On Sunday evening, less than 48 hours before Yom Kippur, Yossi Henach was with his wife and small children on the sidewalk outside the Beth Rivkah school in Crown Heights, touted as the first Hasidic girls' school in the world. Considering the screaming animal rights protesters surrounding his family, Henach seemed pretty calm. The protesters, about 80 in all, were gathered for the first of two nights of protests against the millennium-old ritual of kapparot, a slaughter practiced by certain ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, in which one waves a chicken over one's head while reciting a prayer to transfer one's divine punishments for the coming year to the bird, then has it slaughtered for the meat, or a cash equivalent, to be donated to charity.

It was children's night at the schoolyard, according to the activists, and if there was any slaughter happening, it was out of sight behind a green privacy fence within the school grounds, beyond the booth where chicken tickets were on sale for $5 each. The only other thing visible was a semi trailer stacked to the top with crates full of live chickens, being unloaded by teen workers. Protesters pressed against the barbed-wire-topped perimeter fence, chanting, "Use money, not chickens!" in reference to a variation of the tradition done in some branches of Orthodox Judaism. And Henach was okay with that.

"If there's any cruelty being done to chickens, it's wrong, and it should stop," he said. Protesters over the years, and again this holiday season, have documented numerous instances of chickens being left out in crates stacked high without food, water, or protection from the elements for days at a time. The activists have also documented some instances of carcasses that practitioners believed were headed for poor people's plates winding up in the garbage. "That's wrong if that's happened," Henach said. "It's not right."

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A man prays for atonement while waving a chicken over his head as part of a kapparot ritual in Crown Heights. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)

Just then, some in the crowd closest to the entrance, which was guarded by police officers, began banging the fence with their signs, wrenching it forward and backward so hard that it momentarily broke open, and chanting, "Animal holocaust! Animal holocaust!"

"Now that, that kind of thing is inappropriate," Henach said. "They have a right to peacefully protest, but they do not have a right to get violent, and there's no place for that kind of language."

A shoving match ensued as officers struggled to erect barricades lying at the foot of the fence for this purpose. In the midst of it, a Shimra volunteer neighborhood patrolman shoved a protester's 11-year-old son to the ground, according to witnesses.

Police declined to intervene—"I checked the child and he was not injured. Both sides were pushing," a Lieutenant Santiago told Gothamist—though Santiago did, according to witnesses, tell the volunteer that he wasn't an actual cop and couldn't shove people.

Henach took his family on their way, and the protesters continued their standoff, chanting, "There's no excuse for animal abuse" at the workers unloading pallets of chickens from the truck. As the night wore on and the game of trying to block families entering and leaving continued, a handful of activists began to yell more insulting, ad hominem taunts, such as, "Child abuse!" "You're a piece of garbage!" and "Murderer! Wake up! You're oppressed!"

"It might not be effective but there's no getting it into their heads. It's like talking to a wall," said Marcela Pareja, who made the latter jeers. "They're brainwashed. At least this way we can scare them...or shame them."

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Traffic cones are used in lieu of killing cones, which allow chickens' blood to drain out after their throats are cut, at some kapparot centers, including this one in Crown Heights. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)

This was a far cry from the candlelight vigil that Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos organizer Rina Deych had envisioned, but she took it in stride. Asked if the protests' venom might be hurting the effort to win hearts and minds, Deych said, "Nothing else that we've done so far has worked. When people see animal abuse, they can't contain themselves. I'm a believer in free speech and democracy, so I might not put things a certain way, but who am I to tell anyone else what they can't say?"

Deych is versed in Jewish theology, and prefers to couch her polemic in debates over the finer points of the Torah, the Talmud, and the halachic code, as opposed to screaming at men about how they beat their wives, as one protester was heard shouting. The daughter of a kosher slaughterhouse owner, she grew up Orthodox Jewish in Borough Park, and has lived there for all but four years of her life. Now a vegan, nurse, and animal rescuer, she is no longer an observant Jew, but her neighborhood has over the past several decades become dominated by followers of the Bobov and other Hasidic sects, making her uniquely situated to start a campaign to end the slaughter.

"I had no idea it was still being done until about 20 or 25 years ago," she recalled.

I was walking with my young son—he was 7 or 8—we were walking around the neighborhood. We were going to stop by my friend's house when we came across this horrific scene, this bloody scene. We saw chicken bodies on the ground, chickens writhing in pain, their throats slit by the shochet [ritual slaughterer], chickens being thrown in dumpsters. I was screaming so loud my friend came out of her house, ran down the street, and dragged me away. She said, "Don't you know what that is?" I learned about it in my childhood, but had no idea it was still going on.

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A shochet, or ritual slaughterer, works late into the night slaughtering chickens the night before Yom Kippur. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)

Kapparot is a custom first documented around the year 600, before the split between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, in the period following the completion of the Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, according to a Crown Heights Jewish community member. In subsequent centuries, various forms of the practice came to be criticized as pagan by prominent rabbis among the Sephardim, Jews of Spanish and Middle Eastern heritage, as distinct from the European Ashkenazim. The ritual, part of the Ten Days of Awe from Rosh Hoshanah to Yom Kippur, is meant to remind the person performing it of the fragility of life, to transfer hard times to come to the bird, and to serve as an act of charity.

The facility at Beth Rivkah was one of dozens of kaporos centers that take up parking lots, sidewalks, and in a few cases, whole blocks, across the densely populated Hasidic centers of Borough Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights, as well as Far Rockaway.

An article in The Jewish Star credits the modern incarnation of the ritual in U.S. cities, in which chickens are trucked in for the slaughter, to the father of Crown Heights Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the board of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, who started it in Brooklyn in 1974. Hecht's group organized the Beth Rivkah event, having moved there last year to keep the ritual from the eyes of what he described as "anti-Jewish forces."

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A vegan protester yells at a crowd of Hasidim. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)

Were the vegans operating under a more pragmatic form of activism, Hecht's move toward greater secrecy could have been seen as a minor victory. Veganism, however, is its own quasi-religious worldview, in which all species of animals are of equal importance, and thus what goes on at kapparot events and at factory farms every day is an "animal holocaust" that must be stopped. In this way, the tone and tactics of animal rights activism can parallel that of anti-abortion protests (one difference: no murders have as of yet been directly credited to animal rights extremists).

So it was that on Monday night, on Kingston Avenue and President Street, a man named Eddie Sullivan, arrested over the weekend for apparently assaulting a horse carriage driver near Central Park, came to be screaming in the face of an elderly Hasidic man.

"Fucking coward! Why don't you hit me, huh? Try me," the beefy, bearded Sullivan said, puffing his chest at the stooped man in an alcove on the side of a green grocer, a stone's throw from the ongoing slaughter. "You won't. You know why? Because you're a fucking coward. You're disgusting."

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Activist Eddie Sullivan, hatless in the center, stares down and berates a Jewish man as a crowd forms around them. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

For at least 20 minutes prior, before and during a chaotic march from one designated protest area into the crowd of families handling chickens, Sullivan had been trawling the crowd, menacingly intoning at anyone he laid eyes on that they were filthy, cowards, murderers, and so forth. The local precinct had barricaded the block for the event (though it lacks an event permit). The vegans went marching in, and after a few minutes of chaos, with protesters shouting at parents mid-prayer to say they're going to hell and the old Hasidic man Sullivan would later confront swiping at activists with two chickens, cops waded into the crowd to separate the two sides.

There was also this sarcastic chant, by a Hasidic man: "Chicken lives matter!"

The demonstrators had taken new position on the Kingston sidewalk when Sullivan stomped back into the mass of Hasidim to continue his muttering. He found his mark with the old man, who was so infuriated that he threw a full bottle of water at Sullivan's back with all his might. Sullivan stood his ground as he seethed at the man, daring anyone else to be offended. A crowd of young men formed some 15 deep, in a semicircle around Sullivan and the senior citizen. Each curse word and utterance of "Coward!" from Sullivan drew a soccer-fan-style "Hey!" from the young Hasidim.

More than an hour later, after an impromptu march through the neighborhood and the dispersal of many of the protester, Sullivan was still on Kingston, pacing inside of a pen alongside buzz-cut-sporting, thick-soled-boot-wearing MMA enthusiast and Jew Izzy Jacobus, shouting at all Hasidic passersby, whether or not they were coming from the ritual, including such niceties as, "You're a dumb little kid, you know that? You shut your mouth. You stupid dumb little kid!"

Video shot by Crown Heights resident Mordechai Lightstone shows (around the 6-minute mark) Sullivan fantasizing aloud about "just driving through this whole fucking place," gesturing to the block where hundreds of Hasidim are gathered.

And here is a sign purportedly spotted among the protesters at Monday night's demonstrations:

The Anti-Defamation League sent this statement from regional director Evan Bernstein right at press time: "In our vibrant American democracy, anyone is free to gather and express their opinion. However, some demonstrators in the protest crossed the line and violated the decency and sensitivity which binds societies together."

Obviously, this approach isn't winning a lot of converts, and doesn't pair well with half-remembered theological arguments from non-Jews. These ugly points are part of what drove a man who could be seen as the alliance's ideal spokesman out of the group.

Yonassan Gershom co-founded the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos with Deych and Virginia chicken sanctuary operator Karen Davis. He parted ways with the group in 2014 over what he calls Davis and others' "blatantly inaccurate statements about Hasidism."

By Gershom's accounting, the current problems with kapparot track with the larger historical trends of urbanization and the industrialization of agriculture. He argues that historically the ritual was performed when Jews lived in small agrarian towns, and consisted of families slaughtering a locally raised bird in the village square before Yom Kippur, butchering it at home, and eating it for dinner before Yom Kippur. In his book, Kapporos Then and Now, he writes:

The problem today is that most Hasidim are living in urban areas where live chickens are a rare sight, period. The majority of urban Jews (even non-Hasidim) probably never see a live chicken except for this ceremony once a year. These birds come, not from local free-run flocks as in the old days, but from commercial factory farms located many miles away. Nowadays the poor chickens are crammed into tiny cages so tightly they can hardly move, then piled onto open trucks, and driven to town, sometimes for days without any food or water. In some cases, shopkeepers selling these chickens have left them out in the sun and rain for many days, again without food or water.

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Hasidic vegetarian Yonassan Gershom's self-published book about why fellow Jews should not use chickens for the kaporos ritual. (Yonassan Gershom)

Indeed, many of the activists' formal complaints, raised in a lawsuit last year (and now awaiting an appeal decision), stem from this industrial setup. The lawsuit accused eight institutions in Crown Heights and Borough Park and their leaders of routinely violating 15 animal cruelty, agriculture, health, sanitation, and slaughterhouse licensing laws, including bans on slaughterhouses on and around the specific stretch of Eastern Parkway where much of the activity takes place. It also faulted city agencies for failing to enforce those laws.

A judge found that she lacked the authority to compel the city to conduct enforcement, and that the plaintiffs from Crown Heights lacked standing because they weren't uniquely affected compared to their neighbors.

From the non-vegan goyim we've talked to in Crown Heights, it seems that the extent of consternation at the event stems largely from its public and wildly unsanitary nature. How it is performed varies from site to site, but a cursory survey of sites in Brooklyn's three Hasidic enclaves this week showed that, whether it is done in a parking lot, at a slaughterhouse, or in the middle of the street, the project inevitably leaves some part of the public street caked in feces and urine, if not blood.

In Borough Park, outside Congregation Bnai Israel at 45th Street and Ninth Avenue, Deych documented what appear to be numerous dead chickens in crates stacked on the sidewalk on Monday afternoon, behind privacy fences erected at curbside. She said that no police responded to multiple calls, and the NYPD says it has no record of this.

A man working at the yeshiva declined to identify himself, but said only one chicken died.

On President Street and on Eastern Parkway, tarps laid near the shochets' platforms could only do so much to contain the mess, and blood and feces dotted the ground.

Crown Heights resident Jordan Thomas came out to President to see what was going on. A native of Trinidad, he said that he has seen roadside butchering before in his home country and isn't innately disturbed by the slaughter. "You can't hate," he said, after getting a little too close to the shochet stand and getting a drop of blood on his new white hoodie. "Everybody has their tradition."

He paused a moment, and added, "I just don't think they should do it in the street like this, so out in the open."

This, ultimately, is what is likely at stake, should the city and state government be compelled to enforce various regulations. As with fights over the practice of mohel, secular education in yeshivas, and allegedly rogue Shomrim officers, the city has seemed reluctant to police kapparot, with the exception of a handful of animal cruelty arrests where dozens of chickens died pre-slaughter in the mid-late 2000s.

Reych said that since the ASPCA stepped aside as lead investigator of animal cruelty cases, the NYPD officers she interacts with have largely lacked the training and interest in pursuing the issue.

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Hasidim perform kapparot outside of Cohn Live Poultry in Williamsburg. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)

To be sure, the Hasidic Jewish community has reasons to be suspicious of efforts to police its practices. For one, the Nazis banned kosher slaughtering in 1933, tying it into claims that Jews killed humans to use their blood in rituals. Rabbi Hecht and others also associate the protesters with PETA, which Gershom notes has a bad track record with Jews. In 2003, PETA's president sent a letter to Yasser Arafat following a bombing in Jersualem by Palestinians who strapped explosives to a donkey. The letter called for Arafat to "leave animals out of this conflict," suggesting to many that she valued the life of a donkey over the lives of people in Israel.

Also in 2003, PETA mounted a traveling photo exhibit titled "Holocaust on Your Plate," which paired images of commercial slaughter with photos from the Nazi death camps.


Protesters momentarily broke open the gate leading to a ritual in the Beth Rivkah schoolyard.

Lightstone said that Hasidim have not stuck it out in the neighborhood for seven decades through crime waves and the 1991 riot only to be pushed aside:

This is cultural colonialism. It's an attempt to white-wash these neighborhoods of their distinctly Jewish character so that people can eat their Shake-Shack chicken without guilt. So what if we priced out blacks and Hasidic Jews from their historic neighborhoods?

After Monday night's protests, he added, "Watching small children burst into tears when they're told their fathers are 'going to die and burn in Hell,' merely for living as Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn is one of the most heartrending things I've ever seen."

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(Scott Heins/Gothamist)

Activist William Martinez, a resident of Smithtown and, like all the other activists we spoke to, a vegan, said he works with the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (the group does not have a large public Hasidic presence), and he sees no connection between stopping animal cruelty and promoting gentrification. "I'm anti-gentrification, and this is a far cry from gentrification," he said. "The thing is, if this were a santero doing this in the street," referring to a practitioner of Santeria, "they'd throw him in jail."

There are numerous practitioners of voodoo and Santeria in New York, but they largely perform their rituals in basements and other indoor spaces, as well as, it seems, in secluded parts of parks. Some followers of the Kali branch of Hinduism practice ritual sacrifice on the shores of Jamaica Bay as well as ritual abandonment, leaving chickens in boxes to die as a way of relieving one of negative energy, as the Daily News reported.

Perhaps the closet thing to the scale of kapparot in New York, when lawyers for practitioners estimated 50,000 chickens are shipped into the city for slaughter, is Eid al-Adha, when many of New York's 600,000 or more Muslims slaughter goats, cows, and the like to commemorate the sacrifice of Abraham. Abdul Aziz Bhuiyan, a resident of New Hyde Park and Chairman of the board of the Hillside Islamic Center, was surprised when asked if he knew anyone who had sacrificed an animal in public.

"That's illegal," he said. "You cannot do that."

Bhuiyan said that he heard a rumor in the '90s about an area man drawing the ire of his neighbors by trying to sacrifice a goat in his yard, but beyond that, nothing. Eid al-Adha and other celebratory sacrifices take place at farms and halal butchers around the tri-state area, he said, with each family traveling for the purpose and eating the butchered meat, possibly setting aside a third for charity. To slaughter otherwise, he said, would be to risk such catastrophes as the ones that have repeatedly struck Dhaka as recently as this September's Eid, when a massive amount of uncontrolled public slaughter combined with a rainstorm and a dysfunctional drainage system to make the streets of the city run red with blood-water.

"There has to be a minimal standard to maintain," he said. "Nobody's saying you don't do it, but the government regulation is: don't do it in a public space where you're not equipped to drain the blood."

"I want this to be regulated, because the mess would make us become a third-world country," he added.

So are kapparot practitioners getting special treatment from the city? The NYPD, Health Department, Mayor's Office, and Council Speaker wouldn't go on record about what if any regulatory measures they are taking or would like to see. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito backed a failed push to diminish the carriage-horse industry and moved it out of Central Park, on the basis that the horses were mistreated.

A Sanitation Department spokeswoman would say only, "The Department of Sanitation will collect the residue from the Kaporos ritual and deliver it to a transfer station for processing as organic waste."

71st Precinct Community Affairs Officer Bulzoni told Gothamist that absent other instruction, his unit's job is to "keep the peace." Asked about the issue by an activist during a march on Monday night, he repeated, "You guys took this to court, right? It's in court, right?" suggesting that if a judge ordered more enforcement, that would be another thing. Bulzino declined to say if he had ever arrested a Rastafarian for smoking weed.

For the time being, the High Holy Days are coming to a close, and Hasidim we spoke to, particularly in Crown Heights where the protests are focused, seem to feel more distressed by the aggressive posture of the protests than ever.

"If the law says you can't do it in the street, I agree, the law has to be followed," said a follower of the Chabad Hasidic movement who gave his name as Steve G. "I don't think there should be special treatment for one group of people."

At the same time, he said, people have a right to coordinate for cultural events with local government, as the local West Indian community does for the massive West Indian Day Parade, which comes with its own mess and disruptions. The question of impropriety here is, he said, "for the courts to decide. Given that, you have to question the motives of the people who come out to protest us practicing our religion. You have to ask, 'Is there something else behind that?'"