NEW YORK (JTA) – An animal rights group is calling for a New York state investigation into kapparot, the High Holidays ritual that involves swinging a live chicken over one’s head.
The ceremony is meant to transfer one’s sins to the bird, which is then slaughtered and its meat, or an equivalent monetary amount, is given to the poor.
Instead, the rights group charges, thousands of dead chickens were thrown away in Dumpsters following last year’s ritual in Brooklyn, a violation of Jewish law and a burden on sanitation workers.
It’s the second year in a row that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is objecting to kapparot – also pronounced kapparos – in the New York City borough, but the first year it is focusing on dumping dead birds.
Last summer’s complaint to the state and city was more wide ranging, alleging a variety of health and safety violations as well as animal cruelty.
On Monday, in a letter to the state’s kosher law enforcement division, PETA asks that Rabbi Shea Hecht of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education be investigated for possible consumer fraud at the kapparot center he runs in Crown Heights.
The letter charges that on Sept. 20, 2007, the center discarded thousands of chickens slaughtered after the ceremony, throwing their carcasses into hundreds of trash bags picked up the next day by Greg’s Express.
“These are chickens that consumers expected to be processed for meat that would be distributed as tzedakah,” or charity, it states. “Participants at NCFJE clearly did not expect the chickens they made kapporos with … to be disposed of as trash.”
As the center knew it was selling and killing more chickens than it could process, the complaint continues, its actions constituted deceptive advertising and consumer fraud, as well as a violation of the principle of “ba’al tashchit,” or wasteful, wanton destruction.
A separate letter was submitted to the Kashrus Information Center, an independent association of more than 100 rabbis that monitors kosher affairs in Brooklyn.
Hecht vehemently denies PETA’s allegation.
“To my knowledge I didn’t throw out any chickens last year,” he told JTA. “Last time I checked, in this country we have a right to swing a chicken over our head and give it to the poor to eat. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Rabbi Moshe Weiner, the rabbinic administrator of the information center, said that sites operated by communal organizations such as Hecht’s are well run. Weiner acknowledged problems at unlicensed “fly-by-nights,” but said the situation had significantly improved because of proactive steps taken by area rabbis.
Nevetheless he is taking the situation seriously, he told JTA, and has already called for a meeting of leading rabbis, the state authorities and Hecht to address PETA’s concerns. “If something is wrong we have to clean up our act,” he said. “We are not shrugging it off.”
The recent complaints are based on the work of PETA staffers Hannah and Philip Schein, a married couple who have been documenting what they allege to be health, safety and animal welfare abuses at Brooklyn’s estimated 14 kapparot centers for the past three years. They were chosen because they are Jewish, they say; and both are former Hillel program directors – Hannah at Princeton University and Philip at Syracuse.
Although this year’s letter focused on disposal problems, animal welfare continues to be a concern, the Scheins say. Some centers become overwhelmed by demand and use young men not properly trained in shechting, or kosher slaughter, they say.
“They’re supposed to put the chickens in cones to bleed out,” said Hannah Schein, showing a video the couple shot at one Brooklyn center last year. “These youngsters were just taking them after shechting and putting them in garbage bags.”
Pointing to several Chasidic boys standing in a Dumpster surrounded by chicken carcasses, she asked, “How is this fulfilling my mitzvah of kapparos?”
The Scheins, who live near PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Va., came to light earlier this year as the couple responsible for the first undercover videos of controversial slaughter methods at Agriprocessors, the kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, that is currently at the center of a legal maelstrom.
“Here you can see, in the whole shechting area, they’re piled five to six layers high,” said Philip Schein, walking a reporter through footage he shot at kapparot sites in 2005 and 2006. “Some of them are still alive. There’s blood everywhere. It’s the most unhygienic thing I’ve ever seen.”
Weiner told JTA that “chickens were dumped” at some sites. One site in Flatbush, which did not operate last year, was a notorious violator.
“They slaughtered too many, couldn’t process them, then dumped them in the garbage,” Weiner recalled.
Talking about the unlicensed “fly-by-nights,” he said, “They buy chickens, hire a shochet and have no supervision. It’s true, it got out of hand.” But, Weiner added, things were much better last year.
A week after the PETA complaint was submitted on July 30, 2007, about a dozen leading rabbis met to discuss how to clean up kapparot and clamp down on the worst offenders.
In a letter signed by 27 of their colleagues, the rabbis warned local Jews to patronize only those kapparot centers with rabbinic supervision.
Rabbi Luzer Weiss, the director of the Brooklyn office of the Kosher Law Enforcement Division of the New York State agriculture department, said that every center was told it must have a rabbi on site from the time the chickens arrived early in the morning through the slaughter process to ensure the animals are given food, water and appropriate shelter.
Weiner said at least three centers decided not to open because they did not want to pay for such supervision.
“There were people walking around from place to place, checking,” Weiss said. “Thank God, it went very well.”
Not that well, the Scheins claim. While they did see latex gloves and other indications of health and safety precautions at last year’s kapparot sites, the Scheins said the chicken dumping and other animal welfare issues were as bad as ever.
Weiss said he received no reports of dumping in 2007.
For years, Orthodox groups have warned against sloppy kapparot sites in Brooklyn. In 2001, Kashrus magazine, a watchdog publication for the kosher industry, urged much tighter control over kapparot.
For the past five years, the Kashrus Information Center has warned Jewish consumers about violations it observed at some centers and issued guidelines for correct practice.
The problem is that no one agency of any kind, religious or government, is in charge of overseeing or enforcing kapparot. The Scheins found that out when they submitted their first complaint last year. Each agency passed the buck to the next, they said.
“The power is in the hands of the consumer,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant of the Orthodox Union, one of the rabbis at last year’s August meeting. “The consumer has to say, ‘I will not go to a kapparot center that is not supervised.’ And their rabbi has to tell them not to go.”
In preparation for this year’s kapparot, which will take place Oct. 2-8 throughout the borough, rabbis again are urging the Jewish public to keep its eyes open and telling kapparot centers to obey the law, secular and Jewish.
In its summer issue, Kashrus magazine printed a nine-point guideline for ethical and safe kapparot worked out by the magazine’s publisher, Rabbi Yosef Wikler, in cooperation with kosher slaughter expert Dr. Joe Regenstein of Cornell University.
Weiner worries about bringing the state into the issue.
“It could open up the door for groups like PETA to give trouble to the legal ones,” putting the entire ritual in jeopardy, he said.
That’s OK with the Scheins, who point out that Jewish law allows one to give money to charity instead of swinging a chicken. Today it is primarily Chasidim who still observe the full ritual.
That may be so, Weiner said, “but each community has the right to practice its own customs.”
Nevertheless, he added, it must be done “in a legal and humane way.”