Stop Kaporos Cruelty

By Joel Freedman

This article originally appeared in the Messenger Post, in Canandaigua, New York, on February 20, 2019.

Joel Freedman is a member of United Poultry Concerns.

“We shouldn’t stereotype people. But to the extent that cultural factors contribute to animal abuse — certainly a factor in Kaporos cruelty — we shouldn’t be reluctant to identify and hold accountable the people, group, culture or subculture involved in such wrongdoing.”

Every year in Brooklyn, many laws are broken when some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities engage in inhumane “swinging” and slaughtering of about 60,000 chickens in Kaporos rituals the week before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Although New York laws require animals to have food, water and protection from the weather, Kaporos chickens are confined for several days in crowded crates stacked on the streets, trapped in their own waste with no food, water or protection from the weather. After the swinging rituals — which are supposed to transfer sins from humans to chickens — most of the chickens are stuffed dead or alive in trash bags bound for landfills, including landfills in the Finger Lakes, which accept 30 percent of New York City’s trash.

According to Rina Deych, of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, “Every year I see chickens thrown into dumpsters. Not just dead ones, but also birds who are dying of dehydration, injury, exhaustion and pain. We have footage of live chickens writhing on the ground with their throats cut and being thrown into plastic bags.”

Kaporos cruelty derives from a medieval practice that is not a tenet of Judaism and is practiced by only a very small segment of the Jewish population. In fact, Hasidic Rabbi Yonassan Gershom believes Kaporos cruelty violates Torah mandates to show compassion for animals. Gershom has appealed to Kaporos participants, “Please do not torture a bird this way — it will not cancel your sins.” Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz advises that “Jews should not be perpetuating pain on sentient creatures in the name of piety.”

Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, points out that Kaporos cruelty also violates health and sanitation laws: “All sites we observed were filthy. There were dead chickens, blood and feathers on the sidewalk. People entering Kaporos areas left without disinfecting footwear and carried chicken feces outside of the Kaporos area.”

The Alliance went to court in hopes of compelling the New York City Police Department and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to enforce state and NYC municipal laws and ordinances governing animal welfare and public sanitation. The case reached the Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, last year. The court on Nov. 14, 2018, upheld an appellate division’s 3-2 decision that “the laws which plaintiffs seek to compel the city defendants to enforce in this action involve the judgment and discretion of those defendants” — notwithstanding the use of the word “must” in the state’s cruelty statute — therefore, the courts can’t compel enforcement of these laws.

Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, said, “We knew the law was on our side. Today’s opinion is a victory not only for our community, but also a victory for New Yorkers and religious freedom as a whole.”

I agree with Nora Constance Marino, attorney for the plaintiffs, that “the Court of Appeals was entirely incorrect in this decision. The judges ignored the clear ‘mandate’ or direction of the state legislature by allowing New York City and the New York City Police to fail to enforce laws that are mandated to be enforced.”

How Rabbi Hecht can call the court’s decision a victory for all New Yorkers and for religious freedom is beyond me.

It is a victory only for a tiny segment of a Jewish community that deviates from mainstream Judaism, whose Torah prohibits the kinds of cruelty that Hecht supports.

I suspect that many New York City police and sanitation officers would like to stop Kaporos cruelty. The court’s decision is a slap in their faces, too.

Subcultural or cultural deviations should not nullify our laws. Several years ago, two Amish men in Wayne County were arrested for shooting a mother dog and her puppies because there was no market to sell them. Both men told police that part of the Amish dog breeding tradition is to kill unwanted dogs. They told police the practice is to “shoot, shovel and shut up.” Then-Wayne County District Attorney Richard Healy said, “I understand that to the Amish this may be acceptable, but it is not acceptable to this office or to the laws of this state.” The two men were sentenced to 30 days in jail.

We shouldn’t stereotype people. But to the extent that cultural factors contribute to animal abuse — certainly a factor in Kaporos cruelty — we shouldn’t be reluctant to identify and hold accountable the people, group, culture or subculture involved in such wrongdoing.

There was a tragic time, particularly in Southern states, when laws prohibiting murder, rape, assault and robbery weren’t enforced if the victims were black. And the courts offered weak responses to such injustices, showing the same kind of reluctance the New York Court of Appeals showed in the Kaporos case.

If the Kaporos victims had been dogs or cats, rather than chickens, I doubt NYC officials or the courts would take such a “what’s all the fuss about?” approach to the cruel goings-on in Brooklyn.

I believe God and Jesus want us to respect all life, not just the lives of humans or animals regarded as pets. I also believe strict enforcement of laws prohibiting cruelty to animals benefits humans, too. As the humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer wrote, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living beings, man will not himself find peace.”

Joel Freedman, of Canandaigua, is a frequent Messenger Post contributor.