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. "I find it hard to believe that the student body has so many orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews that it requires two full [mashgichims]. Most Jews in this country are reform, aren't they?"

Paul Evans, director of University Housing, says mashgichims are hired for "a set of qualifications," not unlike a person who must be bilingual to work as an interpreter. Two mishgichims are needed to offer both lunch and dinner, and so one can cover for the other. And the housing division's budget comes entirely from residence hall fees and meal charges: "We receive no state tax dollars, federal dollars or seg fees."

Kosher kitchens are not uncommon among major universities, says Evans, although the UW-Madison is the only state school to have one.

"Why wouldn't a world-renown university that wants to attract a diverse population not be serving the dietary needs of its students?" he asks. "It's certainly not a religious purpose."

On a recent evening, Rheta's kosher station was only sparsely visited; Evans says the operation, which opened last November, "doesn't pay for itself and never has." But the university feels it's worth it to offer students (and anyone else who wants to eat there) this culinary option. Steinberger agrees: "I think it's a great statement on multiculturalism."

The separation of pagans and pizza

Aldous Tyler has nothing but good things to say about Glass Nickel, whose west-side outlet last year sold pizza and distributed flyers for Pagan Pride Day, an annual celebration of all things pagan.

"I'm glad they supported the event," says Tyler, one of the organizers. "But this year, they just said they can't do it." He suspects that someone complained.

He's right. "Some of our employees were uncomfortable when they saw the flyers," says Noel Johnson, the outlet's business operations coordinator. So was owner Neil Spath, who according to Johnson "strongly believes in the separation of church and pizza" and halted the distribution of flyers. Johnson admits Tyler was not told about this: "We were not upfront about this to him at the time."

Johnson (a former Isthmus employee) says her Glass Nickel outlet has a policy of religious neutrality so as not to alienate employees or customers. "It's not like we refused to serve pagans. We were happy to be a vendor at this event. It was the sponsorship that was the issue." She adds, "I have attended a pagan solstice celebration myself, and have nothing against pagans."

Who does? The Madison Area Pagan Pride Day, now in its 11th year, attracted more than 600 guests in 2007. This year's event, on Saturday, Sept. 27, at Lakeview Park in Middleton, will include a pagan fashion show, workshops on topics like ritual drumming, collections of food, clothes, and toiletries for local charities, and even what Tyler jokingly calls a "blood sacrifice": a drive to sign up donors to the Red Cross.

"The idea is to reach out to the general community and let others see for themselves what we're all about," says Tyler. And yes, there will be food: Milio's sandwiches will be sold at the event.

Welcoming a new arrival

In early June, seven weeks after Barbara Bolan moved to Madison (from California) and bought a home, her sewer backed up. Yuck. She called a contractor, who determined it was all the city's fault, for failing to reconnect her sewer after some repair work.

You see where this is going, right? Plodding bureaucrats, frustrated homeowner?

It sure looked that way. The city initially offered to pay just over $500 of Bolan's costs, which totaled $5,500, saying the contractor should have more readily diagnosed the problem. Bolan asked the city to talk to the contractor.

The city said this was not its problem, right?

Nope, the call was made, just as she asked. Even the contractor, though not pleased, was "very professional," says Bolan. There was a subsequent meeting between the contractor and city officials, which did not go well.

Time to panic, right? You'd think. But Bolan didn't. She kept her cool, hoping things would work out.

They did. In short order, the city and contractor reached an agreement; the city would pay about 75% of the cost, and the contractor would forgive the rest. The ordeal would not cost Bolan a thing.

"I was treated with respect and ultimately everybody stepped up to the plate and took responsibility," says Bolan. "I was never left hanging or mistreated. I came away with a positive impression of Madison and the people who work on its behalf."

Here's the funny thing: Isthmus heard about the story from a city employee who was unaware of the happy ending, and saw it as an example of how shabbily the city treats its citizens. No such luck.

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