Aside from soft drinks, there isn't much at your typical college basketball arena that qualifies as kosher. Not the nachos, and certainly not the hot dogs.
"Whenever I went to a game up until now, the only thing I was able to buy was the soda," said Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, a University of Illinois basketball fan who wears a "Jew of I" t-shirt. "You can't bring food from the outside, and there's no place to go."
So what are Jewish hoops fans to do? Starting this week, they can eat like anyone else while watching their favorite team at the State Farm Center.
The university's Chabad Jewish Center, run by Tiechtel, has opened its own stand this season and sells kosher dogs, candy and drinks. Students, Tiechtel and other volunteers will staff the stand most games, though they'll skip Friday nights and Saturday day games for religious reasons.
It appears to be a fairly unique concession among college arenas. The University of Kansas has one at Allen Fieldhouse, but half a dozen Big Ten schools, in response to inquiries by The Associated Press, said they did not have one.
Many pro sports arenas have added kosher food in recent years and some universities have kosher student meal-plan options, said John Lowenstein, vice president of student affairs at the American Jewish Federation in Chicago. But college sports venues would be a nice addition for fans like himself who are accustomed to doing without at games.
"As someone who keeps kosher, you want to go to a ball game and eat and have fun," he said. "It's delightful to be able to get kosher."
About 3,500 of the Urbana-Champaign campus' 43,000 students are Jewish, according to Tiechtel. His brother Zalman Tiechtel, also a rabbi, started the kosher stand last year at the Lawrence, Kan., school, which has a significant Jewish student population.
"We're the trend-setter here — after we do it, everyone will do it!" Dovid Tiechtel said enthusiastically. "I'm getting calls from other campuses on the East Coast saying 'What did you do and how did you arrange it?'"
Tiechtel said they ran a kosher hot dog stand during a U of I football game, and were pleased to have a few Muslims among the customers.
Kosher can be complicated, but, for the hot dog stand's purposes, a handful of restrictions are most important. For instance, meat and milk aren't mixed, so you won't find anything made with cheese or other dairy products. And only animals that have both split hooves and chew cud can be eaten, so pork, the most common type of hot dog, isn't allowed.
The hot dogs sold at the stand come from Romanian Kosher Sausage Co., a well-known Chicago meat producer.
On Sunday, opening night for the basketball stand, student and volunteers worked hard to pull in customers during a sparsely attended game. The pitch, repeated over and over as potential customers wandered by: "Would you like to try the best all-beef hot dog at the State Farm Center?"
"They're excellent, just the taste of them," said Cory Coker, a policeman from nearby who works security at games. "They've got a good taste to them, good crispness, good stuff."
Ryan Baker, a Chicago sports broadcaster, said he heard about the hot dogs after Illini coach John Groce's wife, Allison, bought one.
"People have been raving about it ... she said these were the best at the State Farm Center," Baker said as he waited to give his dog a shot of mustard.
The University of Illinois has agreed to give the stand at least a one-year run. Jennifer Larson, the school's assistant athletic director for sales and marketing, said they want to see if the stand is profitable.
Few opening-night customers turned out to be part of the stand's target market — observant Jews. No surprise there, Tiechtel said.
"For many people a kosher dog is just a better dog," he said. "There are certain parts of the animal we don't use."
Tiechtel sees the kosher stand as an expression of Jewish life and culture. His brothers and sisters run Jewish student centers across the country and abroad — in Florida, Tennessee Arizona, Germany and Kansas — and he says his parents taught them to search for ways to give to others.
As for the hot dog stand idea, that's from the Jayhawk fan in the family.
"I give him credit," Dovid Tiechtel said, "even though he's my younger brother."
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