Students choose personalized housing to meet religious, cultural needs

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While Dor Chavoinik initially moved into a Jewish co-op to cut down on housing costs, living in faith-centered housing has strengthened her religious and cultural identity, providing her with an understanding and accommodating community.

Chavoinik, a senior double major in the College of Natural Resources, resides in the Berkeley Bayit, a nonprofit co-op independent of the campus. Modeled after the Berkeley Student Cooperative, the Berkeley Bayit fosters Jewish learning and leadership while creating a cultural space for the campus community. To Chavoinik, it goes beyond a housing arrangement.

Many students like Chavoinik opt out of campus residence halls in favor of more personalized housing options, even though UC Berkeley offers a number of housing accommodations to religious students.

According to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff, UC Berkeley Housing provides options that include single-gender floors and suites based on religious or cultural beliefs or practices. Additional space for prayer or religious activities, housing locations close to places of worship and semiprivate bathrooms are also available.

“UC Berkeley and Cal Housing value the contributions all students make in our communities, and we seek to provide accessible housing to meet the needs of everyone, including those with specific religious or cultural identity-based requests,” Ratliff said in an email.

A student may receive an email to discuss alternative options if a space is not available that matches the details of their request.

To address religious needs and improve services within UC Berkeley’s residence halls, ASUC Senator Imran Khan is working to establish a South and Southwest Asian and North African, or SSWANA, residence hall theme program. Other such programs exist — including the Native American Theme Program in Unit 1 and the LGBTQ+ Unity House in Unit 3 — and the SSWANA one, Khan hopes, would create a community for another underserved student population on campus.

“It’s important for new students to be able to surround themselves with peers that share similar experiences and have an interest in learning more about each other’s histories,” Khan said in an email.

Providing adequate places for prayer is also a major concern for several campus communities. Ratliff said many residence halls have meeting rooms and lounges that students may reserve for their practice. He also said a faith and meditation room is available at all hours to students in Eshleman Hall.

Sarina Shohet, the president of Interfaith Action Initiative, said the average Muslim student might pray two to three times on campus during the school day. She said the campus must have more designated spaces for prayer to accommodate students at more locations. She is aware of the meditation room, but she said it is often occupied by students using it for studying space.

“If you’re going to be welcoming to all people, it’s one thing to smile and greet them, but it’s another to actually build a space that represents them,” Shohet said.

Hawraa Al Asadi, the president of Thaqalayn Islamic Society, said many students are in need of designated prayer rooms in the residence halls as well. Seeking religious accommodations requires time and effort, which Al Asadi said can distract a student from their studies.

According to Chavoinik, her co-op is successful because it allows for more engagement with Jewish ideas and values.

“It can be difficult in university life to integrate these cultural and religious roots into your life, but housing is a key area in that it doesn’t have to be an ‘extra-curricular’ thing and rather just weaves into the life you are already living,” Chavoinik said in a Facebook message.

Campus housing contracts include meal plans, but some students think dining halls should offer a broader variety of options that accommodate religious- and cultural-based diets. Al Asadi said Cafe 3 offers halal food and vegetarian options, but that the limited choices can make it difficult for students to meet their nutritional needs.

Hanan Sinada, the external vice president of the Muslim Student Association, said in an email that Muslim students cannot eat most of the food offered in the dining halls, which may be cross-contaminated with other dishes or prepared with ingredients that are not halal-certified. She added that it is especially a problem for Muslim freshmen who cannot opt out of the meal plan.

Chavoinik said living in faith-based housing offers many advantages that other living spaces may lack.

“This really is a pluralistic space for people to engage with religion and culture at their own pace and offers a lot of tools to help you along the way,” Chavoinik said in a Facebook message. “For Judaism in particular, certain rules of Kashrut and other dietary and cultural rules can make it extremely difficult to uphold in other living situations, so the Bayit keeps a certain standard to hopefully allow for others to be able to meet their faith needs in this house.”

Ratliff encouraged incoming students who plan to live on campus and are in need of religious or cultural accommodations to complete the housing application and the Accommodations Request Form. The 2019-20 deadline for completion is May 15 for freshmen and June 13 for transfer students.

“We want our new students to have a great experience when they join our campus community,” Ratliff said in an email. “We have an incredibly diverse student community in our housing units, and for students who meet deadlines for housing applications and are flexible with their housing preferences, we attempt to accommodate their preferences.”

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @V_anana.