Animal-Rights Groups Are Targeting a Jewish Ritual on Yom Kippur

A lawsuit in California and violent protests in Brooklyn have focused on the practice of ritual chicken slaughter. Is this anti-Semitism?

People participate in the Jewish ritual of kaporos, in which chickens are swung and slaughtered on the day before Yom Kippur. (Stephanie Keith / Reuters)

Every year, on the day before Yom Kippur, a small number of Jews in the United States participate in a ritual called kaporos. They swing chickens around their heads, and then a trained rabbi kills the birds.

This year, the ritual was set to take place on Monday, before the start of Yom Kippur on Tuesday night. But last Friday, a district-court judge in California issued a temporary restraining order forbidding the Chabad of Irvine, an Orthodox Jewish organization, from killing any chickens until a hearing could be held. The court session was then scheduled to take place the day after Yom Kippur concluded, meaning the Chabad of Irvine would be effectively barred from performing the ritual this year.

According to court documents, a woman named Ronnie Steinau, who works for an organization called United Poultry Concerns, started looking into the Chabad of Irvine’s kaporos tradition in 2014. She drove hundreds of miles back and forth between Irvine and her home in Encinitas to document the ritual, and has been trying to get courts to shut down the practice for years. Roughly two weeks before Yom Kippur, Steinau and United Poultry Concerns filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court in central California. They claimed Chabad had violated the law by slaughtering and discarding animals for a fee, which is prohibited under California law.

“It’s a horrible, barbaric ritual. The chickens suffer immensely. And we don’t agree with it,” Steinau said in an interview. Her greatest objection was that young kids participate. “When you show children violence toward animals, they lose their compassion. They develop a disrespect and numbness toward these sentient beings, but they also get the same feelings toward people.” Karen Davis, who runs United Poultry Concerns out of Machipango, Virginia, added that the group has been involved in rescue efforts to save chickens from being used in ritual in the past.

The practice of kaporos has long been controversial inside and outside of the Jewish community. Steinau, for example, describes herself as a Reform Jew. She’s part of a group called the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos; seven of the 10 founding members of the group are Jewish, according to Davis. Part of their objection is that the custom isn’t described in the Torah or the Talmud. It’s a tradition that’s part of rabbinical teachings, and because it’s not a legal obligation, they argue, it can be changed or abandoned. The group encourages Jews to swing coins rather than chickens, which is already the custom in many communities. A minority of Orthodox Jews, however, still use live birds.

What’s curious about the case in Irvine, however, is that kaporos happened anyways—according to David Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi who is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, the organization was never planning to perform kaporos on the premises of Chabad this year. On Monday night, a group of Jews gathered in a local slaughterhouse to perform the ritual in order to comply with changes in California state law, he said. In other words: The last-minute restraining order—issued on the eve of a holiday when Orthodox Jews cannot work or be online, let alone file legal briefs—was a restraining order against nothing.

“We want to talk about repentance,” he said.“Instead, we’re all involved in this meshugas about chickens.”

That doesn’t mean the lawsuit hasn’t become a problem for the Jewish community in Irvine. Eliezrie said a family there just lost an infant child, and the rabbi named in the suit, Alter Tenenbaum, has been trying to tend to their needs. While all this legal back and forth has been going on, the Jews in that community have been busy preparing for Yom Kippur, a holiday that involves fasting and focuses on forgiveness and renewal.

“We want to talk about repentance, how we should change our lives, how we should get our act together,” said Eliezrie. “Instead, we’re all involved in this meshugas about chickens because we have a meshugennah lady in Virginia who got a bunch of lawyers to go in and serve a shul … so she can get publicity.” (Meshugas is Yiddish for “craziness.” Shul is another word for “synagogue.”)

United Poultry Concerns has been involved in some high-profile protests in the past—they objected to the use of eggs in the White House Easter-egg roll, for example. Davis pointed out the the group maintains a number of campaigns to protect the lives of poultry, and doesn’t just focus on Jewish groups. But Eliezrie felt as though his community had been singled out. “The real story is how animal-rights activists are using religious traditions and oppressing religious minorities to advance an agenda,” he said.

There may be legal wrangling yet to come in this case. Late on Monday night, Josh Blackman, a law professor at the Houston College of Law, filed an amicus brief with the California court, hoping to get the restraining order tossed out. He argued that the ruling was rife with legal issues, including problems with the court’s jurisdiction and the plaintiff’s standing. He also pointed out that the plaintiff specifically filed for a temporary restraining order against Chabad, meaning that the organization wouldn’t immediately be allowed to respond to the claims.

But most flagrant of all, Blackman said, was the timing. It was “really unfortunate that the judge made the briefs due the morning before Yom Kippur, and then made the hearing at 10 a.m. the morning after Yom Kippur,” he said. “As you can imagine, this is a very busy time to try and be in touch with a rabbi.” On Tuesday afternoon, the court gave notice of a new hearing time—just a few hours before sundown in California, when Yom Kippur begins.

A national religious-liberty group, the First Liberty Institute, got on a call to discuss the case on Tuesday afternoon, Blackman said, and are looking into further legal actions in the case. “This is a tradition that happens every year at the same time,” Blackman said. “The fact that the plaintiffs waited until six days before the holidays to file a temporary restraining order is unconscionable.” He hopes Chabad will seek legal recourse based on what has happened.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, people gathered in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn on Monday night to protest kaporos there. At least one Jewish woman who participated in the ritual in a public section of Eastern Parkway claims she was attacked and choked by a woman wearing a shirt with a message about not harming animals. Mordechai Lightstone, a rabbi who does social-media for Chabad, posted a photo of a woman carrying a sign comparing Jews who perform kaporos to Hitler:

“Why weren’t there protesters there the day before, and why aren’t they there today?” Eliezrie said of the protesters who showed up to the slaughterhouse where Jews in Irvine performed kaporos this year. “They were only there the day the Jews are coming there.”

The California suit may amount to nothing more than a nuisance for the Jewish community, but the message seems to be deeper than any court filing: This is a protest by Jews, against Jews, and it will likely continue in the new year to come. As Eliezrie pointed out, kaporos teaches Jews about the fragility of life. This year, perhaps, that message has taken on special meaning.