It's that time of year again: the High Holy Days, 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, mark the beginning of the Jewish New Year and for Jews are a time of reflection, repentance, and celebration. The days that make up the period, commonly known as Yamim Noraim, or the Days of Awe, include a variety of practices, such as intermittent fasting, prayer, reconciling with people one has wronged, and giving to charity. In strictly observant Hasidic communities around the world, the lead-up to Yom Kippur is the time for Kapparot, a ritual in which one buys a live chicken—hens for women, roosters for men—waves it 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 it, or a cash equivalent, to be donated to the poor.
In the Hasidic enclaves of South Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Crown Heights, where tens of thousands of Hasidim reside and many more visit for the holidays, this means that crates containing thousands of birds are on their way—at least one slaughter organizer named in a lawsuit last year purportedly put in an order for 50,000 birds—and backyards, parking lots, and sidewalks are in the process of being transformed into makeshift slaughterhouses.
Animal rights activists have a problem with this. Around 40 protesters with the group Alliance to End Chickens As Kaporos rallied on the steps of City Hall yesterday, demanding that the city enforce a litany of animal cruelty, sanitation, and slaughterhouse regulation laws that they say are routinely broken by Brooklyn practitioners.
"We recognize the freedom of religion, but it does not give you a license to break the law," said Nora Constance Marino, a lawyer for the activists. "If it did, you would be able to stone your wife in the street under sharia law and say, 'It's okay. It's my freedom of religion.' That's not happening."
Last year, activists said they watched one stack of crates full of birds in Borough Park go more than 15 hours without food or water, and said police officers refused to intervene, even as the starving birds resorted to cannibalism. In 2013, some 2,000 chickens died in crates outside a yeshiva in the neighborhood before the slaughter, after the temperature rose to an unseasonably high mid-90s, according to the Daily News.
During the slaughter last year at President and Crown streets in Crown Heights, officers from the 71st Precinct cordoned off a block for hundreds to congregate, and hundreds of chickens to be slaughtered by men on a makeshift platform, using traffic cones to place the chickens in as they bled out. Boy helpers assisted in tossing the chicken carcasses into piles in garbage bags. Video shot of the event shows one of the bags still kicking.
A lack of containment left the street and sidewalk caked in chicken feces, blood, and urine. A lack of evident refrigeration raised questions about how the chicken meat could be donated anywhere without sickening its recipients. Representatives of the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch, outside of which the event was held, didn't respond to calls seeking comment this year or last. However, contrary to the assertions of some activists, the chicken meat isn't always necessarily promised to be donated. Kapparot participants pay money (at this particular event $12) for each chicken, and in some cases organizers say they'll donate the money, not the meat, to charity. Whatever the case, at least some of the dead chickens from Crown and President wound up in a dumpster, and ultimately ended up in the back of a Sanitation Department garbage truck the following morning.
Marino called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to change the city's approach to the ritual.
"The authorities need to stop aiding and abetting these crimes," she said. "They need to step in and start enforcing the law."
Protesters rallied outside of City Hall on Wednesday to demand the city enforce health, sanitation, and animal cruelty laws at the kapparot slaughter. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)
Marino and the group sued the NYPD, the Health Department, and eight Jewish organizations and their leaders last year, citing reams of photo evidence and hours of video footage showing purported violations. A toxicologist hired by the chicken lovers asserted that the slaughter constitutes a massive health risk given that chickens can carry salmonella and the pathogen campylobacter, among other sources of disease, and due to the unrestricted nature of the event, such pathogens can be tracked throughout the city by anyone who happened to walk down a block where a slaughter occurred.
A judge threw out the lawsuit on the basis that city enforcement is discretionary in this case, and that the neighborhood residents who sued don't suffer in a way unique from other locals.
The demands of the activists are a sort of inverse of the landmark 1993 Supreme Court decision Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, in which a Santeria church successfully claimed that the Florida city where it operated created a set of animal slaughter laws that singled them out for special regulation, in violation of their First Amendment rights. Defense attorneys for Kapparot organizers invoked the case in their defense, and Rabbi Shea Hecht, board chairman of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, has cited freedom of religion as the overriding protection of the practice, and described the protesters as "anti-Jewish forces." In her decision throwing out the case, New York County Supreme Court Judge Debra James ruled that the principle raised by Lukumi doesn't apply here.
Still, the case was thrown out.
City Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci said in a statement, "We believe the trial court reached the right result."
Daniel Mach, the ACLU's Freedom of Religion and Belief Program, said that as long as health, sanitation, and other laws are applied uniformly from one person to the next, there wouldn't necessarily be a problem with officials trying to police the way Kapparot is carried out in New York.
As a general principle, he said, "Religious exercise should be accommodated to the greatest extent possible without harming health safety or the rights of others."
The activists might have better luck, Mach said, if they found someone of another religion who was punished for doing something similar with animals.
"If someone came forward who was just slapped with a fine for animal cruelty or some health code violation, they would likely have more standing," Mach said. Given that many of the activists are vegans, this might be a tough arrangement to work out.
In smaller Hasidic communities, including ones in Australia and the Chabad congregation in suburban Detroit, the ritual is often carried out in slaughterhouses.
The city has punished Kapparot organizers for breaking animal cruelty and sanitation laws in the past, but various city agencies are exceedingly tight-lipped about what if anything they've done lately—in fact, the NYPD press office and the Health Department did not respond at all when I reached out to them repeatedly last year.
But an Officer Bulzoni, who works Community Affairs for Crown Heights's 71st Precinct, said that it's not the NYPD's job to look for violations during Kapparot, because the ritual is protected by the First Amendment, and also, it would be difficult to document, for instance, chickens being deprived of water. "If we go to court, what do I have to stand on?" he said. More importantly, though, is the freedom of religion issue, as he explained at length in a phone interview today:
[The ceremony is] for religious purposes. The NYPD does not take enforcement for chickens. That might be something the Health Department would do, but the NYPD does not do that. We keep the peace.
It’s a religious ceremony. How would it look if the police department tried to stop a religious ceremony? How would that look? You’d have me on the 8 o’clock news, in my blue uniform with a gun on my gun-belt, and I stopped a religious ceremony. Would that look like America to you?
That’s for government officials and/or the Health Department to figure out…If a government official wants to tell me this has to happen because of A, B, or C, and the public agrees, then that’s fine. But to put the onus on the police department to stop a religious ceremony is absolutely the wrong thing to do.
If you see me doing it, you might be like, “You know what? He’s helping the chickens. I like that cop. He’s a good cop.” But to somebody else, he just broke up a religious ceremony. That’s the plight that the police department has. You can’t make it that simple because it’s not.
Because at the end of the day, you’re giving me too much power, if you think about it logically. Right? Because you don’t want me to have that kind of power. Because if I have that kind of power, that’s a militant state. If you give the police department the power to stop every single thing you don’t agree with, that’s a militant state, is it not?
Asked about the issue, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would only say, as it has for years, that it respects religious beliefs but opposes animal cruelty. A spokeswoman added when pressed that the organization would help the NYPD with an investigation if asked. She deferred to the department when asked if the NYPD had made such a request.
The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office said it brought no animal cruelty prosecutions against Kapparot practitioners last year.
Activists have also filed an appeal, and Constance Marino said she expects a decision in early 2017. Some activists ascribe the supposed reluctance of the authorities to take action around the ritual to the fact that Hasidic groups vote in blocs, meaning a good relationship with a handful of rabbis can mean the difference of thousands of votes on Election Day.
While the appeals judge deliberates, the ritual will go on this year, as will chicken activists' vigils, rallies, rescues, and impromptu religious lectures aimed at convincing Hasidim to use coins instead of chickens, and donate the money to charity, as Orthodox Jews of other persuasions have done for centuries. Local Hasids are aware of the controversy, but those we spoke to this morning showed no signs of wavering on what their rabbis have decreed.
"It's a mitzvah. God commands me to do it, and God tells us it is good for the chicken also," said Avraham Ashkenazi, a 19-year-old visiting from Israel. "I could do it with money, but God says it is better with the chicken."
People's objections are "a misunderstanding," said Gaby Fal, 52, of Crown Heights. "We do it because it's a commandment for the Yom Kippur day. We don't just sacrifice them for nothing...The issue here is those who are ignorant and see it as a violent scenario."
Kapparot can be performed throughout the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the 24 hours before the beginning of Yom Kippur (at dusk on Tuesday) is preferred because, as the Chabad organization website puts it, "a 'thread of Divine kindness' prevails during those hours." As the site notes, the Torah prohibits causing animals unnecessary suffering. (Kapparot, by contrast, is rooted in a set of Ashkenazic traditions dating back to medieval times, with no clear origin in the foundational Torah or the Talmud.)
In court papers, a lawyer for Brooklyn practitioners wrote that the ritual has been performed in the borough for the last 40 years or so.
Crown Heights resident and goy Josh Richards won't be participating in the event, but he can see both sides.
"It could be done in a more appropriate place," he ventured. "The smell is offensive at times."
Additional reporting by Scott Heins