Feature: The Greening Of Kashrut
In Connecticut, New York and California, young Jewish activists are taking responsibility for procuring, slaughtering and
distributing kosher meat. Why the sudden interest?
On a foggy morning last September, two dozen young Jews gathered in a field to witness nine goats being slaughtered according to Jewish ritual law. a Most in their early twenties, the group was spending three months studying the connections between Jewish values and sustainable farming as part of the Adamah program, an environmental fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, about two hours from New York.
At 9 A.M., a truck pulled up and 31-year-old Aitan Mizrahi, who raises goats for meat and dairy products at the center, gently coaxed six young male animals from the back of the vehicle into a waiting pen. Goats, like cattle, have gender-driven destinies: The females are used for milking; males are slaughtered for meat.
The meat had been purchased by two Jewish food activists and an Orthodox rabbinical student, who drove up from New York to prepare and take home the forequarters, about 20 pounds per animal. The hindquarters, which Jews in this country do not consider kosher, will be given to non-Jewish friends.
Other goats raised by Mizrahi will go to the Adamah fellows, who will cook them as an educational exercise. Never mind that few of these young Jews eat meat—they’re committed to the do-it-yourself ethics the project represents.
“I’ve been a vegetarian for seven years, but I’m not against people eating meat,” said Ashley Greenspoon, 24, of Toronto, as she casts sidelong glances at the goats happily munching on grass in their holding pen. “It’s a part of our reality, and I think it’s very important for us to face it. So long as there is going to be meat eating in the world, we need to take responsibility and do it in a respectful way that honors life.”
The goat slaughtering is part of a small but steadily growing trend in the so-called new Jewish food movement, which builds on the idea of eco-kosher, an environmentally based approach to farming and dietary practice coined in the 1970s by Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement.
Today’s Jewish food activists broaden that legacy to include back-to-the-land ideas of sustainable agriculture—growing food in ways that do not deplete the soil; pesticide-free and organic farming; hormone-free animal husbandry; and buying local, in-season produce to reduce harm to the environment. They find justification for this mindful consumption in the Torah. It is, they claim, a deeply Jewish way of satisfying our food needs.
The local and organic food movements, Jewish or not, are heavily weighted toward vegetarianism. They have given rise to farmers markets, home gardens and, in 2000, national organic certification standards. But recently, a new generation is applying these same values to meat, demanding that the animals they eat be raised and slaughtered in an ethical manner rather than crammed together in industrial feedlots, injected with hormones and antibiotics and slaughtered carelessly by underpaid workers.
Still, few Americans are willing to slaughter their own animals. In the last two years, however, a handful of individuals have been organizing kosher meat and poultry operations outside the industrial slaughterhouse system.
Back in that Connecticut field, 32-year-old Shalom Kantor, a Conservative rabbi acting as shohet for the day, is quietly sharpening his knife. According to the laws of shehita, an animal must be slaughtered quickly and painlessly. The shohet runs his fingernail up and down the blade, checking for any nicks that could tear the animal’s skin. The knife is checked once before a day of slaughtering poultry, but when larger animals are slaughtered, the knife is rechecked between each animal.
Kantor—the only known Conservative shohet in the country—has just driven down from the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he is the Hillel rabbi. Although he trained for shehita in Israel under Orthodox supervision, because he is Conservative, his meat cannot be certified as kosher by any of the national certifying agencies, all of which are Orthodox.
The first goat is led to the bench and flipped quickly on its back. Two people hold its legs, one stroking its flank to calm it, while a third holds its head backward, its neck stretched out. Kantor steps in quickly, says the berakha— “…Who has commanded us regarding the mitzva of ritual slaughter”—and then makes a quick back-and-forth cut, severing the goat’s trachea and windpipe in one motion. The goat jerks for about 10 seconds, and several students gasp. A few cry softly but do not look away.
“There’s a piece of me that thinks that a Jew who can’t participate to some degree in the processing of an animal shouldn’t necessarily eat that animal,” said Kantor, who grew up hunting and fishing in Sun Valley, Idaho. There’s something amiss, he believes, with buying meat neatly wrapped in cellophane. It can lead people to forget that meat was once part of an animal whose treatment, in life and death, is carefully outlined by Jewish law. The laws of kashrut, he says, do not permit mindless killing.
So far, the young Jewish meat movement is small, limited to a handful of activists on the East and West Coasts. Less than two years old, it has created a buzz, including a New York Times Magazine cover story last October.
These new groups are not the first to produce organic kosher meat. Wise Organic Pastures, a 15-year-old Brooklyn-based company, offers organic, free-range kosher chicken and turkey under the David Elliot label and will soon offer grass-fed organic kosher beef as well. Solomon’s Finest Glatt Kosher Meats in South Dakota produces kosher organic beef and free-range lamb, bison, goat and, most recently, elk.
But the new movement wants to go further. Proponents are taking direct responsibility for procuring, slaughtering and distributing free-range, pasture-fed meat.
A major catalyst for the launching of the Jewish meat movement was the recent scandals in the world of industrial meat production, particularly the case against Agriprocessors, the United States’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, in Postville, Iowa. By late 2008, the plant had shut down, its owners facing criminal prosecution.
The Agriprocessors case was a wake-up call. “If I’m going to eat meat, I have to do everything possible to make sure the process is as humane as possible,” said Simon Feil, 32, a Brooklyn-based actor. In 2007, he founded the nonprofit Kosher Conscience. His first project was providing organic, free-range kosher turkeys for Thanksgiving. That fall he procured 24 birds, found a Hasidic shohet willing to work with him and distributed the turkeys in mid-November through an Orthodox synagogue in New York.
In 2008, he sold 65 turkeys. And though Feil’s turkeys are about twice as expensive as those sold in a supermarket, that didn’t stop 27-year-old nutritionist Linda Lantos from buying two. “I’d rather eat meat less frequently and know where it comes from,” she explained.
Like Feil, others involved in the kosher meat revolution have no background in that industry. They are white-collar professionals who had to learn the ropes from the bottom up, everything from relative yields of different breeds of turkey to butchering and packaging meat.
Maya Shetreat-Klein is a 34-year-old pediatric neurologist from the Bronx. She had been advising patients suffering from food allergies to buy hormone-free meat and poultry. But in 2007, when her infant son was experiencing similar ailments, she was unable to serve it to her own child because no kosher option she trusted existed.
“I would go to my CSA [community-supported agriculture, a system of buying in bulk directly from farmers] and I would see everyone picking up their naturally raised, grain-fed meat, and there was none for the kosher folks,” she recalled. “So I said to a friend, why can’t we do that?”
It took her a year to organize her first slaughter. Organic farmers in the New York area were more than willing to sell her their animals, but finding a shohet and rabbi to act as mashgiah proved more difficult. It took a friend’s help to locate two willing to work with her.
In August 2008, she launched Mitzvah Meat, a cooperative for grass-fed, humanely raised and slaughtered kosher lamb and beef from Hudson Valley farms. That month the new concern slaughtered 31 lambs and 2 cows, distributing the meat in New York and New Jersey.
“I feel that Judaism is very much about kindness to animals,” Shetreat-Klein said, referring to tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, the commandment to show kindness to animals. While that mitzva technically applies only to domesticated animals—exhorting Jews not to make them carry heavy burdens and to allow them to rest on Shabbat—the new movement interprets the law more broadly.
“The whole concept of Judaism is of being thoughtful and mindful about everything that you do, channeling the spirit of God through your action,” Shetreat-Klein added. “And I just can’t see how animals raised for kosher slaughter right now fit that definition.”
New York businessman Larry Schwartz buys his meat from Shetreat-Klein and coordinates her distribution site at his Conservative synagogue in Montclair, New Jersey. Most of the 35 customers he sells to are Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews. “The demand is huge,” he reported. “Even people who don’t keep kosher have expressed interest.”
Like many others, Schwartz said he was “deeply impacted” by The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Group), Michael Pollan’s best-selling indictment of industrialized farming.
Schwartz had been buying organic chickens from Wise for years. After reading Pollan’s book, he stopped. “It became clear to me that I didn’t want to eat industrialized meat,” he said. “It’s great that they exist, but I wanted to move beyond that.”
The first and largest of these independent Jewish meat projects is KOL Foods, launched in 2007 by Devora Kimelman-Block of Silver Spring, Maryland. Although she is not vegetarian, she and her husband stopped bringing meat into their home more than 16 years ago because the only kosher meat they could find came from industrial slaughterhouses with practices (such as use of hormones) they rejected.
KOL stands for kosher, organically raised and local, and Kimelman-Block’s grain-fed lamb and beef is certified by Star-K, a nationally recognized kosher certification agency in Baltimore.
KOL slaughtered its first three cattle in July 2007, selling 400 pounds of kosher meat in three weeks. A second group of six sold out in less than a week, bringing in $11,000. By late 2008, KOL Foods was slaughtering once a month to the tune of $20,000, though little of that is profit. It takes a lot of capital to produce kosher meat, especially on a small scale.
Kimelman-Block speaks about her project at synagogues and food conferences around the country. She has hundreds of customers, from New Jersey to North Carolina. For the time being, to keep it local, she won’t ship more than a two-hour drive from her butchers.
“I’m trying to provide and promote sustainable food choices and to make it available and acceptable to the kosher community,” she stated.
Although young Jews outside the organized community have taken the lead on this, the Agriprocessors scandal moved the mainstream Jewish world to action as well.
On August 1, 2008, the Conservative movement announced guidelines for its Magen Tzedek, or shield of justice certification. More than a year in the making, the seal (originally called Hekhsher Tzedek) will be given to kosher food producers who adhere to certain standards regarding worker treatment, environmental protection, corporate transparency and animal welfare. (In December, the initiative, spearheaded by Rabbi Morris Allen of Minnesota, received $100,000 from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.)
Initially, the announcement raised hackles in the Orthodox world, generating denouncements from groups such as Agudath Israel, which saw it as a Conservative attempt to “take over” kashrut. In fact, the seal will only appear on products already certified kosher, and initiative organizers have been talking to heads of several kashrut agencies about cooperation.
The Reform movement—which is showing new interest in kashrut observance—signed on almost immediately to the initiative, declaring that only food produced in accordance with a wide range of Jewish ethical values should be considered fit to eat.
The modern Orthodox movement, leery of stretching the definition of kashrut to include issues not halakhically required, came up with its alternative in September 2008. The Rabbinical Council of America, the professional association of modern Orthodox rabbis, announced work on “Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines” to business practices for industry in general and the kosher food industry in particular. While adherence to the guidelines will be voluntary, the impulse is a recognition that there is more to kashrut than how the shohet’s knife is wielded.
In December, two new Orthodox groups announced that they will be awarding ethical seals. Uri L’Tzedek, founded by students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, is now offering (for free) its Tav Hayosher (seal of honesty) to kosher restaurants in New York that adhere to rules of fair pay, regular time off and a safe, healthy work environment for employees. And in Los Angeles, Peulat Sachir, the Ethical Labor Initiative, will award to kosher restaurants and other Jewish-related businesses a stamp of approval that reflects California’s labor laws: minimum wage, overtime, rest and meal breaks, workers compensation, fair-leave policies and antidiscrimination protection.
Meanwhile, the movement is growing. In November 2008, Shetreat-Klein served 100 customers and had requests from Boston, Denver, Arizona, Oregon and Canada.
Kimelman-Block continues to ramp up production and add new distribution sites, and she has joined forces with Roger Studley, a former economics researcher in Berkeley, California, who has formed a West Coast affiliate of KOL Foods.
Studley’s first project was providing the poultry for the third-annual Hazon food conference, held December 2008 in Pacific Grove, California. On December 24, two dozen locally grown, pasture-fed, organic turkeys were kosher slaughtered on a farm near Sacramento. Studley and more than 20 volunteers drove up to eviscerate and pluck the birds’ feathers by hand. It was a lot of work, organizers admit, but it made an important statement.
Still, these efforts are but a drop in the $12.5-billion world of industrial kosher food production.
Shetreat-Klein says she is not trying to take on that world, just offer a compelling alternative. “What I want to do is just a little project,” she said. “We are creating ripples and maybe making major change just by virtue of our own mindfulness.” H