At Center of Contentious Jewish Ritual, Chickens


On Sept. 16, two Mondays ago, Rina Deych planned to hold a peaceful vigil in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to protest an obscure Jewish ritual called Kapparot. She gathered 16 activists and lined the sidewalk. Soon, she was surrounded by a mob. Young boys, their heads covered by yarmulkes and faces framed by curled payos, threw eggs. The confrontation, Deych said, almost got physical. The root of contention was the ritual. But mostly, it was about chickens.

Kapparot, also spelled Kaporos, is a ritual observed by Hasidic Jews prior to Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Participants hold chickens by their wings and swing them repeatedly around their heads and the heads of family members, symbolically consigning human sins on to the fowl. The chickens are subsequently slaughtered, and their meat is cleaned and donated to the needy.

“Animals like chickens have no rights and no protections,” said Deych, 57, a lifelong Borough Park resident and the founding member of the Alliance to End Chicken as Kaporos. “It’s time to stop sacrificing animals in the streets.”

Animal rights activists have long alleged that little about Kapparot is kosher – literally and figuratively. Members of the Alliance to End Chicken as Kaporos, a group established in 2010 and based in Brooklyn, claim that the chickens are caged in deplorable conditions, left unfed, and held improperly by their wings, likening the act to holding a human being by one’s elbows. The group’s mission is to ultimately replace the use of all chickens in the ritual, advocating the use of money or coins instead.

After a growing tide of popular support against Kapparot practices last week, animal rights activists like Deych are broadening their movement, potentially pursuing legal action, in hopes of stymieing the use of chickens in the hotly debated Orthodox Jewish custom. The alliance’s operations now extend to California, and the group has fiercely recruited  rabbis and influential Jews to speak out against the practice. One Hasidic rabbi, Yonassan Gershom, lent his likeness and voice to the group for a minute-long YouTube video, in which he pleads to participants to spare chickens’ lives.

The movement’s Kapparot demonstrations throughout Brooklyn in early September included protests at slaughter sites. The group also arranged for a van plastered with illuminated photos of chickens to drive through the Hasidic enclaves of Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights. The alliance’s efforts attracted national attention and a spate of news coverage, including an article in the New York Daily News documenting the deaths of 2,000 chickens before Kapparot due to unseasonable heat. Alliance members cited the closure of two Kapparot sites in Los Angeles as their activism’s pinnacle of success.

Karen Davis, 69, also a founding member of the alliance, said the group wants to capitalize on its gaining momentum. While the protests have proven effective, she said, the group is busy diagramming another dimension of activism for next year’s Kapparot: poultry legal rights.

“If we pose a legal prohibition, it will make it too hard and too costly for people to continue this abuse,” Davis, also the president of United Poultry Concerns, said. “We want to make Kaporos impractical and shame them.”

The group has begun meeting with lawyers in order to plan a strategy. The precedent for ritual slaughter was set, Davis said, by a 1993 United States Supreme Court case, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, which ruled that Santeríans, followers of an Afro-Caribbean religion most common in Cuba, were permitted to practice animal sacrifice under First Amendment rights. In the case, Santeríans claimed animal sacrifice was an integral component of religious worship. Davis, who wants the Hialeah decision overturned, believes Kapparot falls under a different classification than animal sacrifice.

“Does the Hialeah decision cover mere religious customs?” Davis said.

Davis asserts that those who partake in the slaughter of chickens for Kapparot also violate a state agricultural and markets law that prohibits the torture of animals.  If the Hialeah ruling stands, she said, activists will seek to prove that a Supreme Court decision cannot  “negate the laws of New York State.”

Deych, the animal rights activist, also believes that a legal approach may be the best, if not only, recourse when protesting Kapparot.

“The community is very enclosed and separate,” Deych, who is not Hasidic, said. “Hasidic Jews are resistant to change, and this is something that will take time.”

A poster, in Yiddish, advertises the sale of chickens for Kapparot in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (Photo: Shayna Freisleben/NY City Lens)

A poster, in Yiddish, advertises the sale of chickens for Kapparot in Borough Park, Brooklyn. (Photo: Shayna Freisleben/NY City Lens)

The proliferation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, particularly Borough Park, where the population is among the fastest growing in New York, has directly contributed to the use of more live chickens for Kapparot each year. According to a geographic profile survey conducted by the United Jewish Appeal Federation, the Jewish population of Borough Park grew 71 percent from 2002 to 2011, to approximately 200,000 Jews.

Today, Hasidic Jews use one chicken per person for Kapparot – roosters for men and hens for women. Hasidic families in Borough Park average roughly nine members. Last year, Deych said, 60,000 chickens were used for Kapparot in Brooklyn alone.

The use of multiple chickens per family is a relatively recent phenomenon. Jewish families in 19th and early 20th century Eastern Europe, the geographic origin of the Hasidic movement and Jewish Orthodoxy, would seldom use more than one chicken for Kapparot. Yet, as the Hasidic Jewish population flourishes, its members have become both wealthier and more emboldened, according to Michael Stanislawski, a professor of Jewish history at Columbia University.

“The 10-chicken family is yet another manifestation of the embourgeoisement of Haredi and Modern Orthodox Judaism in our days,” Stanislawski said.

Because of the sheer size of the Orthodox community in Borough Park, and the influence that comes with a large population, few Hasidic Jews are fazed by the challenge posed by animal rights activists.

Yidel Perlstein, chairman of the District 12 Community Board, defended the practices of Kapparot as a long-standing Jewish custom, and dismissed allegations of animal abuse.

“A lot of these people go around looking for problems,” Perlstein, a Hasidic Jew, said. “They complain about the chickens being in crates, but they’re always like that.”

Davis, the founding Alliance member and a caretaker of chickens, disagrees.

“Transport crates are not intended to hold birds for days,” she said. “The chickens are given no water and are covered in urine and feces – it’s such a degrading way to treat a living creature.”

Davis continued: “I feel such agony and pity for the chickens, and so much rage and horror toward their abusers.”