United Poultry Concerns’ Campaign to End Chicken Kaporos
By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
The following report is written as a contribution to The National Museum of Animals & Society for its upcoming online exhibition, scheduled to debut on May 4, 2013, to coincide with International Respect for Chickens Day. The title of the exhibition is “Un-Cooped: Deconstructing the Domesticated Chicken.” www.museumofanimals.org
What is “Chicken” Kaporos?
I first heard of the strange-sounding ritual of “Kaporos” a few years after I founded United Poultry Concerns in 1990. A woman in Brooklyn called our office in the fall of 1994. In tears, she begged me to “do something” to help the hundreds of chickens who were stacked in transport crates on the city street where she lived. The chickens had been in the crates for days without food, water or shelter. She could hear their cries of distress from inside her apartment.
I began researching the ritual, which has various spellings including Kaporos, Kaparos, Kapparos, and Kapparot. It means “atonement” or “atonements,” “scapegoat” or “sacrifice.” The Kaporos chicken-swinging ritual is a custom dating to the Middle Ages. Hasidic practitioners in New York City, Los Angeles, Jerusalem and elsewhere wave chickens, held by their legs or suspended by their wings pinned backward, around their heads while chanting verses about transferring their sins and punishment symbolically to the bird in the days preceding Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The chant basically says, “This chicken is my atonement, my substitute. This chicken will die for my sins and I will go on to a happy and peaceful life.” The chicken’s throat is then cut by a rabbi, who thrusts the dying bird, head down, into a funnel to struggle and bleed to death over a bucket.
Chicken Kaporos is a public ritual conducted under tents erected for the purpose on sidewalks and school grounds, in parking lots or fenced yards. It can be a small rickety affair or a humongous horror show like the one in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. It goes on for hours, often all night until dawn, as one chicken after another is pulled from a crate, waved over the head of the adult practitioner, infant or child, and then slaughtered for a fee paid to the rabbi. The cries of the chickens rise above the scene of carnage and mayhem in the streets until all of them are dead or are left dying in dumpsters. Unused chickens may simply be abandoned in the crates when the ceremony is over. In 2005 and 2006, United Poultry Concerns adopted 65 Kaporos chickens confiscated by the ASPCA who had been abandoned in a flooded parking lot along with a group of crated chickens locked in a garage whose cries caused a neighbor to call for help.
Photo by: Karen Davis
The slaughtered chickens are said to be “given to the poor,” but while some may be given or sold to the poor, the trashing of dead and dying birds in plastic garbage bags has been witnessed repeatedly in New York and Los Angeles. Rabbis opposing the ritual say that chickens subjected to the conditions of Kaporos cannot be considered kosher, i.e., edible, regardless of how they get wherever they are going.
United Poultry Concerns Launches Our Protest Against Chicken Kaporos in 1995
In 1995, my first letter protesting Kaporos was published. It appeared in the Daily Freeman newspaper in Kingston, New York on October 17. Titled by the editor “Cruel, selfish and stupid,” it challenged the paper’s picturesque portrayal of Kaporos. I urged that the “shlug kaporos needs to be replaced with a non-violent religious observance. Punishing innocent creatures by afflicting them (literally or symbolically) with human sins and diseases is a benighted tradition,” I argued. “Yom Kippur represents atonement; even the wearing of leather is forbidden in the observance. Heaping one’s sins onto others is the opposite of atonement. The shlug kaporos is cruel, selfish, and stupid. It is not in the Talmud. It has no place in a world struggling to become civilized.” (Shlug kaporos has been translated as “beat the scapegoat” or “hit the sacrifice.” Shlug appears to be related to the German word shlogn meaning “to hit” or “to strike.”)
In November 1995, I corresponded with Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal, Executive Vice President of The New York Board of Rabbis at the time. He agreed that the ritual is cruel but pleaded that the Hasidim will not “readily change their patterns.” I replied that the Hasidic community, however insular, is part of the human community and that Kaporos “chicken swinging” is an abusive human practice that respected religious leaders should publicly oppose. I have since learned that ultra-Orthodox Judaism does not respect the opinions and authority of outsiders, Jewish or otherwise, but this does not excuse us from opposing it. Historically, social justice activists have always been charged with being “outsiders” who have no business interfering with “our way of life,” but practices that are cruel and unjust are everyone’s business.
In September 1996, I heard from a woman named Cherylynn Brown in Santa Monica, California. She said the rabbi and his family across the street from her house had put up a wooden fence around their yard. She learned there were chickens inside the fence and that they had been outside for days awaiting Kaporos. She arranged with Rabbi Levitanski to see the chickens.
In her subsequent report to United Poultry Concerns, Cherylynn described what she heard and saw: The chickens had “chirping baby voices. Their feathers had urine and feces covering them so they were a dark yellow-brown. Filth had crystallized on their feathers into hard stones along their undersides. When I found them,” she wrote, “they were wet from lying in the plastic cover on the concrete floor that was covered with urine, feces, and blood. Of the five holding pens, only two had containers of drinking water – and those were brown, full of excretions.”
Cherylynn’s report, “Kapparot ‘Broiler’ Chickens,” can be read at www.upc-online.org/kapparot.html. In the Fall-Winter 2009 edition of our quarterly magazine Poultry Press, we ran a condensed version, “Kapparot Chicken ‘Swinging’ Ritual: A Story of Suffering in the Clutches of ‘Custom.’”
The manila folder I started for Kaporos materials in 1994 now bulges with letters to the editor, articles and correspondences relating to Kaporos. Three 3-ring binders have been filled. More people in Los Angeles started contacting me in the early 2000s. One was Bill Dyer, who watched chicken Kaporos being conducted at a local high school. On September 13, 2002, he described the hysterical atmosphere, screaming children, and “discarded chickens, with their throats improperly slit, flopping around in cardboard boxes.” He said: “Over the laughter and comradeship of this faithful sect observing Yom Kippur, the chickens too could be heard. But no one, no one, is hearing their cries.”
Having protested at several Kaporos rituals in Brooklyn since 2010, and watched one being conducted through the trees during our protest on September 24, 2009 at the Chabad Shul in Potomac, Maryland, outside Washington, DC, I have to agree that Kaporos practitioners are deaf and blind to the birds apart from their sacrificial role as symbolic repositories for human sin and punishment which translates into their literal abuse as “punished objects.” Yet encouragingly, more and more people, including members of the Jewish community, Orthodox and otherwise, were beginning to hear the chickens and join our protest. In 2006, Los Angeles resident Nazila Mahgerefteh told UPC: “For 6 days until Oct. 1, morning to night, in front of adults, children and babies, these pitiful birds are swung around the practitioner’s head. Then the vocal chords are slit so the chickens cannot scream in pain, and then, still alive, the writhing birds are thrown into a plastic trash bag while still walking and looking for a way out of the bag with the head clinging to a cut throat.”
UPC Publishes A Wing & A Prayer in 2007
It was Nazila who proposed the title of what became, in 2007, our brochure A Wing & A Prayer – The Kapparot Chicken Swinging Ritual, available in print and online. A Wing & A Prayer gave activists an informative digest designed like old parchment to distribute to the heads of Rabbinical associations and other members of the Jewish community – most of whom had never even heard of Kaporos “chicken-swinging” and were horrified.
A Wing & A Prayer includes heart-wrenching photographs and eyewitness statements by Nazila Mahgerefteh and Cherylynn Brown in Los Angeles, Chedva Vanderbrook and Rabbi Gilad Kariv in Jerusalem, and two Brooklyn activists, David Rosenfeld and Sam Schloss, who, I learned, had been agitating together against Kaporos, all on their own for the chickens, for several years. In 2006, David Rosenfeld wrote to United Poultry Concerns:
“I am a member of the religious Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. This year I took pictures of the deplorable conditions in which the birds were kept. I believe they receive no food or water for the week or so that they are in the possession of the retailers. They certainly receive no food or water over the Shabbat. One Kapparot station had the birds outside exposed to the rain on a Shabbat through Sunday. I saw birds dead in their crates. Birds were crushed. Birds were opening and closing their mouths, probably out of thirst. The retailer who sold me my birds [to live in a sanctuary] tossed them into my box as if they were loaves of bread. The fact that most retailers didn’t even question me when I took pictures means that no one has made life difficult for people claiming to be religious and doing this to animals.”
NPR Covers Growing Opposition to Chicken Kaporos in Brooklyn in 2009
In September 2009, Barbara Bradley Hagerty of National Public Radio contacted me for a story she wanted to do about Kaporos. I put her in touch with David and Sam, who showed her around relevant sections of Brooklyn. They are featured in her report, “Swinging Chicken Ritual Divides Orthodox Jews,” which aired on September 26, 2009.
Hagerty’s NPR report contrasts the compassionate voices of David Rosenfeld, Sam Shloss, and Brooklyn Rabbi Shlomo Segal with the attitude of Rabbi Shea Hecht, chief promoter of the vast increase in the number of chickens being trucked to Brooklyn from industrial farms for Kaporos. In 2012 the number of chickens was said to be 60,000, up 10,000 from the previous year. Confronted with the fact that Kaporos practitioners can wave a packet of coins slated for charity over their heads, instead of waving chickens, Rabbi Hecht said coin-waving wasn’t, in Hagerty’s words, “visceral” enough for him. The high point of the service, he told her, “is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered. Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, ‘Oops, you know what? That could have been me.’”
UPC Discovers and Publicizes When the Chickens Went on Strike in 2009
“I hope you sell lots of copies of my book and I hope it helps bring the Kapporos use of chickens to an end once and for all. Our friend Sholom Aleichem would be rolling over in his grave if he knew it was still going on!” – Erica Silverman, author of When the Chickens Went on Strike, to Karen Davis via email, March 16, 2009.
In January 2009, I discovered a wonderful storybook in our library given to me by a fellow activist a few years before called When the Chickens Went on Strike, A ROSH HASHANAH TALE. Written by Erica Silverman and illustrated by Matthew Trueman, When the Chickens Went on Strike is adapted from the story Kaporos, by Sholom Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer best known for his tales which are the basis of the internationally acclaimed play Fiddler on the Roof. I emailed Erica and we corresponded. Sadly, this marvelous children’s book is currently out of print, so I searched the online booksellers and bought every single copy I could find, for resale by United Poultry Concerns. I mailed a complimentary copy to Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, former head of the Rabbinical Council of America, and we have advertised When the Chickens Went on Strike in all of our Poultry Press magazines and on our Website, ever since the Winter 2008-2009 edition of Poultry Press where we ran a two-page extract.
“Fellow fowl! You know why we are here!”
“Freedom for fowl!” they clucked.
“Rights for roosters!” they crowed.
“Strike! Strike!” they squawked.
The speaker flapped for attention. “Every year at this time, the villagers use us for a strange custom. They grab us and twirl us over their heads. They mumble strange words. They think this will take away their bad deeds.”
“The dumb clucks!” heckled a speckled hen.
The rooster went on, “They call this custom Kapores!”
“An end to Kapores!” a spring chicken shrieked.
“No more Kapores!” they all chanted.
The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos is Formed in 2010
On Sunday, June 13, 2010, a small group of New York City activists and I met at the Mercy For Animals office in Manhattan to discuss formation of an association dedicated to ending the use of chickens in Kaporos rituals. Of the Founding Members, the only New York City resident who wasn’t present was Dr. Richard Schwartz, head of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, who was away at the time. Richard’s informative article, “The Custom of Kapparot in the Jewish Tradition,” can be read at www.endchickensaskaporos.com/custom.html.
We had already decided before the meeting that we would not limit our goal to trying to make chicken Kaporos “more humane.” If you’ve ever attended the ritual and experienced its carnivalesque nightmare atmosphere, you understand why. Yes, you can (and should) try to get practitioners to stop holding the chickens suspended painfully and injuriously by their wings, which they do for hours just standing around chatting with each other even before “waving” their own bird over their heads. You can (and should) urge the rabbis to at least cover the birds with a tarp in the rain, and you can (and should) urge ASPCA inspectors to get out there, as I and others have done for years with token success. But without the unequivocal goal of ending an inherently cruel ritual which is specifically designed to make an animal suffer and die for a human being’s sins, you’re going to accomplish little or nothing, while conceding legitimacy to a practice that is not required by Jewish law and that flagrantly violates tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the Jewish mandate to avoid needlessly hurting animals and to show them compassion.
Following our meeting, and for the rest of the summer, we hashed over everything pertaining to the association we were starting via email and phone calls – what should we call ourselves, what is our Mission Statement, how will our first protest demonstrations in Brooklyn be conducted, should protesters be urged to wear dark clothing out of “respect”? What about a banner, buttons, a Logo, a Website?
Choosing a name for our fledgling association was contentious. Not all of the founders were Jewish or religious, let alone Orthodox. After much debate, and with the excellent, if sometimes impatient, input of Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, who was introduced to us by Richard Schwartz and who has become one of our staunchest allies and advisors, we chose to call ourselves the “Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos.” The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos is an association of groups and individuals who seek to replace the use of chickens in Kaporos ceremonies with money or other non-animal symbols of atonement. The Alliance does not oppose Kaporos per se, only the cruel and unnecessary use of chickens in the ceremony.
The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos makes three principle arguments:
- The use of chickens in Kaporos rituals is cruel.
- The use of chickens in Kaporos rituals is not required by Jewish law.
- The use of chickens in Kaporos rituals can be replaced by waving coins or other inanimate tokens of atonement.
In fact, Kaporos, however conducted, is not required by Jewish law. It is merely a custom with some very non-Jewish mystical beliefs woven into it. As I said before, most people I’ve met over the years never heard of Kaporos until our campaign.
Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is all about mercy, charity and repentance. Hurting animals violates the spirit of atonement rather than expressing it. Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz pointed out the irony in The Jewish Week, noting that Kaporos observers “should be cultivating mercy for all those who suffer and not be perpetuating pain on sentient creatures in the name of piety.”
The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos Moves Forward
The people I work closely with have made the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos an exciting, energetic, and growing project on behalf of the birds. They include scholar Richard Schwartz of Jewish Vegetarians of North America; Sheila Schwartz of the Humane Education Committee- United Federation of Teachers; animal rights activist David Rosenfeld of Williamsburg in Brooklyn; Brooklyn resident and Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary volunteer Dawn Ladd; UPC Correspondent in San Diego Ronnie Steinau; Rabbi Yonassan Gershom whose companion chickens at his home in Minnesota have inspired him to speak and write eloquently on their behalf; and New York City animal rights activist Rina Deych of Boro Park in Brooklyn.
For years, Rina Deych has taken her camcorder to the ritual, walked boldly into the tents, argued with the slaughterers and videotaped the heated episodes. Rina speaks out passionately about the cruelty to the chickens at every opportunity. She tells the media: “I live in the heart of Boro Park. Every year, I see chickens ROUTINELY thrown into dumpsters, the dead along with birds who are dying of dehydration, injury, exhaustion, and pain.” Rina’s video clips can be watched on the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos Website.
Photo: Carol Guzy, The Washington Post, October 9, 2010.
Since our formation in 2010, Brooklyn activist Dawn Ladd has come indispensably on board, and in 2012 Miriam Jones of VINE Sanctuary in Vermont joined us. In 2010, Sheila Schwartz engaged artist Judith Gwyn Brown to design our Logo, and Sheila commissioned our first banner. United Poultry Concerns Website Administrator Franklin Wade set up and maintains our End Chickens as Kaporos Website and designs the ads we run in Jewish publications preceding the Kaporos ritual each year. We are currently working on a professional video about Kaporos and the Alliance, which we hope to release on the Internet in 2014.
Media Coverage of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos is Supportive
The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos has received positive and encouraging news media coverage. A few highlights follow here and more are posted on our End Chickens as Kaporos Website. Coverage of United Poultry Concerns’ campaign to expose and eliminate chicken Kaporos prior to 2010, which includes my Op-ed in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Sept. 25, 2009, can be viewed on UPC’s Kaporos Website page.
Our first official Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos protest demonstration was held on September 12, 2010 in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Our afternoon protest demonstration and silent Candlelight Vigil the following night, while the chickens were being slaughtered on the sidewalk under the tents, drew the attention of Pulitzer Prizewinning photojournalist Carol Guzy, whose superb visual narrative, “An ancient tradition draws protests,” appeared in the online edition of The Washington Post on October 9, 2010.
Carol Guzy-The Washington Post
Our press releases, paid advertisements, Change.org Petitions, letters to Rabbinical Associations, and protest demonstrations over the past three years have all drawn coverage including articles and interviews by the Religious News Service, The Jewish Star, Brooklyn Courier Life, Huffington Post, NYC’s Channel 12, John Montone’s CBS WINS TV, Gothamist, The Jerusalem Post, Yediot Ahronot, and B’NAI B’RITH Magazine.
On November 23, 2010, Anna Vitale, host of MINDLIGHT on Queens Public Television QPTV Channel 34 in New York City, aired her studio interview with Alliance member David Rosenfeld, including horrific video footage of Kaporos in Brooklyn. On September 21, 2012, the Jewish Standard published an Editorial in support of our effort: “This Sunday and Monday, a group calling itself The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos will be conducting two protests in Brooklyn, in an effort to end the practice of hoisting live roosters or hens over people’s heads as a way for atoning for sins. . . . We support the demonstrations.”
“Sprouts of an awakening” among the very religious: Opposition to Chicken Kaporos Shows Worldwide Growth
“Menachem Friedman, an expert on Jewish religious society in Israel, said replacing chickens with donations to charity is a rising trend in Israel and around the world. . . . Most opposition to chicken kaparot has come from progressive Jewish circles, and modern Orthodox worshippers shun the practice, though Friedman said ‘there are sprouts of an awakening’ now among the very religious.” – The Associated Press, Oct. 7, 2011
The suffering of chickens under the direction of Rabbi Hecht, who told NPR in 2009 that he likes watching chickens die for his sins, is not limited to Brooklyn, and neither is opposition to Kaporos. More and more rabbis, scholars, and activists everywhere, including South Africa, are speaking out against chicken Kaporos on grounds of religion, morality, and compassion for animals. To learn more about the South Africa campaign, see “Chicken Rescue and Rehabilitation, South Africa.”
In Israel, opposition to the use of chickens in Kaporos rituals is visibly mounting. Jewish World reported on October 6, 2011 that the animal rights group, Anonymous, which has protested chicken Kaporos for years, received “surprising support this year from an ultra-Orthodox organization called Hemla,” whose spokesperson said: “We want to raise awareness to the horrible way that people hold the chickens. It’s inhumane – they sit in the sun, crowded, without food or water. Judaism says a person must not eat before feeding his animals. . . . I personally perform Kapparot with money.”
The Associated Press reported in 2011 on the increasingly outspoken opposition by Orthodox rabbis and community leaders in Israel. Rabbi Meir Hirsch, a member of the Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox sect in Jerusalem, said: “You cannot perform a commandment by committing a sin.” Yehuda Shein, a community activist in Jerusalem, founded an ultra-Orthodox animal rights group called Behemla, or “In Compassion,” and 50 Behemla members “handed out flyers citing rabbinical opposition to performing kaparot on chickens.”
Criticizing the cruel handling of the birds, Orthodox Rabbi Yonassan Gershom has described the inappropriate holding of chickens suspended by their wings on his blog: “Imagine somebody holding your arms behind your back and then suspending you by the elbows to get an idea of what this method would feel like. The feet of a chicken are made to support its weight; the wings are not.”
In 2010, Rabbi Steven Weil, CEO of the Orthodox Union of Rabbis in New York City, told the Alliance that the OU opposes using chickens as Kaporos due to the ritual’s “insensitivity” to the birds and the lack of historical foundation.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Head of Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim, stated in a video presentation in 2010 that in the light of cruelty to animals, “It is recommended that one should prefer to conduct the atonement ceremony with money.”
Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote in The Jewish Week that Kaporos observers “should be cultivating mercy for all those who suffer and not be perpetuating pain on sentient creatures in the name of piety.”
Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Congress and Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, wrote: “Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully by using money.” Rabbi Shlomo Segal, Rabbi of Beth Shalom of Kings Bay in Brooklyn, states: “The pain caused to the chickens in the process of performing Kapparot is absolutely unnecessary. Giving money is a more humane method.”
The Chickens Need Mercy from Us
“There is a perfectly acceptable Kaporos practice that not only avoids animal cruelty, but can help reduce hunger and show compassion to all,” says the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos. “Money can be used instead of sacrificing chickens, and funds raised can be given directly to charities. People ask mercy from God. The chickens need mercy from us. We ask Kaporos observers to show mercy and use money instead of chickens.”
In 2012, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos rescued 80 suffering chickens who are now living safely in sanctuaries.
Photo: Richard Cundari
While the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos focuses on Kaporos, our campaign is part of the broader discussion about the way chickens are mistreated in our society and around the world – just as cruelly and every bit as needlessly – and it is thus a bridge to promoting veganism and compassion. When people express horror over images depicting what Kaporos chickens go through, it provides an opportunity to point out that the chicken on their plate suffered no less. The ultimate meaning of our campaign to end chickens in Kaporos rituals was movingly expressed by Cherylynn Brown in 1997. Writing of the birds she was able to save from her neighbor’s Kaporos in Santa Monica, she said:
The rescued birds became part of my flock family. In time I got to know them individually and I developed a love for them. Their ability to express themselves and to return loving gestures when treated with kindness came through in a Universal language. I have no doubt that each bird has a soul and a connection in spirit to the same creator of my own flesh and blood, as well as yours.
Karen Davis, PhD, President
United Poultry Concerns
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405 USA
UPC Website: www.UPC-online.org
UPC Kaporos Website Page: www.upc-online.org/kaporos/
Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos Website: www.EndChickensAsKaporos.com