To put it mildly, kosher tailgates are not common outside of Tennessee Vols games in Knoxville, Tenn., since every home game for at least a decade has taken place on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest.

But this past Sunday, as many as 300 fans from as far as Atlanta joined together to nosh on kosher fare, don tefillin and celebrate their Jewish identity outside of Neyland Stadium.

“It all began at a Shabbat meal with our dear friends, Jonathan and Stephanie Klein,” explains Rabbi Aryeh Perlstein, who assists at Chabad of Knoxville. “They mentioned over challah and gefilte fish that the Vols first home game was going to be played on Sunday, and Knoxville’s first-ever kosher tailgate was born. People got really excited. Football is really big here, and people have wanted to invite Rabbi [Yossi] Wilhem [director of Chabad of Knoxville] to a game since he and his wife, Miriam Esther, moved here in 2001. This is the first time in at least a decade when the Vols were playing on Sunday, so we jumped at the opportunity.”

Perlstein and Wilhelm quickly began gearing up for a kosher tailgating event at the stadium. As word spread, Chabad of Chattanooga joined the fray, as did the local Hillel House.

In addition to serving up copious quantities of kosher chicken legs, hamburgers, condiments, salads and potato kugel, the rabbis used the opportunity to spread awareness of kashrut and Shabbat observances.

Wilhelm says people were surprised to learn just how many commercial snacks are kosher in the United States. Using a specially prepared “Snack Kosher” brochure, he was able to educate visitors to the tailgate tent on the many options available to the kosher consumer.

“There were alumni from all over the country who came, and they were just shocked and delighted to see a Jewish, kosher presence at the game,” says Perlstein.

After close to eight hours of nonstop schmoozing before the 6 p.m. kickoff, a group of 23 young people from Chabad’s young-adult program joined the more than 100,000 fans in the stadium for the game, which Perlstein says was his first college football experience.

To the delight of home fans, the Vols crushed Utah State, 38-7.

“Sure, it was fun for me,” he concedes, “but more than that, this day will be memorable for many others in the community for years to come.”

Pre-game fun and entertainment for Jewish Vols fans.
Pre-game fun and entertainment for Jewish Vols fans.
A University of Tennessee student puts on tefillin before the game.
A University of Tennessee student puts on tefillin before the game.