SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – This Thanksgiving, New Yorker Linda Lantos didn’t have to compromise her Jewish or ecological values: She served free-range, organic, non-genetically engineered turkey that was also kosher.
“In the last few years it’s become important to me to find meat that’s organic and kosher, and that’s hard,” says the 27-year-old chef and nutrition teacher, who has kept kosher since childhood.
The two turkeys Lantos bought this month from Kosher Conscience, a year-old kosher meat cooperative that promotes sustainable agriculture and humane slaughter methods, weren’t cheap. But that doesn’t bother her.
“I’d rather eat meat less frequently and know where it comes from,” she says. “Frankly, meat is too cheap. It’s a living thing and should be valued more highly.”
For 30 years the eco-kashrut movement has promoted back-to-the-land values of sustainable agriculture, organics and local, seasonal farming. Now a growing number of those Jewish foodies are trying to apply the same values to their meat, demanding that the animals be raised and slaughtered in an ethical manner.
“If I’m going to eat meat, I have to do everything possible to make sure the process is as humane as possible,” says Kosher Conscience founder Simon Feil.
Caring for animals is deeply ingrained in Jewish law. The Torah provides for “tzar ba’alat hayim,” the need to protect animals from unnecessary pain. That’s why kosher slaughter must be done by an observant, trained shochet, or ritual slaughterer, who uses an extremely sharp knife to kill the animal as painlessly as possible, with one cut across the jugular vein.
Many Jews believe that because of this extra religious concern, the kosher meat industry is exempt from the more egregious practices of non-kosher slaughterhouses. But controversies last year at Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaugherhouse in Postville, Iowa, buried that myth amid media stories alleging sloppy, cruel killing methods and underpaid, badly trained workers.
The Agriprocessors case was a Jewish wake-up call.
It spurred the Conservative movement to start developing a hekhsher tzedek, a certificate given to food produced according to certain standards of workers’ rights and environmental concerns. The certificate will be announced at the Conservative movement’s biennial this week in Orlando, Fla.
It inspired Feil, a Brooklyn-based actor, to procure, slaughter and process 24 turkeys using humane practices this month. He found buyers among young New York Jews, and dropped off the turkeys two days before Thanksgiving at an Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It put meat on the agenda of last year’s food conference sponsored by Hazon, a nonprofit dedicated to Jewish environmentalism and food sustainability.
Much of the impetus for the socially just kashrut movement comes from Conservative circles, but there’s interest within Reform Judaism as well. A committee of Reform rabbis is working on standards for socially just food production along the same lines as the Conservative hekhsher tzedek initiative.
Gersh Lazerow, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, hopes to become a shochet to combine his liberal values with Jewish tradition.
“I think kashrut has value to modern progressive Jewish practice,” he says.
“A lot of people are faced with the decision, ethics or kashrut,” says Devora Kimelman-Block of Washington, a Hazon activist and longtime supporter of sustainable agriculture. “Or they just decide to be vegetarian.”
Kimelman-Block eats meat, but had cut down in recent years.
“I don’t feel it’s ethically a problem to eat meat,” she says, “but I have a problem with the unethical raising and processing of meat.”
Last year she decided to enter the business herself. Kimelman-Block says she “knew nothing” about the kosher meat industry when she started.
Doing it all herself, from finding a local farmer with pasture-raised cows, to negotiating with a shochet, to lining up buyers from 14 area synagogues, was a daunting task. But she wanted to teach her daughters to respect the food they ate and understand the Jewish values underlying its production.
“The closer you are to your food, the more holy it is,” Kimelman-Block says.
It’s easy to be pious when you’re talking about fruit, but most people would rather not think about where their steak comes from. That’s true particularly in eco-kashrut circles, which are dominated by vegetarians.
In one session at last year’s Hazon conference, the group’s executive director, Nigel Savage, asked audience members to raise their hands if they ate meat but would not do so if they had to kill it themselves. A “good number” raised their hands, he recalls.
Then he asked those who were vegetarian to raise their hands if they would eat meat they killed themselves – and a different set of hands went up.
Savage found the second response more telling. He says those people were indicating that taking responsibility for killing the animal one eats, making sure it is done humanely and with respect, is the only way to eat meat with integrity.
That’s why Hazon is performing ritual slaughter on three goats at this year’s conference, which will be held Dec. 5-8 in upstate New York.
On one night of the conference, the goatherd and shochet will explain how a kosher animal is raised, killed and processed. On Friday the goats will be slaughtered, and on Saturday goat cholent will be served.
“For three years Hazon has enabled Jewish people to learn where their vegetables come from, to develop a relationship with the farmer,” Savage says. “Now we’re taking it a step further.”
Not everyone in the eco-kashrut movement favors the plan, as evidenced by the heated discussion on www.Jcarrot.org, Hazon’s “Jew and the Carrot” blog. Among the 60 responses to Savage’s announcement of the plan were those who applauded it, those who were appalled by Hazon sponsoring a slaughter at all, and one Hazon board member who said he would not attend if the shechita went forward.
Feil, who is in charge of the goat project, insists it will not be “a lurid bread-and-circus” event.
“People should understand what it means when you eat meat,” he says. “Seeing an animal killed and then eating it yourself is a very important educational experience.”
So far, the eco-kashrut meat activists are a fairly rarefied bunch: It’s pretty much just Feil and Kimelman-Block. But they say the market is growing for what they offer.
Kimelman-Block notes that in July she arranged for the slaughter of three cows, and the resultant 400 pounds of kosher meat sold in three weeks. But in October, she sold 1,200 pounds of meat from six cows – $11,000 worth – in less than a week.
“I could have sold as much as I had,” she says. “People were knocking down the door.”
Some people believe such a product will only serve a niche market. The process of raising and slaughtering the animals is difficult, and there is little interest from the Orthodox, who are the bulk of kosher meat consumers.
Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell University, advises Jewish groups and the meat industry on issues of animal welfare. He is part of a two-person negotiating team that is working to develop guidelines for humane practices amenable to the two dozen or so fervently Orthodox rabbis who are responsible for the glatt kosher industry.
A year ago, he says, the two sides reached consensus.
“They agreed to put it in writing,” he says. “I am still waiting for that document.”
Even if few people buy the meat, activists believe that growing publicity for the issue will have an impact on the kosher meat industry in general.
That’s what happened to Wise Organic Pastures, a kosher poultry and beef distributor in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rachel Wiesenfeld, who owns the company with her husband and son, says that as far as she’s concerned, all kosher slaughter is humane. But when Whole Foods offered to carry their chickens if they were certified by Steritech, a company that verifies humane food production methods, the Wiesenfelds quickly agreed.
“Everyone was into this humane, humane, humane, so we went along with it as well,” she says.
The Wiesenfelds are ready to go to the same lengths with their kosher beef in the hopes that Whole Foods will start carrying that, too.
It’s clear to Wiensenfeld that the market is growing, and she says it’s not just Jews. A customer called her recently complaining about feathers on a Wise Organic chicken – a customer that clearly is new to kashrut and doesn’t know that kosher slaughter is done in cold water, which does not remove all the bird’s feathers.
“Just boil a pot of water, put in the chicken for a few minutes,” she advises, “and those feathers come right out.”