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What kind of meat do Jewish food activists eat?

Participants in the Hazon Food Conference partake in the ritual slaughter of a turkey at a farm in Brooks, Calif., Dec. 24, 2008. (Renna Khuner-Haber/Hazon)

Participants in the Hazon Food Conference partake in the ritual slaughter of a turkey at a farm in Brooks, Calif., Dec. 24, 2008. (Renna Khuner-Haber/Hazon)

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. (JTA) — When the executive committee for December’s Hazon Jewish food conference got together last July to plan the menu for the four-day gathering, they agreed that, as much as possible, the food served should be local.

No problem with produce. California’s Central Coast is one of the nation’s most fertile growing areas. It is rife with farms that grow a variety of fruits and vegetables; nearby dairies produce organic milk from free-range cows.

But when it came to meat, the discussion grew heated.

First, should they serve it at all? The Jewish food movement, like the environmental movement in general, is filled with vegetarians.

Second, food activists like to keep things local, and kosher meat — the only kind they would consider — doesn’t always jive with making sure the animals are humanely raised, organically fed and ethically slaughtered. There are a handful of alternative kosher meat productions based on the East Coast, run by leaders in the new Jewish food movement, but shipping that meat to California would undermine the local focus.

The talk went on for hours.

“I think we should serve pasture-raised, humanely slaughtered kosher meat, and if there is none of that we should just not serve meat,” declared committee member Brenda Berry.

Naf Hanau strongly disagreed. “There is a very strong basis in Jewish tradition for eating meat on Shabbat,” he pointed out. “That is an important tradition to engage with. I do not think the Jewish community is going to stop eating meat anytime soon, so we need to find a way to give them meat that is acceptable to our values.”

Finally, the group agreed that the only way to find meat that met their standards was to slaughter and produce it themselves. At last year’s conference, three goats were slaughtered and cooked into a cholent, but that was primarily an educational exercise. This year, the goal was to shecht enough poultry for the entire conference.

Berkeley resident Roger Studley took on the challenge of finding a local turkey farm and convincing the farmer to allow a bunch of Jews in with a shochet and mashgiach to slaughter, pluck, eviscerate, soak, salt and package enough turkeys to feed some 500 hungry food activists a nice Shabbat meal.

That’s how 20 shivering volunteers found themselves ankle-deep in feathers and mud on a turkey farm 90 miles north of San Francisco on a blustery cold, unseasonably wet morning on Dec. 24.

Farmer Lisa Leonard held a tom turkey under her arm in the freezing rain as Studley explained what was about to happen.

Andy Kastner, a rabbinical student at New York’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, had flown in to act as the shochet. He would slaughter each bird with a quick cut across its neck, severing the esophagus and trachea in one motion. The turkey would be placed upside-down in a traffic cone to bleed out, and then the hapless helpers would pluck out every last feather.

The brave in attendance would then eviscerate the birds, digging their hands into the dark recesses of the still-warm bodies to remove the internal organs. Rabbi Seth Mandel, whose day job is supervising kosher slaughterhouses for the Orthodox Union, was on hand to check the lungs and intestines for signs of disease or damage, which would render the bird non-kosher. The kosher birds would be soaked for half an hour and salted for an hour, to remove the blood, rinsed three times, and finally sealed and packed on ice for transport to the conference kitchen.

“As Jews, we are required to take these steps to make our meat suitable for eating,” Studley explained to the group. “We’re doing this old-school, hands-on. We’re doing it as a community, making meat for the conference we are about to attend. This is a project bringing us closer to the source of the food we are eating, making real the fact that we are taking the lives of animals in order to sustain ourselves.”

The work began. It all went smoothly, and soon a sea of feathers rose inside the corrugated iron shed where the plucking and passing went on with increasing confidence. The farmers set a pot of water on a propane tank to boil, ostensibly for kashering utensils but really so that Kastner could restore feeling to his near-frozen hands by warming them in the steam.

Elizheva Hurvich, a Bay Area artist and Jewish educator, said she’d come in honor of her great-grandmother, who slaughtered poultry for the kosher delicatessen she ran with her husband a century ago in Memphis, Tenn. Hurvich also knew there was a strong possibility she would be “totally grossed out and not able to do it.”

But an hour into the process, she was deeply engaged in her work. She soon moved from plucking out feathers to the evisceration table and finally took up position as head salter, rubbing coarse-ground kashering salt into every body cavity and lining up the finished birds on a grated table to drain.

“I was fascinated,” she said afterward. “I loved watching the rabbi as he checked the guts. We talked about what he was looking for, he explained to me about polyps and other things he might find.

“It was hard watching the birds be killed,” she added. “But there was also something very whole and beautiful about it.”

None of the birds were rejected as non-kosher. Mandel said they were the healthiest birds he’d ever examined, testimony to the natural way they’d been raised.

Mandel had been to a number of similar field slaughters and said he’s a big fan of alternative kosher meat productions like Kol Foods run by Devora Kimelman-Block out of Silver Spring, Md., which provides grass-finished, humanely raised kosher beef and lamb to hundreds of customers. Studley organized this turkey slaughter as a dry run for what he hopes will soon be a West Coast branch of Kol Foods.

But, Mandel said, these small-scale operations are not an answer to the problems of industrial meat production. So long as kosher consumers demand cheap meat, and a lot of it, he said, the big meat companies will see no reason to change.

“Efforts like these to get close to the ground will always be small,” he said. “It’s valuable as education, but not economical.”

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