For the average Jewish person in New York City, Yom Kippur—the holy day of atonement following Rosh Hashanah—is typically observed with a day of fasting and prayer; reflecting over the past year's transgressions, repenting, and maybe dipping into a selection of Zabar's delicious deli salads. But for some ultra-Orthodox sects of Judaism, atonement isn't complete without engaging in Kapparot: the ceremony of imbuing a live chicken with one's sins, swinging it over one's head with a string of prayers, and finally sacrificing it—all to remove judgment and "elevate" the soul of the chicken. The ritual is considered complete when the carcass is donated to the needy.
From small back alley ceremonies in Boro Park to grand-scale, blocks-long happenings along the Eastern Parkway, this year's Kapparot yielded an estimate of over 50,000 birds. That's a lot of drumsticks.
By now, most of us are aware that there are countless atrocities inflicted on all types of animals destined for our stomachs. But at least these birds are getting a quick (and kosher) death … right?
Not everyone would agree. Rina Deych is an animal rights activist who has led protests against Kapparot in Brooklyn for the past 20 years. She cites a recent incident, in which 2,000 chickens died due to negligence, as an example of the poor treatment the birds endure—a large number of these birds end up in the dumpster rather than the stew pot, she says. Plus, there's the public health concern over all that blood and feces in the streets.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, I followed Rina and her group, who are protesting the Kapparot held outside the United Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Crown Heights. Rina's grandfather was a kosher butcher, and her great-grandfather, a shochet (ritual kosher slaughterer)—both part of an emerging wave opposed to the ritual, which is commonly referred to as a "foolish custom." What's more, Rina states that the practice is not mentioned in the Torah or Talmud, and in fact "violates several mandates and imperatives from both works, including the mandate not to cause unnecessary suffering to animals, the mandate not to waste, and the Talmudic imperative to feed one's animals before one feeds oneself." Rina advocates the growing practice of substituting a bag of money in place of the live bird, but it's not a welcome option in the community.
When I arrive on the scene, I see that her group has secured a box of "rescued" chickens, much to the derision of the mob of young Hasidic men that have surrounded the NYPD-sanctioned protest zone. They hurl responses in both English and Hebrew, and goad the anti-Kapparot group to "release the chickens if you want them to be free!"
When I attempt to talk to some of the pro-Kapparot crowd, I am met with the same response: "I don't speak English." An older practitioner, however, agrees to speak to me, but the conversation doesn't offer much clarity. He tells me that the protestors are not "real Jews" and anyone observing Yom Kippur without engaging in Kapparot isn't completing atonement because, according to the man, "our way is the correct way." When I ask why the substitution of using the sack of money in place of the chicken—similar to allowances that are made regarding Shabbat elevators and Kohens flying in plastic bags—he mentions, "You make an interesting point, but it is not for me to question the Rabbi."
I leave Rina and the gang to cross the street to the kill zone. Up on a raised platform, six blood-boltered men are slicing throats and tossing bodies into upturned traffic cones. The air smells like death.