NEW YORK – About 25 demonstrators gathered in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood Sunday night to protest what they consider to be the cruel treatment of chickens during the Orthodox-Jewish ritual of Kaporos. Standing behind two layers of metal fencing spaced several feet apart, protestors shouted and held signs while a few dozen members of the Jewish community, mostly young men, shouted back.
Kaporos is an ancient ritual performed by some Hasidic Jews on one of the nights preceding Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. The ritual involves suspending a live chicken by its wings over a participant’s head as a prayer is recited. The chicken is later slaughtered and donated to the poor, according to custom.
“It’d be like you would be suspended by your elbows, tied backwards – and somebody just hung you like that,” said Karen Davis, one of the protest’s organizers. “That breaks ligaments, it breaks wings – it’s very painful.” Ms. Davis and many of the other protestors object to the ritual of Kaporos itself as well as the manner in which chickens are transported and stored for the purposes of the ritual. “They’re trucked in from factory farms. We don’t know how long they have gone without food or water.”
David Rosenthal, a practicing Jew who came to demonstrate against Kaporos, believes that the chickens are suffering. “These animals are being treated cruelly,” he said. Mr. Rosenthal claims that the chickens sometimes are disposed of after slaughter instead of being donated. “We’ve seen, personally, in many cases, that they are dumped into garbage cans.”
Rafael Rabinovich, a member of the Jewish community who practices the ritual, disagrees with the protestors. “We don’t believe that we are causing unnecessary pain to the animals,” he said as he leaned against the outer fence surrounding the demonstration. Mr. Rabinovich said that he believes that shechita, the method by which animals are slaughtered according to Jewish law, is a humane method.
When asked about the protestor’s claims about the disposal of the chickens, he said, “I think they’re just looking for an extra argument. I don’t think that arguing is the way to get anywhere.”
According to a 2005 report by the New York Post, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals discovered 35 chickens in a lot on Coney Island Avenue that had drowned in their storage crates during a rain storm while awaiting Kaporos. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint related to the incident, but it is unclear whether the party named in the complaint faced any criminal penalties.
Since then, however, no other high-profile instances of abuse have been reported, and no records of criminal charges related to Kaporos are available.
Several yards away from the fences encircling the demonstration, Berel Bronstein performed the ritual with his family after exchanging a few words with the protestors. “Yom Kippur is the day of atonement. It’s very, very important and very serious,” Mr. Bronstein said. He explained that Jewish law has specific instructions for Jews on and near Yom Kippur. Kaporos, he said, is not one of those laws, but a tradition. “We lift [the chicken] over our heads, and as you can see as I did with my family, we do it very gently. I didn’t swing it around in the way that some people are trying to portray.”
“The whole reason of Yom Kippur is that God gives us this time to pray and to fast and to press the restart button,” Mr. Bronstein said. He explained that the chicken symbolically represents the reassignment of a person’s guilt and the absolution of his or her sins. “This is a tradition. As an outsider, it could look very odd in the same way that possibly I would question traditions of other communities. But thank God we live in a country where there’s freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
Mr. Bronstein complained that some of the protestors’ methods were inappropriate. “If I come with my family, with my children, and I’m trying to raise them in my tradition, to come and scream at them, ‘your parents are wrong, don’t listen to your parents…’ Are we dealing with people who scream at kids all in the name of humanity?”
Religious Jews disagree about the status and validity of Kaporos, according to some of the demonstrators. As the protest continued, a conversation between some of the protestors and their counterparts on the other side of the fence developed concerning whether Jewish custom allowed for money to be substituted for chickens.
By the end of the night, it was unclear if they reached any kind of agreement.