FALLS VILLAGE, Conn. (JTA) – It’s 9 o’clock on a foggy morning in late September, and two dozen young Jews have gathered in a field to watch nine goats get shechted – slaughtered according to Jewish law.
Most are fellows in the three-month Adamah Jewish environmental leadership training program at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center studying the connections among Jewish values, organic farming and sustainable living.
They line up quietly about 20 feet away from a wooden bench where the goats will be led out. One sprinkles hay underneath the bench to absorb the blood. He will cover the spot with fresh hay after each slaughter in accordance with tzar ba’alei hayyim, the Jewish commandment to show kindness to animals, which this group interprets to include not letting animals see the blood of those slaughtered before them.
“I’ve been a vegetarian for seven years, but I’m not against people eating meat,” says 24-year-old Ashley Greenspoon of Toronto, who admits to being a “little nervous” about watching the slaughter. “It’s a part of our reality, and I think it’s very important for us to face it. So long as there is going to be meat-eating in the world, we need to take responsibility and do it in a respectful way that honors life.”
At the heart of the Adamah program, and of eco-kashrut in general, is an emphasis on providing for one’s own food needs as a counterbalance to large-scale industrial food production. That’s not too difficult with fruits and vegetables: All that’s needed is a backyard garden and a farmers market.
Providing kosher meat outside the slaughterhouse system is much more complicated. Few American Jews are willing and able to kill their own animals.
In the past two years, however, a handful of young Jewish food activists have been spurred to action by the eco-food movement and the charges against Agriprocessors, the company that runs the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.
Agriprocessors faces charges of labor violations at its plant in Postville, Iowa, and has been the subject of numerous allegations of inhumane treatment of animals.
Inspired by similar initiatives in the non-kosher food world, activists have begun organizing their own kosher meat and poultry operations using humanely raised and killed animals. They say it feels right from the perspective of both food ethics and Jewish values.
“I started to care a lot about where my family’s food came from,” says Maya Shetreat-Klein, a Bronx, N.Y., pediatric neurologist who in August launched Mitzvah Meat, a cooperative for grass-fed, humanely raised and slaughtered kosher lamb and beef.
“I would go to my CSA” – shorthand for center for Community Supported Agriculture – “and I would see everyone picking up their naturally raised grain-fed meat, and there was none for the kosher folks,” she says. “So I said to a kosher friend of mine, why can’t we do that?”
Shetreat-Klein’s is the third such operation in the United States. The largest is Kol Foods, a kosher beef and lamb business run by Devora Kimelman-Block of Silver Spring, Md., which might soon launch a West Coast affiliate. A much smaller initiative, the Brooklyn-based Kosher Conscience, provides kosher turkeys at Thanksgiving.
The goats slaughtered in Connecticut on the September morning come from the flock of 31-year-old Aitan Mizrahi, who has been raising goats for meat and dairy at Isabella Freedman since 2006. He provided three goats that were slaughtered and cooked at the Hazon Jewish food conference last December, setting Jewish food blogs atwitter with postings for and against.
For Mizrahi, there is no controversy.
“There’s an excitement about eating what you grow, realizing that you can live a happy and healthy life by providing the majority of your own food,” he says. “Knowing the animal you are eating, you tend to eat less. You eat slower. Being an omnivore is your choice, and being able to do that in a respectful and humane way is valuable.”
The goats on this morning are all male – the females are kept for milking. Six have been purchased by three young men from New York – two Jewish food activists and an Orthodox rabbinical student. They’ll take home the kosher forequarters, about 20 pounds per animal. The hindquarters, traditionally not sold as kosher because of forbidden fats and sinews, will be given to non-Jewish friends.
The other three goats will go to the Adamah fellows, who will butcher and cook the kosher portions.
The shochet, Rabbi Shalom Kantor, stands off to the side of the whispering group of fellows, sharpening his halaf – the ritual slaughtering knife. Kantor, who works as the Hillel rabbi at Binghamton University in New York, is the only known Conservative shochet in North America.
Although he trained with an Orthodox shochet in Israel, his Conservative ordination means the animals he kills are not certified by any kosher supervising agency. Kantor says he does this because he wants to help Jews take responsibility for the meat they eat.
“There’s a piece of me that thinks that a Jew who can’t participate at least to some degree in the processing of an animal shouldn’t necessarily eat that animal,” says Kantor, who grew up hunting and fishing in Sun Valley, Idaho. “Some people say the only meat they’ll eat is a skinless, boneless chicken breast. Maybe God and our tradition call upon us to be more involved in our eating.”
The first goat, a large black-and-white animal, is led to the bench and flipped quickly on its back. Two people hold the goat’s legs, one of them stroking its flank to calm it, while a third holds its head backwards with its neck stretched out. Kantor steps in quickly, says the blessing for shechita and makes a quick back-and-forth cut across the goat’s neck, severing its trachea and windpipe in a single motion.
Bright red blood spurts out, drenching the shirt and pants of the young man holding the goat’s head. The animal jerks for about 10 seconds, and several of the Adamah fellows gasp and hug their neighbors. A few cry softly.
When the animal stops struggling, those holding the animal pick it up and lay it down gently in a bed of hay beside the bench. Soon they tie ropes around its hind legs and hang it from hooks in an open-walled shed. Kantor trades in his halaf for a kitchen knife to demonstrate skinning, which the others quickly learn to do, and kosher evisceration, which only he, the shochet, may do.
It takes about six hours to kill, skin and eviscerate all nine goats. Later that afternoon and well into the evening, Kantor and the three men who teamed up to buy the meat will soak and salt the kosher parts of the animals behind Mizrahi’s house before packing it up for transport.
Meanwhile, the Adamah fellows sit in a circle to process their reactions. Many speak about being “grateful” or “humbled” by the experience of watching an animal be killed for them to eat. For most, this is their first encounter with halachah, or Jewish law. Witnessing the Jewish ritual of shechita gives them, they say, an appreciation for kashrut they could not have received from books.
“When the rabbi said the bracha over the shechita right before killing the animal, the intention raised it to a higher level, the same way that you say a blessing before you eat to acknowledge that the source of this life, this sustenance, is not you but something greater, and you are just a part of this great cycle,” says Josh Lucknus, 25, of Boston, adding that he was raised in a non-observant home.
“I gained a deeper appreciation for kashrut,” he says. “I appreciate the way it tries to sanctify this process, which is part of the cycle of life and death.”