Kaporos and Suffering: A Point of View

As seen in the October 13, 2016 issue of Ulster Publishing’s Woodstock Times: 

Kaporos and Suffering: A Point of View

By Andrea Barrist Stern

I can write this because I am a Jew, a Jew who identifies with my Judaism in large measure because of the Holocaust. The very existence of the Jews today is a victory over Nazism. I will put my body on the line to ensure there is never another Holocaust.

On Sunday evening I did so at Lubovitch headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn to end the use of chickens in a ritual called kaporos or kapparot, something I knew nothing about until a month ago. Practiced by ultra-orthodox Jews, the ritual, which dates to the Middle Ages and is not mentioned in either the Torah or the Talmud, involves swinging a live chicken by its wings or feet over one’s head and the heads of one’s children while reciting prayers to transfer the individual’s sins to the chicken. The animal’s throat is then cut on the spot by unlicensed butchers who thrust the dying bird, head down, into a funnel to struggle and bleed to death over a bucket. An estimated 50,000 chickens crammed in cages piled high atop flatbed trucks found their way to Brooklyn for this year’s kaporos rites. They had been denied food and water for days during the trip and, upon their arrival, were covered in each other’s excrement and barely able to move due to shock by the time they arrived.

Kapparot, which translates to “atonement,” “scapegoat” or “sacrifice,” is practiced between the end of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement when Jews ask forgiveness for their sins during the past year. The ultra-orthodox Jews believe that if you are intended to die during the year ahead, the chicken’s death may prevent that. And just for good measure, some of these Jews will give the chicken a kick to ensure that anything bad that could happen befalls the chicken instead. In 2005 and 2006, the ASPCA in New York City rescued hundreds of starving and ill chickens abandoned in crates in a garage and a parking lot when the ceremony was over.

Cruel and Illegal

This is cruel and illegal any way you look at it. On Sunday, it also felt sadly ironic. The truck laden with crated chickens that I saw parked at the Thruway rest area on my way to Brooklyn made me think immediately of the cattle cars that took Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust. In Brooklyn, we marched from Lubovitch headquarters to one of the local sites where the ritual was being performed: the playground of a yeshiva (religious school). In the past, the ritual and slaughter often took place out in the open under tents on the sidewalks of this neighborhood. This year, it unfolded behind locked chain link gates and chicken-laden flatbeds where it could be hidden from the demonstrators and the general public.

Demonstrators report having seen 30-gallon black garbage bags filled with the resulting dead carcasses piled on the streets of the neighborhood by Yom Kippur in recent years. Some of the ultra-orthodox Jews insisted on Sunday that the slaughtered chickens are butchered and given to the poor for free. Even if the latter were true, it wouldn’t mitigate the fact that this bloodbath takes place in unregulated, makeshift slaughterhouses on public Brooklyn streets in violation of 15 city and state laws, health codes, and animal cruelty laws. The city government turns its back, although it does provide a police presence. On Sunday, and despite the uniformed police who were there, things came dangerously close to getting out of hand.

Many of the orthodox Jewish men screamed “Nazis” at the demonstrators as some among the Chasidic teenage boys hurled expletives and obscenities. The demonstrators banged their signs on the yeshiva’s chain link fence and tried to force their way in each time the gate opened. Babies in their strollers who became caught between the two sides sobbed in fear.

A surprising number of chickens were rescued off the streets by the activists, treated for their injuries and released to individuals and farm sanctuaries willing to take them. These were not egg-laying chickens and to rescue them was one of the event’s true mitzvahs (good deeds). The sad truth is that except for the actual swinging of the chickens, this is the fate that every broiler chicken faces every day. There is no end to the suffering that humans can devise for animals.

Did Sunday’s demonstration and others organized by the same activists during the previous week change minds and hearts or harden them further? A lawsuit is pending in the courts to ban the use of chickens in kapporos and that along with public outrage, is ultimately what will alter the deadlock. Some orthodox rabbis have already begun recommending that observant Jews wave money over their heads instead of chickens and then donate it to the poor, an alternative that is both reasonable and humane. Plain and simple, this is animal cruelty under the guise of religion. Regardless of our religions, every single one of us constantly needs to question our actions and whether they are motivated by love and compassion.

Andrea Barrist Stern was a longtime reporter/editor and photographer at Ulster Publishing. For more information on Kaporos, go to http://www.endchickensaskaporos.com/