Last night, as animal rights activists screamed "Murderers!" and waved signs of protest from behind a barricaded portion of Eastern Parkway, hundreds of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish families gathered to perform the atonement ritual of Kaporos— a process of waving a live chicken over their heads while reciting prayers.
Kaporos is a ritual of atonement that symbolically transfers a person's sins to the living chicken as it is held aloft. After the ritual, the chicken is slaughtered, thereby absolving the observant Jews of their sins. Practicing Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox Jews comprise the majority of those who partake in the ritual using live chickens.
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But many at last night's Kaporos gathering saw the ritual itself as a sin. "I believe this is wrong. It's animal cruelty," said Park Slope resident Michael Dolling, 26. As feathers collected on the asphalt and the air filled with cacophonous squawking, Dolling took a five dollar bill from his pocket and purchased a chicken that had been just used for Kaporos with the intention of taking it to a farm animal refuge upstate. "I feel terrible not giving just $5 to save one life," she said.
"I go to wherever the masses are congregating at and speak up for animals and animal rights. I'm not targeting the Jews, it's got nothing to do with religion, it's purely a matter of animal rights."
Most of the participants at last night's gathering paid no mind to Dolling and the other protesters, and concentrated on the ritual itself. "This is the Torah that came down from God to Moses. We don't write the Torah, we follow the commandments," said Shmuel Spielman.
Spielman, 47, lives in Crown Heights and saw no issue with the hoisting of the live chickens, and was upset by protesters' screams and accusations. "They're being brainwashed, they don't know the whole story. If they read the Torah and know where it's coming from, they'll see that we don't make this up," he said.
At one point, a group of teenage Hasidic boys confronted a man who stood amongst the protestors holding a sign and wearing a yarmulke. Midwood resident Keith Sanders, 34, screamed in both English and Hebrew against the use of chickens as Kaporos. "Even as an observant Jew, I can realize when something here is wrong," Sanders said. "You have to feed the animals before you feed yourself; it's illegal in most places and wrong everywhere."
Sanders specifically called out the claim that, once slaughtered, last night's chickens would be given out of charity to needy families. "If you go watch the slaughtering, many of them are not killed by the first immediate cut, which is the requirement, so they’re not Kosher. And because they’re not Kosher they do have to be disposed of in garbage bags," he claimed.
Sanders's pleas were met with skepticism. "I disagree with the people coming here, I think they should mind their own business," Samuel Sampson said. Sampson, 22, stood on one side of a small, police-monitored buffer zone opposite the protestors, having finished his own Kaporos. "America has freedom of religion and it’s not a problem. If they have a problem with it, it’s their problem. They can’t stop us.”
Like Dolling, a number of protesters seemed eager to cooperate with the atoning Jews and provide the chickens a safe home after being swung overhead. Rather than see the animals put back into plastic crates and taken to be killed, Jenny Brown of Woodstock hoped that some could be rescued to the farm animal sanctuary that she runs. “We’ve gotten over 100 of these particular chickens from these ceremonies from over the years," Brown said. "They live a good long life with us.”
Brown said that in the past some drivers of the chickens' transport trucks have even given them whole crates of chickens that would have otherwise been killed.
"I just don’t know what kind of compassionate God would be okay with it,” she said.
By 8 p.m., the picketing crowd, which at one point topped out at over 40 people, had largely dissipated, and most Jews had finished their Kaporos and were preparing to go home. Most of the 3,000 chickens had been returned to their small plastic pens.
Suffolk County Hasidic Rabbi Berel Sasonkin acknowledged the ritual's controversy, but insisted in its importance. "This is a whole issue, a big concept, what is the right of a human being to eat an animal. At the grocery I haven’t seen these people. Today in the modern world kids probably think a chicken grows in a grocery."
Sasonkin added, "The whole idea of atonement is to bring your heart. And when you do this, and a live being is going to die instead of your heart, it makes you more passionate. That's why we use the animal."