Edith Einhorn couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her granddaughter, who co-directs a Jewish Student Center on England’s South Coast, would be doing the unthinkable: Making a Friday night meal without meat, or eggs, or any animal product of any kind.

“What? No gefilte fish? No chicken soup? Challah without eggs?” exclaimed the incredulous grandmother, who lives in Israel. “No kugel? No matza balls?!”

But according to students, the first-ever vegan Shabbat at the Brighton home of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman and Shterna Lewis went off this past weekend without a hitch, Einhorn’s protestations notwithstanding.

Dubbed by some as the “San Francisco of Britain,” the seaside town of Brighton is renowned for its liberal, laidback atmosphere. It’s a haven for vegetarians and vegans – who shun all manner of fish, meat, dairy and egg products – boasting more than 50 establishments that cater to the community, from restaurants and cafes to pubs, specialist retailers and even a hotel.

And for kosher food of the vegetarian and vegan variety, more and more people are turning to the Lewises and their Chabad on Campus of South Coast, which serves the University of Sussex and schools from Canterbury to Southampton.

“Vegetarianism and veganism is probably accepted here more than anywhere in the United Kingdom,” attested Zalman Lewis, “perhaps even more than anywhere else in Europe.”

Every week, the Chabad House hosts Shabbat meals for between 15 and 30 students, who each have varying dietary requirements.

“Up to a quarter or more of our guests each week are vegetarians or vegans,” estimated Lewis, who makes sure that everyone has enough to eat.

Jewish law states that in order to ensure the proper Shabbat atmosphere, a person should enjoy their food. In that light, there is no explicit requirement that people eat meat or fish if to do so would cause displeasure.

Challenging Menu

Robin Bagon, a student who swore off meat at the age of 16 and gave up all animal products three years ago, moved to Brighton for its vegan-friendly culture.

“Brighton isn’t a bad place at all to be vegan,” said Robin, who attended last week’s Shabbat dinner. “I usually have my own Friday night meal. Most of the time, it’s vegetarian, whether at my house or with other friends. And when I go to Zalman and Shterna’s, they’re accommodating in terms of providing a vegetarian or vegan option.”

“We usually have a vegetable soup as an alternative to chicken soup and we have soya or tofu products for the main course,” said Shterna Lewis.

Still, to make an entirely vegan Friday night dinner can pose some challenges, especially for those accustomed to the traditional fare of gefilte fish, chicken soup and schnitzel. Even challah, kugel and matzah balls typically contain eggs.

But after consultations with their students, the Lewises decided to rise to the challenge as a way to expand their offerings for Jews of all stripes. The right moment came last week, after back-to-back Lag B’Omer barbeques showcasing grilled meats.

“After hosting the barbeques, it was unanimously decided to hold a vegan Friday night meal the next Shabbat,” said Zalman Lewis.

The “post-Lag B’Omer detox” also happened to coincide with the United Kingdom’s National Vegetarian Week, which the Vegetarian Society established in 1992 to promote meat-free cuisine.

The rabbi said that the lack of meat wasn’t a problem.

“But we had to get over the idea of not being able to use any eggs,” he said.

“Instead of regular challah,” stated Shterna Lewis, “I baked a water challah that was as good as any other. We ate it with plenty of hummus, chickpea salad, potato salad and lettuce salad in place of the usual fish course.”

The dinner progressed with zucchini soup filling in for the chicken-based variety. The soup was followed by rice, mushroom knish, roasted vegetables and tomato salad. An egg-free apple crisp was served as dessert.

“I think it was easier than making a regular Friday night meal,” reported Lewis.

Bagon left thrilled, and full.

“My veganism doesn’t clash with my Judaism,” he asserted. “In fact, the Garden of Eden was a vegetarian paradise; no one was permitted to eat meat until after the flood.

“The vegan night was great. The food was brilliant,” continued Bagon. “I felt the night brought us one step closer to bringing in the Messianic era.”

Zalman Lewis might not have had such a spiritual reaction to the meat-free dining, but he said that they want students to feel that the Chabad House is a home away from home.

“We’ll have to wait for Moshiach to come to discover what our diet will be,” he quipped. “For the time being, we’re planning our next meaty barbeque. But we decided we’ll do something like this on a regular basis.”