Emotional Struggle as Activists Confront Kapparot Ritual Slaughter

By on September 30, 2013

Activists Confront Kapparot Ritual Slaughter

Activists in Los Angeles and New York hit the streets last month during the annual Jewish holidays to protest the ritual slaughter of chickens for Kapparot. In L.A., members of Faith Action for Animals, headed by Rabbi Jonathan Klein and Gina Palencar, and other local activists spent several days trying to stop the killing and release the chickens. Ultimately California authorities shut down two of the sites for operating slaughterhouses without a license, according to this L.A. Times article. We spoke to Jonathan and Gina about their tactics and this largely unknown annual practice.

For my readers who aren’t aware of the Orthodox Jewish ritual Kapparot, can you talk a little about the ritual? Also, please talk about alternatives to using chickens.

Between the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a period in which Jews atone for their personal shortcomings, there are rituals designed to help the penitent to expiate their sins. One of them, Kapparot, involves waving a living rooster (for men) or a hen (for women) over oneself three times and stating, in Hebrew, “This is my exchange, this is my contribution, this is my atonement. This rooster/hen will go to its death and I will enter into a good, long life and to peace.” The chicken is then slaughtered and the meat given to the poor. Traditionally, a family would utilize their own family chickens and make sure to feed the village poor. The earliest practitioners of this tradition, dating back to the 9th century at latest, utilized a seedling plant; later penitents used chickens, money, or sometimes fish, but killing a chicken for this rite quickly gained popularity, echoing the traditional Yom Kippur reading in which a scapegoat was sent off to the wilderness with the sins of the community.

Interestingly, though, despite the popularity of chickens for Kapparot, the most popular American Orthodox prayerbook for the past twenty years or so, The Artscroll Siddur, offers formulations of the prayer for use with either chickens or money, probably because urbanization of the Jewish community has made proximity to living chickens far more rare.

We set out to provide a money-based alternative to killing chickens for kapparot, in the hope of popularizing it for the Jewish community, and we found two Orthodox Jewish rabbis to lead the ritual alongside Rabbi Klein. We held the Compassionate Kapparot ritual across the street from the site used by one of the most aggressive advertisers of Kapparot with slaughtered chickens.

When you started out on the first night of the protest, did you expect anything like the week you had?

Wow, what a week it was! We had expected that people would be shocked by the battery cages located in the alleyways stuffed with suffering chickens, but we weren’t totally prepared for just how horrified, enraged and emotionally devastated we all would be by the sight, sound, and smell at these killing sites. The unbearable cruelty taking place in this residential neighborhood, sparked by our protest, led to nearly spontaneous protesting by Jewish community members, seasoned animal rights activists, and frustrated neighbors into nightly protests at two sites in walking distance from Pico and Robertson.

The two of us found ourselves embroiled in one of the biggest street fights that the local animal rights movement has seen in a long time, and it was a mere two blocks away from one of our homes. Each evening, we found ourselves also engaged in an effort to rescue as many chickens as we could, and that fueled our commitment to see this through the end of the week. In the end, in addition to boisterous protest and capturing damning video at the two sites, we rescued about 63 chickens with the help of fellow activists. Needless to say, by Friday, we were completely exhausted.

Please talk about what you witnessed, and any emotions you experienced being amidst such cruelty.

Every day, we walked by cage after cage of emaciated, injured chickens. Many of us had never actually seen battery cages before, so we trembled at the hellish and heartbreaking conditions these chickens were experiencing before their deaths. Hundreds of them, cramped into tight spaces, six layers high, the ones on top urinating, defecating, and laying eggs out of stress upon those below. Many of the chickens were covered with blood, possibly prior to being placed in the cage.

Meanwhile, these cages were in plain sight, in the alleyway behind the killing site. Part of our emotional struggle that week derived from knowing that these chickens were right in front of us, destined for death, and yet we could do little to stop the massacre. At times, we imagined simply opening all the cages and pulling these chickens to their freedom — and there isn’t a day that goes by for any of us, without our wishing we had — but in doing so we would have seriously risked our ability to crush this industry in the future and save countless more.

What sorts of reactions did you get from the Pico Jewish community and neighbors? How did you respond to the numerous criticisms that animal rights activists are just anti-Semitic, and don’t actually care about the chickens or religious freedom?

There was almost universal outrage by neighbors at the misery inflicted on these chickens by the Kapparot profiteers. We saw so many neighbors come out from their homes and stop by our protests. Many expressed deep appreciation for our presence there, and we collected emails and phone numbers throughout the week. It is our belief, and our hope, that these neighbors will ultimately help to bring an end to this practice.

Some Orthodox Jews who were present questioned our focus on this issue, reminding us that millions of chickens are mercilessly killed by KFC and other fast food chains, but even they would add disclaimers like, “Well, while I don’t personally use chickens for Kapparot…” Many Orthodox Jews, especially younger Iranians outside the synagogue doing the ritual, seemed embarrassed by the practice, knowing that they were defending a totally unnecessary, barbaric act of cruelty, yet feeling unable to outright reject a tradition dating back centuries and still practiced by the elders in their community.

The standard charge of anti-Semitism was, predictably, leveled against our efforts. The slaughterers have also alleged that one activist made an off-color remark, though no one can confirm that. Nevertheless, the charge is making its rounds in the Jewish Journal and other publications, as well as a straight-out lie that people shoved older Jewish community members. However, the presence of Jewish leaders in the effort has made such charges ring hollow.

How many chickens were you able to liberate? Can you talk a bit about where they went to live?

We know of 63 chickens liberated by our effort. In the first few nights they were housed and cared for by activists in our group. By midweek, we got a tremendous response from the rescue and sanctuary communities who showed up each night prepared to transport dozens of chickens to permanent homes. One sanctuary drove over six hours to be there when the chickens were rescued. Some activists also drove hours to get them to safe destinations.

I am told the city already bans ritual animal sacrifice. How are these groups able to get away with this in the first place?

Beats us! So many activists and neighbors called numerous city agencies, as well as the office of L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, to try and get them to do something. Only after a week of protests, and the coverage we got in L.A. Times, did the California Department of Food and Agriculture shut them down. Before the shut-down, LAPD stood by as the slaughter machine was in full operation, even as we cited the L.A. Municipal Code that should have stopped them. We wonder why city agencies kept pointing us in different directions and refused to listen to the outcry of resident after resident and activist after activist. No one, from the state on down to the city, was doing their job. This is part of the follow-up work we must do. We do know that the Kapparot businesses kept lying to their very own consumers, telling them that the chickens would feed the poor; it’s possible that this lie enabled them to stay in operation.

Yes, the media reported over and over that the murdered chickens would be used to feed the poor. However some witnesses said their bodies were dumped in the trash. Was there any evidence of these anonymous poor people getting a chicken dinner?

Almost none; there may have been ten chickens out of an estimated 5000 slaughtered birds that made their way to a food pantry or homeless shelter. The monsters at one site asked Rabbi Klein to videotape a bucket with ice containing what looked like food-quality chickens. Moreover, they posted signs saying that they were donating these chickens to the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.

But the whole thing was a sham. Three days later, we took pictures and captured video of whole chicken carcasses falling out of bags that had ripped as they were being dragged from the alleyway into one slaughter site. When the operators of that site panicked and attempted to move the remaining bags out of our site, a few additional bags ripped open revealing more whole chickens. The next day, we captured more video of these bags being tossed onto a white pickup truck, to be dumped at an undisclosed site. There is PLENTY OF EVIDENCE that these people are lying to the Jewish community, they are lying to city agencies, and they are lying to the public as a whole about their disposal of thousands of murdered chickens. Meanwhile, there is no evidence that anyone took these chickens to feed the poor. No one ever presented any proof, to us or the media, that that actually happened.

These hens appeared to be white leghorns, kept in battery cages and used for egg-laying, until their value as production units declined and they were sold for sacrifice. These chickens are not the same as the so-called “broiler chickens” raised for meat. In fact these hens have very little flesh on their osteoporotic bodies. I mention this to further suggest their story about using these hens for food is untrue. Was there any discussion of this in the media or with authorities? Do you know where the chickens came from?

We have the name of the farm that was delivering many of the chickens. We have come to realize that while the ritual calls for hens for women and roosters for men, we believe they are almost exclusively using hens because they are able to access cheap spent hens that are past their egg-laying prime. They probably cost no more than a dollar a hen because they are “spent” and without monetary value to farms; meanwhile, they charge $18 or even $26 per chicken to do the ritual.

What are your plans for trying to stop this cruel ritual next year? For example, will you be seeking a ban through the city council?

Right now, we are determining the best steps forward. We know that the vast majority of the Kapparot sites, if not all of them, are in Councilmember Paul Koretz’s district, so we will certainly push him to do what he can to stop this awful custom that has a long tradition of detractors even from within the Orthodox community. We are looking closely at the legal issues and are determining if the city ignored its requirement to halt animal sacrifice, as well as other legal hooks. We also hope to show the most damaging video to influential Jewish community members to make the point that there has been a proliferation of this cruel practice within the last twenty years, and that it is entirely antithetical to Jewish laws against animal cruelty, wanton waste, and so much more. If we cannot win legally or legislatively, we hope to at the very least curb the practice by applying pressure from within the Jewish community. One way or another, we vow to do everything we can to end Kapparot with chickens in Los Angeles.

How can my readers support you?

Great question. One quick step forward is to sign the online petition,

http://www.change.org/petitions/city-of-los-angeles-enforce-the-code-banning-kapparot-ritual-animal-abuse. When the time is right, decision-makers will need to hear from us. We will want community members, especially Los Angeles residents, to speak at hearings or provide eyewitness accounts of the cruelty imposed by this industry of death.

This effort has taken off so quickly that we do not yet have a 501(c)3 nonprofit status. However, if anyone would like to make a contribution to our efforts, we would like to hear from them. They can email us at faithactionforanimals@gmail.com. We will find a fiscal sponsor to enable the contribution to work toward ending the killing of chickens for Kapparot.

Finally, your readers can stay in touch with us by joining our Facebook page. We will keep people updated on the campaign there.

We are so thankful for the opportunity to share this campaign with your readers, Gary and Kezia. We hope that within a year, the fight for these birds will end and we will be able to report an outright victory in the fight for compassion for all creatures. Thanks again!

For another firsthand account of the Kapparot protests, please see Kara Kapelnikova’s excellent story here “Kapparot With Chickens: On Ritual Slaughter and Human Greed.”