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Rabbi Battles PETA Harrassment in Fight for Kapparot Ritual

Rabbi Shea Hecht and animal rights activists have squared off over the ritual of kapparot; Hecht says PETA is really aiming at world Jewry.
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 10/6/2008, 8:59 PM

The battle lines are being drawn between The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization and the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE) with the advent of the season of Kapparot, the ancient Jewish rite of slaughtering chickens to atone for one's sins before the holiday of Yom Kippur.

 

PETA zeroed in for the second year in a row on NCFJE's annual Kapparot project. The organization raises funds for its outreach activities by selling the chickens used for the ritual.  

 

In an exclusive interview with Israel National News, NCFJE Chairman of the Board Rabbi Shea Hecht said he believes PETA is really aiming at the Jewish People, however, and not simply the NCFJE. "Jews all over the world are keeping this tradition," he said. "It's not New York they're concerned with. They are really targeting Jews in Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and everywhere else in the world. That's what I believe."

 

The chickens are slaughtered after they are gently lifted over one's head in a circle while saying a prayer that notes it is the chicken that goes to its death, as opposed to the person for whom it acts symbolically as a proxy to carry one's sins away.

 

They are later donated to poor families throughout the area, Rabbi Hecht said. "More than a thousand chickens are donated to local families in neighborhoods here in Brooklyn alone," he said. Thousands more are donated to organizations in the metro New York area.

 

PETA, however, objects to the project and has made great efforts to put a stop to the practice. Last summer the organization complained to state and city agencies that NCFJE was guilty of cruelty to the birds, as well as a variety of health and safety violations.

 

No Independent Support for PETA's Claims

According to Rabbi Luzer Weiss, director of the New York State Department of Agriculture's Kosher Law Enforcement division, every Kapparot center is mandated to have a rabbi on site from the time the chickens arrive through the time of slaughter, in order to provide proper supervision. The rabbi is expected to ensure that the chickens are provided with food, water and appropriate shelter.

 

Last year, special inspectors made the rounds to ensure that the laws were enforced. "It went very well," Rabbi Weiss said. He added that he received no reports of dumping any chickens, including at the NCFJE sites.

 

New Year, New Tactics in Battle for the Birds

PETA claimed in a formal complaint to the state, however, that NCFJE dumped thousands of dead chickens in garbage dumpsters last year rather than giving them to poor families. In a letter to the division of Kosher Law Enforcement, PETA called on the state to investigate Rabbi Hecht and NCFJE for possible consumer fraud in connection with the organization's Kapparot Center in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

 

PETA charged the organization with a triple sin: lying to consumers about donating the chickens to poor families, violating Jewish law by wasting food (ba'al tashkes) and violating civic law by creating a burden for city sanitation workers.

 

The animal rights group said that on September 20, 2007, NCFJE threw the carcasses of thousands of chickens into hundreds of trash bags, which were then disposed of the next day by Greg's Express trash collection service. "These are chickens that consumers expected to be processed for meat that would be distributed as tzedakah, or charity," read the letter by PETA.

 

PETA's Video: Sins of Omission?

Rabbi Hecht bluntly denied PETA's claims that NCFJE wantonly wasted chickens, and noted that PETA's "investigative methods were not so kosher themselves." The video footage shot by the animal rights group that allegedly showed the violations, he said, was itself misleading.

 

Greg, the owner of Greg's Express, also said that the charge was unfair, and inaccurate, stressing that no one could possibly have any way of knowing what was in the bags or containers. "To my knowledge, the waste did not contain 'thousands of chickens,'" he said.

 

Rabbi Hecht also noted that PETA had instigated a major email and fax campaign by thousands of its supporters that jammed the "in box" and phone lines in the office. "We also received one of the most vicious, anti-Semitic messages I have ever seen," he said.

 

That letter, also apparently from a PETA supporter, had been faxed after the sender was unable to get it past the email spam checker on September 24, 2008.  

 

Handwritten at the top of the printed page was the following: "I guess you are 'blocking' all e-mails from PETA. Go ahead and 'Hide' like the little '[expletive deleted]' you are. Go molest your sisters.

 

The letter, addressed to a former member of the Crown Heights kosher certifying agency and faxed to NCFJE, continued:

 

LISTEN UP [expletive deleted]. I'M "GERMAN", AND I WOULD LOVE TO EXECUTE EVERY LAST ONE OF YOU… MAYBE WAVE YOU OVER GERMANS' HEADS IN APPRECIATION OF THE HOLOCAUST. HOW DOES THAT SOUND? STOP DISGRACING THE JEWISH COMMUNITY BY INHUMANE TREATMENT OF CHICKENS. "KOSHER" MEANS "KOSHER"… YOUR PRACTICES ARE A DISGRACE AND I HOPE YOU, RABBI LEVERTOV, RABBI YOSSI BROOK, & LET'S NOT FORGET, RABBI ZALMAN OSDOBA (rabbis in the community –ed.), ALL ROT IN HELL. HAVE A [expletive deleted] LIFE. LET ME KNOW IF YOU WANT ME TO E-MAIL YOU AGAIN, I WOULD LIKE THAT.

 

The cruelty at your kapporos center, year after year, is a disgrace. Please make the compassionate decision to use money instead of live chickens at the NCFJE kapporos.

 

The NYPD Hate Crimes Unit has opened an investigation into the correspondence.

 

'Sins of Commission'

Meanwhile, apparently PETA is also not quite straightforward about its own record of dealing with animal rights. An opposition website called "PETA Kills Animals," notes that the organization euthanized more than 90 percent of the adoptable animals in its care in Virginia in 2007 "rather than take the trouble to feed, shelter and place them in loving homes," noted Rabbi Hecht.

 

"Clearly, it hopes to switch the spotlight away from the trouble in its own backyard by attempting to instead create trouble where none exists," Rabbi Hecht commented.

 

'PETA Aiming at World Jewry'

Rabbi Hecht said that PETA members told him that it was because his organization was the most easily identifiable group carrying out Kapparot that it became a target.

 

"For this purpose, as a Lubavitcher Chossid, as chairman of the board at NCFJE, I suppose I represent world Jewry to these people," he said. "We will not be threatened."

 

As for whether the NCFJE will continue its project, which it has carried out in various Brooklyn neighborhoods for decades, Rabbi Hecht was equally firm. "As long as there is a Constitution in this country, and there is a First Amendment that guarantees me the right to practice my religion, and my religion includes the tradition of using chickens for Kapparot, I will continue to use a chicken.

 

"That is my Constitutional right under the United States law, it is protected by the First Amendment, and I am going to do it, and make sure that other Jews have the same opportunity. Thank G-d for this country that guarantees us that right, to practice our religion as our forefathers commanded us."