A May Ball catering truckLouis Ashworth

I spent two years in Cambridge keeping my head down. I never assumed that Cambridge life could be elastic enough to fit the needs of its Jewish students. I didn’t speak up when matriculation clashed with Yom Kippur, something that all freshers seem to go through (Yom Kippur is the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, and involves a 25-hour fast).

I never complained when I couldn’t move up the ranks in my rowing club because of my inability to row on Saturdays. I did not argue when a college fellow joked that, with the influx of Jewish students, our college would become known as ‘that Jewish’ college.

Students hold a certain amount of power in shaping the norms of university life. By standing on JCRs, committees and organising events, we decide whether we uphold or challenge norms.

In my third year, feeling cocky, I decided to see what could change: I petitioned for the inclusion of kosher food options at Trinity May Ball. But the experience was jarring, and I realised that not all students are as supportive as I had expected them to be.

“One of the appeals of May Balls is the incredible food. As a Jewish student, I’m not allowed to experience this”

The reality of a May Ball for many Jews is a desperate attempt to feel normal: to fit in with our friends who bang on about the fun of getting drunk, eating doughnuts, and dancing for the entire night. In reality, May Balls are mostly spent shaking our heads politely when anyone asks us if we’re hungry. We’re famished, thanks, because none of the food is kosher.

Granted, I recognise my immense privilege in being a student who can afford to attend Trinity May Ball, despite the exorbitant prices. Nonetheless, May Balls should cater for all the different types of people in attendance. Indeed, when I attended Trinity May Ball in 2019, there were a bunch of vegan food stalls, a Halal food cart, and a host of gluten-free options. But Kosher was nowhere to be found. May Balls are not just for the old school gang — Jewish students should be catered for, too.

Of course, to the uninitiated, kosher food isn’t easy to track. The food has to be prepared according to rules, detailing preparation, ingredients and utensils. Then again, in the age of the internet, this isn’t difficult to learn. Kosher food could even be ordered in.

Months before the ball, I got in touch with the ball’s presidents to ask if they could provide some kosher food for the Jewish students attending, as there were a fair few, and got a very kind “feel free to bring a sandwich with you” - I’m paraphrasing but not exaggerating.

Unsatisfied, I replied, pointing out that I was paying the same price as everyone else and was surely entitled to some food. After a back-and-forth that took two months and 10 days, 18 emails and two arranged meetings, it was confirmed that I would be supplied with provisions.


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With a designated food officer, it isn’t out-of-line to expect some kosher food options to be offered. Instead, I was asked to spend hours of my time researching kosher options and counting up how many Jewish students planned on attending the ball, and was reprimanded by the ball’s presidents for not responding immediately to their emails on the finer points of a kosher diet. I wasn’t in an official role on the May Ball committee - I complained and the task was lumped on me rather than the committee making an active effort to cater to all of their guests.

They did have some fair points: no one besides me had requested kosher food. However, this was probably because kosher wasn’t even an option on their very long list of dietary requirements on the ticket purchase form.

As a Jewish student who follows a kosher diet, I often don’t like to stick out. Had it been standard practice for kosher to be offered, I would have been only one of many happily ticking the ‘kosher’ box.

I was, in the end, provided with kosher food (terrible, and from the long-life kosher aisle at Sainsbury’s, but at least it was food). This was for some bizarre reason kept outside of the ball, meaning that I had to leave all my friends and the ball itself to snack on some cherry tomatoes and granola bars. A sorry experience.

One of the appeals of May Balls is the incredible food. As a Jewish student, I’m not allowed to experience this. And after three years of dealing with a university refusing to make meaningful concessions to religious requirements, it gets frustrating having to respond to every microaggression with a pleasant smile and willingness to explain everything from scratch, in humiliating detail, yet again. I expect that from the old fuddy-duddies, but not from the students who claim to want change. We can do better.

In a written statement, Wen Tong, Co-President of the ball for 2020 commented that “The First and Third Trinity May Ball 2019 provided Kosher food and wine from an approved source after consultation about what would be appropriate in meeting religious needs - and is feasible at a large-scale outside event - to the one guest who requested such and a Cambridge-based Rabbi.”

They went on to add that “The May Ball Committee is committed to accommodating guests’ dietary requirements (related to religion or allergies, for example) where feasible and when given timely notice.”

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