Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Animal rights group files lawsuit comparing Kapporos ritual to Wuhan "wet markets," linking it to COVID19

As readers of this blog know, I oppose using chickens for the  kapporos ritual, and have been outspoken on this issue for years. But I also oppose using antisemitic tropes to get publicity in the fight against it. 

This year, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos has sunk to a new low.  They have re-opened a lawsuit from 2018 opposing the ritual, now linking it to COVID19. 

When I first heard about this, I assumed they were referring to social distancing and the danger of gathering in large crowds.  A concern I would agree with. But the Alliance takes it a step further, evoking, however unintentionally, an old trope about Jews being the source of plagues and diseases. This I must condemn as tone-deaf and dangerous.

 In their lawsuit, they compare pop-up kapporos centers to "wet markets" in Wuhan, China, where it is believed COVID19 mutated, and implying the same thing can happen with Hasidic Jews slaughtering chickens in New York.

This theme been picked up by animal rights groups all over the internet, resulting in posts like this tweet:

The implication here, as I read this post, is that COVID19 will jump from humans to chickens, mutate there, then jump back to humans in a more virulent form and wipe out New York City.  Not only is this an irresponsible, inflammatory scare tactic, it is scientifically impossible. Chickens do not get COVID19. The pop-up kapporos centers may be messy and cruel, but they are not incubators for a new form of coronavirus.  (Chickens can, however, give you a case of salmonella, which is why the CDC recommends not kissing or snuggling them.)

COVID19 is a mammalian virus, believed to have originated in wild bats that were being sold as food.  Isolated cases have been reported of cats and dogs getting COVID19 from humans, including a tiger in Central Park Zoo, but birds, including chickens, cannot carry or transmit it. 

The Chinese in Wuhan might eat bats, but Hasidic Jews do not, nor do they eat other kinds of wild "bush meat."  The chickens used at kaporos centers come from the very same commercial sources as the chicken sold in your local grocery.  Unless you are a vegetarian, you probably have some in your freezer. 

There is a very big difference between handling domestic species that humans have interacted with for centuries, and "wet markets" selling wild-captured exotic species with possible viruses against which humans have no resistance. 

Nevertheless, the animal rights groups are now using #wetmarket in their Tweets and posts, purposely causing kapporos to turn up in searches about COVID19 and primitive meat markets in Wuhan and elsewhere.  Making such a comparison at this point in time, when people are already panicked and angry, is bound to have negative consequences. Especially since the people involved are Jews, a group that has been falsely accused of spreading diseases in the past.

There are already antisemitic memes online, linking Jews with plagues, like this sign seen at a recent white supremacist protest. Conspiracy theories blame George Soros,  the Jewish billionaire who is everybody's scapegoat. QAnon claims the Democrats worship Satan, another accusation sometimes leveled at Jews. Adding fuel to this fire is a bad idea. 

Rina Deich, a founding member of the Alliance, has tried to assure me in a text conversation that their intent was not to say that COVID19 will mutate in chickens. Rather, they are referring to crowds of people gathering in the unsanitary conditions, where some sort of new mutation of viruses in chickens might happen. In her words to me:

 "There is a toxicologist who has spent hours with the lawyer discussing the potential dangers of kaporos, especially the way it is practiced. Just because it hasn't happened yet does not mean that in the right conditions it wouldn't happen. It's a distinct possibility."

Just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it can't?  I suppose that is true of just about anything.  Hard to disprove a negative, they say.  

But even if this unnamed toxicologist is right, and some other virus in chickens could mutate, linking kapporos and COVID19 in a publicity stunt right now is still irresponsible. And publicity stunt it is. The first thing the Alliance did was send out a press release. Whatever their original intent, it has now gone viral.  And not everybody is making fine distinctions between Wuhan bush meat and chickens in New York.  Just read the headlines.

Deich tried to reassure me that, "When we are interviewed by the media, if we handle it the correct way, it should not fuel anti-semitism. In fact, people seeing that Jews are opposed to this practice takes away their ammunition."

Brave words. And if Deich does the interviews, it might well be true, although I doubt whether antisemites will care if Jews protest it or not.  However, if Karen Davis, their primary spokesperson, is the one giving those interviews, I do not trust it will be handled "in the correct way."  She has a bad record for saying insensitive things about Hasidic Jews, a culture she does not like or respect. (Read more on that.)

As of this writing, it is not even clear if the judge will re-open the case, which was denied back in 2018. But that doesn't really matter, because the Alliance already got what they wanted: lots of free publicity.  They have also set the stage, come October, for the public to see Orthodox Jews as a bunch of dangerous, disease-ridden people spreading the Plague.  They didn't intend it that way, but there are always unintended consequences.  I only hope it does not result in violence against the community like it did in the past, heaven forbid, when Jews were burned at the stake for supposedly causing the Black Plague. 

As I said at the beginning of this article,  I oppose the use of chickens in this ritual. I would love to see it shut down forever.  I encourage my fellow Hasidim to avoid these gatherings, not because of chickens who don't carry COVID19, but because of people who do. At the same time, I cannot, and will not, endorse this latest mutation of the anti-kapporos campaign.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Social Distancing made me "normal" in the Jewish community

Breslov Hasid praying in the woods
Breslov Hasid making hisboddidus
(courtesy of Wikipedia)
For literally decades, I have been an anomaly in the Jewish community. As a Hasid who lives far away from the nearest synagogue, I have endured a lot of guilt-tripping from fellow Jews about why I should not live where there is no minyan, and lectures about "not cutting myself off from the community."  To a lot of people, being Jewish is so tightly tied to city living that potential converts living in rural areas have sometimes been turned down because "you just can't do Judaism" in the country.

And to a lot of Jews in the city, I ceased to exist once we moved to the country.  (At one point, several years ago, when Caryl and I needed some assistance, neither the Twin Cities nor Duluth Jewish Social Services would claim us, since we were not in their jurisdictions.)

Then along comes COVID19 and social distancing.  All the synagogues are ordered to close -- and right before Passover yet.   Suddenly the whole Jewish world is finding themselves trying to figure out how to practice without a minyan, without family, without personal contact.  How do you fill the time on Shabbat?  How do you make a Seder?  If you can't get parsley or horseradish, what else can you use?  Can you say kaddish on Zoom?  Etc.

 I have spent a lot of time online answering these and similar questions.  Years of hisboddidus (Rebbe Nachman's form of solitary prayer and meditation)   prepared me for this isolating  crisis.  Suddenly my experience here in the North Woods has become a valuable resource.  No longer the community crackpot, I am suddenly an expert on how to cope with the new normal as a Jew.

Kabbalah teaches that there are Holy Sparks everywhere that need to be lifted up out of  exile.  Sometimes, the Baal Shem Tov taught, we are sent by God to remote places, specifically to find these Sparks.  I won't be so egotistical as to claim that moving to Pine County, Minnesota was a mission from God. But I will cite the teaching that each Jew is like a letter of the Torah, and that if even one letter is missing, the Torah is incomplete.  My "letter," as eccentric as it may seem to some people , has value. No sincere effort, no experience in God's world is ever wasted. Not even for us outliers.

I will close this essay with a little video I did about lighting my campfire on Lag B'Omer here in the North Woods.   Just because we weren't able to gather in huge crowds around the bonfires this year doesn't mean we could not celebrate.  When I made this bonfire, I had in mind to be spiritually connected to Jews around the world.  And I felt that connection deeply, in my heart and soul.


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Kapporos Protests: Reflections on a New Approach

Note from the Editor: As readers of this blog know, I was a founding member of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos in 2010, but broke with the organization in 2014 over what I saw as disrespect of Hasidism and Hasidic culture on the part of Karen Davis, who was their primary spokesperson at the time.  In the past year, however, some members of that organization have re-evaluated their aggressive approach (which, quite frankly, was not working) and decided to try using love and compassion instead.  In this guest column,  Rina Deych, also a founding member of the Alliance, describes what they did in the fall of 2018, and how it was received by the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities in New York. (Rabbi Gershom)


* * * * *

Kaporos Protests: Reflections on a New Approach

Guest Column by Rina Deych

Since 2010, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos has been protesting the use of chickens in the custom of Kaporos (background info here.)  Although at times we did get into some great discussions with practitioners, interactions were often angry and contentious.   Last year, for the first time, we partnered with The Save Movement and Jewish Veg, and our approach was very different.

Compassion instead of anger

Author Rina Deych (left)
and Anita Krajnc 
Anita Krajnc, co-founder of The Save Movement, met with a group of us to promote a love-based initiative inspired by the writings of Leo Tolstoy.  It was a truly eye-(and heart)-opening experience to hear her speak.  She encouraged us to have love and respect for practitioners and to approach them from a place of compassion.

It made me remember a conversation I’d had with a friend who insisted that if she were brought up in a community that used chickens in the ritual she would “know” they were suffering and she’d refuse to do it.  I told her at the time (and mentioned when I spoke at our meeting) that no one can say that for sure.  I explained (to her, at the time, and later to the group) that if one is indoctrinated from birth to believe (or ignore) certain things, it’s very hard to change – especially when one lives in a community that reinforces those things. Therefore, difficult as it is, we need to feel compassion for these people.

Teaching a how to properly
hold a chicken by supporting
her body
Last Kaporos, we visited groups in Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the ritual was being performed.  Activists opened crates and gave food and water to as many chickens as they could reach.  Sadly, that wasn’t many, because they are so tightly crammed into crates that are stacked several high and many across.

A more positive response

I noticed almost immediately that the practitioners’ reactions to us were completely different than in previous years.  Children gathered around, wide-eyed with curiosity and both kids and adults were asking us questions.

Chickens drinking water
offered by protesters
Sage Max of Jewish Veg gave out flyers with historic information supporting the use of money (instead of chickens) in the ritual. There were activists showing practitioners the correct way to hold a chicken (under and around his or her body, instead of by their fragile wings).  One butcher (some of the rituals occur outside of butcher shops) with a long white beard came over to me and showed me that he was giving the birds challah (bread) soaked in water.  I was touched by his compassion and thanked him.

There were some angry words from practitioners, but we tried our best to respond to them with kindness.  This is what I call putting water on the fire.  In previous years, some of us have thrown gasoline on it… not intentionally, but in response to seeing the chickens suffering.   That approach was counterproductive and did not help the chickens.

Continuing postive outreach

This year, we plan to continue our feeding, watering, and outreach efforts.  We planted many seeds of compassion and this Kaporos we plan to water them.  I thank Rabbi Gershom for his wonderful book Kapporos Then and Now, which I have given to rabbis and some key members of the community to inspire them to use money, instead of chickens.  It has been an invaluable tool in helping to spread compassion.

Rina Deych
Founding Member
Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos


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"Hasidic Man Speaks Out Against Mass Animal Sacrifice Kaporos" -- a video of last year's actions, produced by Donny Moss of  Their Turn. Note especially the outspoken young Hasidic man at the beginning of the video, who is protesting the custom.  It is important to remember that not all Orthodox Jews do this ceremony.


Also check out this well-written article by Donny Moss, about how the footage of the Hasidic man in the video came about, behind the scenes discussions with Hasidim who disapprove of using chickens, etc.  Very well-balanced, informative, and accurate.

For practical suggestions on organizing effective protests and other actions you can take, see Rabbi Gershom's activist manual online here. 

For more on Rabbi Gershom's Book, Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition, click here, where you can read a synopsis by the author and order copies at a discount.