I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time this past week saving the lives of sixty-three chickens and protesting a despicable tradition which stems back millennia. Our protests throughout the week were heavily covered by various media outlets . We were featured on KTLA 5 (channel 5), CBS News (channel 2), the front page of The Los Angeles Times (twice — no, thrice, and one more time), Jewish Journal (twice — no, thrice), The Jerusalem Post, JTA, LA Weekly, LAist, MSN News, and KFI AM 640.
It is a ritual called Kapparot (also known as Kapparah, Kaporos, Kaparot, Kaporot and Kapores) that is part of the observance of the highest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). In this ritual a rabbi swings a live chicken over a person’s head to channel the sins of the human into the chicken. This is to ensure a good year for the human full of health and prosperity. A rooster is used for men and a hen is used for women. A few passages are read from the Torah (the “Old Testament”) and the following is recited three times:
“This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster (or hen) will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.”
The chicken is then killed with a sharp blade dragged across his or her throat.
Many Jews prefer to use money instead of chickens because of their acknowledgement that the use of chickens in the Kapparot ritual is animal cruelty. To many Jews, the use of chickens in Kapparot directly violates a principle which bans “unnecessary” animal cruelty, known by Jews as “Tza’ar ba’alei chayim” (literally translating to “the suffering of living creatures”). They say that because money is an acceptable alternative, it is not necessary to use chickens.
A week ago, I didn’t know about any of this. My father mentioned the ritual to me a long time ago, telling me how his grandfather used to practice the ceremony on him when he was a child and how much he hated seeing a chicken suffer in that way, but over time I forgot about it. I was invited to a protest against the use of chickens for Kapparot, organized by Rabbi Jonathan Klein and Gina Palencar, co-founders of Faith Action for Animals. Over one-hundred activists and locals (many of them Jews) showed up for the protest on Sunday.
We expected to be met with resistance. We expected to see chickens suffering. But we could never have expected what actually transpired.
A protest which originally was supposed to last one day stretched on to an entire week, beginning on Sunday, September 8th and ending Friday, September 13th. Whatever plans I had for this past week were forgotten. Protesting and rescuing became my entire existence. My life has been consumed by chanting, crying, laughing, screaming, hugging, supporting, driving, standing, walking, pacing, debating and trying to maintain my sanity. My garage has been the half-way house between misery and freedom for almost all the sixty-three chickens who were fortunate enough to make it out alive. Many of us have put in 12-hour days, having only enough time for one meal a day and three or four hours of restless sleep each night. My body feels like I got hit by a bus. The incredibly disturbing things we have seen, heard and smelled over the course of one week are enough to make anyone question their faith in humanity.
We witnessed firsthand horrifying cruelty and neglect. Chickens, who were crammed in cages, stepping on each other, bleeding, defecating and laying eggs over each other that would crack open and ooze through the wire cage floor onto the chickens below, becoming caked on what few matted feathers they had. Chickens with nails two inches long. Chickens panting in the 90 degree heat. Chickens with puss-filled holes where their eyes used to be. Chickens who were given no food or water except for the occasional hose-down after enough pleading from activists to “please be merciful” (though we tried to give them as much water as we could from our own bottles).
We witnessed firsthand disgusting exhibits of waste, environmental destruction and malice. Workers dumping entrails and blood into storm drains. Garbage bags full of stinking, rotting chicken corpses. Workers throwing the hacked up remains of chickens at protesters and laughing about it.
We witnessed firsthand the early indoctrination of speciesism and human supremacy onto little children not even old enough to walk. Families with children of all ages from infancy to young adulthood witnessing the slaughter of chickens in the wooden huts erected to shield their despicable acts of torture and murder from the public eye. Children begging their parents to not take them inside. Other children picking out which chicken they wanted to have slaughtered, “This one is fluffy and cute! I want this one!”, stroking and petting the trembling chickens who would be murdered in front of their own eyes a few moments later.
(This was one of the most heartbreaking moments for me. We were unable to save this little girl.)
We were called anti-Semites, racists, drug addicts, drunks, extremists, crazy people and countless other things. Many sexist slurs and insults were lobbed against female activists by orthodox Jewish men. One woman was actually told by a man of the Ohel Moshe synagogue “you deserve to be raped — you’d like it, wouldn’t you?”. People laughed and mocked the chicken’s cries of anguish. Dead body parts were thrown over fences at us. Fights broke out. Half a dozen police cars were on site, as well as a police helicopter. It was sheer pandemonium. It wasn’t a protest — it was a war.
But this all came from a very small section of the orthodox Jewish community. The majority of the community who live in the immediate area of the temples in which the murders were carried out confessed that they agreed with us. They don’t like hearing the cries of chickens being butchered through the windows of their homes. They don’t like people killing chickens if it “isn’t necessary” (as many of them eat meat, but disapprove of ritual sacrifice). They don’t like what they call “big business” and have told many of us that the rabbi’s running this ritual slaughter are doing it for the money, calling them “crooks”, “greedy”, “liars”, and “an embarrassment to the Jewish community”.
We were not protesting against Judaism, religion or religious rituals — we were protesting against animal cruelty and murder.
But the Jewish community is understandably very tight-knit. The jewish people have been persecuted for millennia and have had to work together and support each other unquestioningly in order to survive. To speak out against any fellow member of the Jewish community is seen as a deep betrayal of trust, so even Jews who are against Kapparot with chickens are forced to keep silent for fear of ostracization. This makes it easy for a very small minority of orthodox Jews who support Kapparot with chickens to put social pressure on other members of the Jewish community who are opposed to the practice to keep silent, telling them that speaking out against it would cause a rise in anti-Semitism. I was told by many people, children mostly, but adults as well, “I agree with you guys, but please don’t tell anyone because they won’t want to talk to me”. This is halting progress from being made within the Jewish community — very few people in the Jewish community are willing to confront their friends and family about this issue, but we can’t hope for things to change if we won’t talk about them openly.
It’s important to note that we were not protesting against Judaism, religious rituals or religion in general — we were protesting against animal cruelty and murder. This week, the members of these synagogue’s saw us protesting in front of their place of worship, but what they do not see is all of us the other fifty-one weeks of the year protesting anywhere else injustice and oppression are perpetrated, whether it is a slaughterhouse that kills animals, a restaurant that sells animal products, a clothing store that sells fur and leather, a university that funds experimentation on animals, an airline that ships primates, businesses that profit from the exploitation of animals as entertainment (such as a circus, a rodeo, or a zoo), a “pet” store that sells animals, or a home of a vivisector. The fact is, if they weren’t harming living beings we wouldn’t have been there — we would have been protesting somewhere else.
A large portion of the hard work many of us put into this week-long event went toward the negotiation, rescue and homing of chickens. In total, we were successful in rescuing sixty-three chickens from slaughter. This victory is tempered by the thousands of chickens who died in the Los Angeles area alone this year and who were unfortunately unable to be saved. Though this victory is bittersweet, for sixty-three chickens who are now living in activist’s homes and animal sanctuaries, life will never be the same.
These chickens will no longer be valued by the quality of their meat or eggs, but by their intrinsic right to life, freedom and happiness.
These liberated beings are now finally free to learn how to be chickens. They will learn from their rehabilitated peers how to scratch at the earth, dust bathe, groom their new plumage, stand up big and tall and stretch their wings — all for the first time in their life. They will no longer be surrounded by fellow prisoners — they will now be surrounded by friends. They will no longer feel the forceful, clenching hand of a farm worker, but the gentle touch of a guardian. They will no longer be valued by the quality of their meat or eggs, but by their intrinsic right to life, freedom and happiness — things that all beings crave — and these things will be given to them in abundance.
I want to issue a gigantic THANK YOU to all who were a part of the rescue team. Negotiating, acquiring, care-taking, transporting, and homing: Vida Jafari, Niloo Veggiloo, Gina Palencar, Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Cory Mac, Jennifer Mack, Nicolas Tomas, Brenda Calvillo, Amy Nicole, Rachel Hoyt, Evey Rothstein, Fred Rosenbloom, Jesse Lama, Teague Vernell, Jen, Joanne, Alicia Pell, Christine — and please let me know if I’m forgetting anyone. I would also like to thank everyone else for contributing in other very important ways: showing up and participating, bringing tools and equipment for signs and other necessary things, documenting with film and photographs, providing a shoulder to cry on, and so much more.
Though we accomplished much, it is important to acknowledge where we failed. This war had many casualties, numbering in the thousands. We failed to rescue all the chickens who died in those filthy shacks. We failed them miserably and they paid the ultimate price. For this, I and many others will never forgive ourselves.
But we did succeed in other things. As a result of our protests, an animal rights issue has received far more favorable news coverage than I have ever seen before, with a message of compassion for all sentient beings reaching hundreds of thousands of people. Slaughter operations were shut down for environmental safety and health code violations after much public outcry and media attention. Alliances and bonds were formed within the animal rights community, empowering our movement and making us even stronger — we are a force to be reckoned with and we get shit done! And most importantly, the lives of sixty-three beautiful, innocent, perfect beings were spared so they may finally live their lives in peace.
But our work is not yet finished. Though Kapparot is finished this year, we will be working to make sure that Kapparot with chickens will be out of business for good, starting in the Los Angeles area and expanding until it is eliminated everywhere. We also cannot forget that there are other traditions constructed around the death of innocent beings. We must prepare ourselves to protest another upcoming tradition of murder: Thanksgiving.
We will not allow slaughter to be a tradition any longer. We will not rest until every animal is free. Stay tuned…
To read about three of the chickens who were given a home by Farm Sancuary’s Animal Acres in Acton, CA, click here.