As Yom Kippur approaches, there are two annual traditions this time of year in Jewish communities: A kaporos festival, and an anti-kaporos protest. This year was no exception.
The group Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos lead the annual protest in Crown Heights on Monday and, for the second year, rather than trying to free the animals, the group of more than 100 instead just fed them, sliding slices of chopped up watermelon into the chicken’s crates.
Yom Kippur, the holiest holiday in the Jewish calendar, is the day of atonement, and kaporos is an atonement ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews. It involves circling a chicken around one's head three times while saying a prayer to transfer sins to the bird, before giving the chicken to a butcher, who then slaughters it.
“Mostly we are here to provide care to the suffering five week old birds,” Jill Carnegie, campaign strategist with the alliance, said. “In these transport crates they are left without access to food and water, they are left exposed to the elements sometimes for days at a time, so we are here to provide them with the only moment of positivity [and] the only moment of care in their short lives.”
Carnegie’s “chicken-care perspective” began last year. “We’ve found this opens up channels to communicate with the community and the practitioners in a way we’ve never seen before,” Carnegie said.
However, the group’s reputation preceded it. “You steal chickens, you gotta pay,” a young man working the chicken crates yelled at the protesters as they descended on the crates with dripping bags of watermelon slices.
Another man, who declined to give his name for fear of being doxxed, but asked to be referred to as “a Jew” was waiting on line for his three chickens to be slaughtered. One of the activists urged him to do kaporos with money, rather than a live chicken, and mentioned the way he was holding the chicken is damaging it, making it no longer kosher. “For a shiksa you sure know a lot about Kashruth," he replied, using a word that means "keeping kosher."
“When the KGB tried to stop the Hasidim from following the mitzvahs in Russia at the threat of death and torture, we didn’t give in,” the man, who declined to give his name because he didn't want to be confronted by animal rights activists, told Gothamist/WNYC. “Some people that don’t know what they’re talking about, don’t know what the Jewish tradition is that come here and think because they have some mercy on some animals that they can teach us how to act better they should really learn a little bit of history.”
Rina Deych is one of the founding members of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos and comes from an Orthodox family with 18 generations of rabbis, so she believes she too knows a little about Jewish history and tradition. She said she’s been protesting kaporos for over 20 years, when she was one of the only people outwardly criticizing the ritual.
“Nobody in my family used chickens, in fact, some people didn’t even do the ritual. It’s not in the Torah, it’s not in the Talmud,” she said, although she admitted it is in another book. “In the original one written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, he called it a foolish custom.”
Deych claims that Caro wrote that in the 1500s, and a few years later another rabbi took out the commentary that called the ritual foolish and instead encouraged it.
For many though, it’s just that: an annual tradition, fun for the whole family.
Ariel Kullock, 29, and his wife live in Crown Heights and participate in kaporos every year with live chickens, and he disputes the idea that any animals are abused.
“Judaism 100 percent cares about the well being of animals,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s any suffering that happens to the animals and it’s just a custom.”
Kullock said he does have friends that do it with money, not chickens, but “this is part of Jewish custom that we have for thousands of years and, because of that, that’s something I’m sure the spiritual value of it is more significant.”
He added the chickens are killed and made into soup for the poor.
The group leading the protests has tried to end kaporos through the legal system, too. They filed a lawsuit several years ago, claiming the NYPD violated 15 laws by allowing the slaughter of chickens to take place. The group claims the animals are treated cruelly in the days leading up to the festival by being crammed in crowded crates, poorly fed, and then swung by the feet during the ritual. The case divided the judges 3-2, so it went to the appeals court. last September. The appeal was thrown out in November.
The mayor’s office declined to comment, but a spokesperson for the Health Department wrote in an email that nothing illegal is happening at the kaporos festival. “The NYC Health Department maintains that the annual Kaporos ritual does not pose a significant threat to human health. The NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets responds to complaints regarding illegal slaughtering. The NYPD responds to animal cruelty complaints,” the spokesperson wrote.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund disputes this.
“The conditions to which birds are subjected during kaporos (being held outside in small and barren wire cages; exposed to the elements without food or water; and injured or improperly slaughtered birds being thrown in garbage bags, deprived of medical care and left to agonizing deaths) clearly violate New York’s state animal cruelty law,” Cristina Stella with The Animal Legal Defense Fund wrote in a statement.