Members of the Hasidic community gathered across Brooklyn on Monday night to observe the annual pre-Yom Kippur kaporos ritual—a controversial atonement practice that involves reciting a prayer while swinging a live chicken over one's head three times, then handing it off to a butcher to be slaughtered.
Roughly 50,000 live chickens are carted out to the street on trucks for the occasion each year, to be sold by local congregations for $17 per head (hens for woman, roosters for men). By sundown on Monday, parking lots and intersections across Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park had transformed into ad hoc slaughterhouses, with crowds of families transferring their sins to the poultry.
But just as the slaughter was getting underway, penitents in the kaporos epicenter of Crown Heights were met by a familiar foe: Hundreds of animal rights activists and members of the increasingly organized kaporos-resistance, who have in recent years attempted to disrupt the mass sacrifice. After a brief rally condemning the cruelty of kaporos, the group marched silently down President Street toward Kingston Avenue, where they collided with the lively, foul-smelling scene.
"Murderers! Shame on you!" shouted a protester wearing a surgical mask and poncho, as she sprayed water in the direction of the chickens. Fired up members of the two sides screamed at each other from across the barricade, exchanging insults in English and Yiddish, as a group of young boys used their hats to block cell phone video taken by reporters and activists. A heavy police presence separated potential scufflers, and before long, a majority of the religious observers returned to their prayer ritual, while the activists continued nurturing the squawking animals.
"The purpose is to try to provide love and care to the chickens in their final moments of life," explained a protester named Peter, who said he'd been demonstrating against the custom since 2013. "There's more of us every year."
Surveying the scene, an older Hasidic man declared, "No matter what you do, we're still going to kill them."
The moment 100+ animal advocates descended on Kapporos pic.twitter.com/V1roa8XZMh
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) September 18, 2018
In recent years, the anti-kaporos protest has become its own sort of ritual. Led by the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, high-profile showdowns have occasionally gotten ugly, with activists labeling the event an "animal holocaust," and Hasidic volunteers allegedly shoving protesters, and their young children, in retaliation.
The animal advocates have also documented instances in which caged chickens resorted to eating each other, or were abandoned in parking garages and left to starve once the ceremony concluded. Despite promises that the meat is donated to charity, a video taken by one resident in 2015 revealed that the piles of bloodied, feces-covered carcasses sometimes wind up in the back of a garbage truck.
While Monday's clash saw its moments of tension, particularly in the initial face-off, advocates on both sides said that, on the whole, the encounters were more peaceful than in past years. Pamphlets shared with protesters ahead of the event discouraged them from directly interfering in the ritual or taking the chickens home with them—something that has happened in the past.
"There was much less taunting and shouting from the practitioners," said Rina Deych, a longtime activist and one of the founders of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos. "It’s hard to argue with a person who is just performing a kind deed, in this case feeding and giving water to chickens who have been languishing in crates for days without food, water, and protection from the elements."
For the first time, members of the group Jewish Veg participated in the protest as well, circulating among the festivities to suggest that participants hold the chickens by their stomachs, instead of the more common, and painful, method of grabbing them by the wings.
"As fellow Jews we believe it doesn't need to be done this way," explained Sage Max, a 21-year-old Program Associate with Jewish Veg from West Harlem, to a trio of young Hasidic girls. "You can hold them respectfully, you can give them food and water when you transport them. You can even use money."
The teenagers seemed receptive to the ideas, Max said afterward, as did at least some some Orthodox parents. "They do seem more relaxed when you hold them this way," David Babinet told Gothamist, while instructing his young sons how to properly hold the chicken without hurting it. "I'm not trying to make animals suffer." But he added that he didn't appreciate the "offensive protesters," and wished the cops would keep them further away from the ritual area.
Anti-kaporos protester Elliot Reed, dressed in a full suit and black gloves, had his own issue with the NYPD's enforcement priorities. He accused the police of intentionally turning a blind-eye to a slew of violations that come with kaporos, citing health code prohibitions on tossing blood and animal matter into the streets, unlicensed butchering, and conducting street activity without a permit. "If the traditional boiling of dogs and cats took place in Chinatown, I'd expect the NYPD to stop that too," he told Gothamist.
Similar arguments were made in an ongoing lawsuit, filed three years ago by the anti-kaporos contingent, alleging that the slaughter is a public health risk. That complaint was previously dismissed by a Manhattan Supreme Court judge, and is now pending before the New York Court of Appeals.
"Leaving chickens outdoors without food, water, or protection from the elements, denying injured chickens medical care, and disposing of their bodies in the streets are precisely the types of actions prohibited under New York law," read a brief filed earlier this month by the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Hasidic adherents, meanwhile, see attempts to reign in the chicken sacrifice as an infringement on their religious freedom, and accuse protesters of stooping to anti-Semitism to make their point. Mordechai Lightstone, a community member who's active on social media, pointed to a video taken earlier in the night of a protester referencing the "inbreeding going on" in the Hasidic community. He said that New York's Orthodox population faces rising levels bigotry, and urged the activists to at least ask about the purpose of the ritual before shouting it down.
"The reason we do it this way, as opposed to getting our chicken shrink-wrapped from the store and pretending it grew like that, is because when you go through this act, you see what's real and you have an experience, and it speaks to you," Lightstone told Gothamist. "It makes you think: What am I doing with my life, what am I doing for the fellow human beings around me?"
"I see the humanity in the protesters, and respect their right to live in New York City," he added. "I hope they'll do the same for me."
Neither the NYPD nor the NYC Health Department responded to Gothamist's requests for comment.