United Poultry Concerns’ Campaign to End Chicken Kaporos

By: Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

What is “Chicken Kaporos”?

I first heard of the strange-sounding ritual of “Kaporos” a few years after I founded United Poultry Concerns in 1990. A woman in Brooklyn called our office in the fall of 1994. In tears, she begged me to “do something” to help the hundreds of chickens who were stacked in transport crates on the city street where she lived. The chickens had been in the crates for days without food, water or shelter. She could hear their cries of distress from inside her apartment.

I began researching the ritual, which has various spellings including Kaporos, Kaparos, Kapparos, and Kapparot. It means “atonement” or “atonements,” “scapegoat” or “sacrifice.” The Kaporos chicken-swinging ritual is a custom dating to the Middle Ages. Hasidic practitioners in New York City, Los Angeles, Jerusalem and elsewhere wave chickens, held by their legs or suspended by their wings pinned backward, around their heads while chanting verses about transferring their sins and punishment symbolically to the bird in the days preceding Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The chant basically says, “This chicken is my atonement, my substitute. This chicken will die for my sins and I will go on to a happy and peaceful life.” The chicken’s throat is then cut by a rabbi, who thrusts the dying bird, head down, into a funnel to struggle and bleed to death over a bucket.

Chicken Kaporos is a public ritual conducted under tents erected for the purpose on sidewalks and school grounds, in parking lots or fenced yards. It can be a small rickety affair or a humongous horror show like the one in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. It goes on for hours, often all night until dawn, as one chicken after another is pulled from a crate, waved over the head of the adult practitioner, infant or child, and then slaughtered for a fee paid to the rabbi. Unused chickens may simply be abandoned in the crates when the ceremony is over. In 2005 and 2006, United Poultry Concerns adopted 65 Kaporos chickens confiscated by the ASPCA who had been abandoned in a flooded parking lot along with a group of crated chickens locked in a garage whose cries caused a neighbor to call for help.

The slaughtered chickens are said to be “given to the poor,” but while some may be given or sold to the poor, the trashing of dead and dying birds in plastic garbage bags has been witnessed repeatedly in New York and Los Angeles. Rabbis opposing the ritual say that chickens subjected to the conditions of Kaporos cannot be considered kosher, i.e., edible, regardless of how they get wherever they are going.

United Poultry Concerns Launches Our Protest Against Chicken Kaporos in 1995. 

In 1995, my first letter protesting Kaporos was published. I urged that the “shlug kaporos needs to be replaced with a non-violent religious observance. Punishing innocent creatures by afflicting them (literally or symbolically) with human sins and diseases is a benighted tradition,” I argued. “Yom Kippur represents atonement; even the wearing of leather is forbidden in the observance. Heaping one’s sins onto others is the opposite of atonement. (Shlug kaporos has been translated as “beat the scapegoat” or “hit the sacrifice.” Shlug appears to be related to the German word shlogn meaning “to hit” or “to strike.”)

The manila folder I started for Kaporos materials in 1994 now bulges with letters to the editor, articles and correspondences relating to Kaporos. Three 3-ring binders have been filled. More people in Los Angeles started contacting me in the early 2000s.

In 2006, David Rosenfeld wrote to United Poultry Concerns:

“I am a member of the religious Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. This year I took pictures of the deplorable conditions in which the birds were kept. I believe they receive no food or water for the week or so that they are in the possession of the retailers. They certainly receive no food or water over the Shabbat. One Kapparot station had the birds outside exposed to the rain on a Shabbat through Sunday. I saw birds dead in their crates. Birds were crushed. Birds were opening and closing their mouths, probably out of thirst. The retailer who sold me my birds [to live in a sanctuary] tossed them into my box as if they were loaves of bread. The fact that most retailers didn’t even question me when I took pictures means that no one has made life difficult for people claiming to be religious and doing this to animals.”

NPR Covers Growing Opposition to Chicken Kaporos in Brooklyn in 2009

In September 2009, Barbara Bradley Hagerty of National Public Radio contacted me for a story she wanted to do about Kaporos. I put her in touch with David and Sam, who showed her around relevant sections of Brooklyn. They are featured in her report, “Swinging Chicken Ritual Divides Orthodox Jews,” which aired on September 26, 2009.

Hagerty’s NPR report contrasts the compassionate voices of David Rosenfeld, Sam Shloss, and Brooklyn Rabbi Shlomo Segal with the attitude of Rabbi Shea Hecht, chief promoter of the vast increase in the number of chickens being trucked to Brooklyn from industrial farms for Kaporos. In 2012 the number of chickens was said to be 60,000, up 10,000 from the previous year. Confronted with the fact that Kaporos practitioners can wave a packet of coins slated for charity over their heads, instead of waving chickens, Rabbi Hecht said coin-waving wasn’t, in Hagerty’s words, “visceral” enough for him. The high point of the service, he told her, “is handing the chicken to the slaughterer and watching the chicken being slaughtered. Because that is where you have an emotional moment, where you say, ‘Oops, you know what? That could have been me.’”

 

The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos

In 2010 the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos was formed by groups and individuals who seek to replace the use of chickens in Kaporos ceremonies with money or other non-animal symbols of atonement. The Alliance does not oppose Kaporos per se, only the cruel and unnecessary use of chickens in the ceremony.

The Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos makes three principle arguments:

  • The use of chickens in Kaporos rituals is cruel.
  • The use of chickens in Kaporos rituals is not required by Jewish law.
  • The use of chickens in Kaporos rituals can be replaced by waving coins or other inanimate tokens of atonement.

Kaporos, however it is conducted is not required by Jewish law. It is merely a custom with some very non-Jewish mystical beliefs woven into it. Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is all about mercy, charity and repentance. Hurting animals violates the spirit of atonement rather than expressing it. Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz pointed out the irony in The Jewish Week, noting that Kaporos observers “should be cultivating mercy for all those who suffer and not be perpetuating pain on sentient creatures in the name of piety.”

 

The suffering of chickens under the direction of Rabbi Hecht, who told NPR in 2009 that he likes watching chickens die for his sins, is not limited to Brooklyn, and neither is opposition to Kaporos. More and more rabbis, scholars, and activists everywhere, including South Africa, are speaking out against chicken Kaporos on grounds of religion, morality, and compassion for animals.

In Israel, opposition to the use of chickens in Kaporos rituals is visibly mounting. Jewish World reported on October 6, 2011 that the animal rights group, Anonymous, which has protested chicken Kaporos for years, received “surprising support this year from an ultra-Orthodox organization called Hemla,” whose spokesperson said: “We want to raise awareness to the horrible way that people hold the chickens. It’s inhumane – they sit in the sun, crowded, without food or water. Judaism says a person must not eat before feeding his animals. . . . I personally perform Kapparot with money.”  

Rabbi Meir Hirsch, a member of the Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox sect in Jerusalem, agrees saying: “You cannot perform a commandment by committing a sin.” Criticizing the cruel handling of the birds, Orthodox Rabbi Yonassan Gershom has described the inappropriate holding of chickens suspended by their wings on his blog: “Imagine somebody holding your arms behind your back and then suspending you by the elbows to get an idea of what this method would feel like. The feet of a chicken are made to support its weight; the wings are not.”  Orthodox Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote in The Jewish Week that Kaporos observers “should be cultivating mercy for all those who suffer and not be perpetuating pain on sentient creatures in the name of piety.” And Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Congress and Former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, wrote: “Those who wish to fulfill this custom can do so fully by using money.”

The Chickens Need Mercy from Us

“There is a perfectly acceptable Kaporos practice that not only avoids animal cruelty, but can help reduce hunger and show compassion to all,” says the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos. “Money can be used instead of sacrificing chickens, and funds raised can be given directly to charities. People ask mercy from God. The chickens need mercy from us. We ask Kaporos observers to show mercy and use money instead of chickens.”

In 2012, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos rescued 80 suffering chickens who are now living safely in sanctuaries.

Medina

By: Kevin Archer, vegan chef, former Director of the “Compassionate Cuisine,” Catskill Animal Sanctuary

About a month after Lorraine the hen departed my abode, in came Medina. They were about as different as two hens could be. Lorraine was a svelte racy supermodel. Medina was her ungainly, plodding, food-obsessed second-cousin. It’s like Cinderella left, and I got one of the step-sisters.

Whereas Lorraine came from lean-and-mean fighting stock, quick, fierce, and indurate, Medina came from “broiler” blood, bred to grow quickly and poorly proportioned, fueling the factory-farm profit machine. At approximately 12 weeks of age, she’d doubled her anticipated lifespan.

But Medina was an even more special case. She was rescued on the streets of Brooklyn, where she was one of thousands of chickens brought in for the Kapparot, the controversial atonement ritual conducted by some Hassidim on Yom Kippur. Young Medina, like her cohorts, was destined for sacrifice. She would have her wings pinched behind her back as she was swung around the head of a human. The human would recite in Hebrew:  “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This [hen or rooster] will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.” She would then be slaughtered in the streets of Brooklyn, her only comfort being a mercifully sharp knife. 

The scene was shocking, the Crown Heights street turned into a carnivalesque sea of thousands of orange and yellow crates, stacked sometimes 20 high, each crate too shallow to allow a chicken to stand. Each crate contained ten to twelve chickens, none of them fed or watered or cared for during the multi-day festival. A block away, you could hear thousands of birds cheeping, for these chickens were only four to six weeks old. They still had the characteristic blue eyes of chicks, with remnants of yellow fuzz that had not yet given way to adult feathers.

Young men roughly pulled the crates off of a tractor trailer, slamming them into stacks on the pavement. The chickens were pulled just as roughly through small doors in the crates. Each human participant was given a chicken—hens to women and girls, roosters to men and boys. Most of the humans held the chickens by the wings as they reviewed the steps of the ritual. Most of them, after they’d completed the recitation and requisite number of swings, handed their chickens back to the organizers, so that they could be killed that evening on a nearby street. Some participants chose to take their chickens to slaughter at home after the ceremony, leaving with them stuffed in boxes or carried three birds in each hand.  One elderly woman, sitting on a bench practicing her recitation, casually rested her foot on her frantically cheeping chicken.

While we and the other chicken advocates tried to remain respectful and nonconfrontational, a number of participants approached us, asking, “You think this is wrong?”  We explained simply that the chickens didn’t seem happy crammed in crates without food, water, or shelter, waiting to die, and that we could provide the birds with the opportunity to live out their lives in sanctuary.  “How do you know the chickens aren’t happy?” one participant responded.  “They can’t smile.”  Others informed us that the ritual would not work without the slaughter, or told us that the chickens were indeed happy, as they were doing God’s work and elevating themselves by feeding humans.  “Kosher slaughter is humane,” one particularly talkative young man insisted. “We make sure the knife is sharp.”

That evening, I drove back to Saugerties with 10 chickens in my Subaru. Over 90 others were making their way north in the horse trailer brought by the Woodstock crew.

The 20 that we ultimately housed at the Catskill Animal Sanctuary soon began thriving. Seeing green grass, running in an open yard, having room to breathe—these were among the simple things that they had never experienced until they arrived at the sanctuary.

They were an exuberant bunch, bordering on rowdy, as their gusto for life tried to keep pace with their rapidly-growing but imbalanced bodies. Somewhere in the scrum, Medina broke her left wing. Its inability to heal properly led to an amputation, and that landed her in my kitchen, the preferred pad for convalescing chickens.

I wrote to a friend about our first day together:

“I opened the fridge this morning and she rushed right in, pecking crazily at the jars of grain I had stored in there. I don't mean she went up to the fridge, I mean she really got up into it, barreling her way onto a shelf.

”She keeps looking for a place to perch, and for some reason she's mesmerized by the big stainless steel sink. I keep telling her 'no,' and stepping between her and it. But this evening, I didn't get over there in time, and she went for it. The only problem is that she can't really fly with one wing and one stump. I heard an energetic flutter of feathers followed by an energy-absorbing thud on the floor.”

Without exaggeration, that’s how the first day went. She eventually became more at ease, adapting well to the new space. She was not as talkative as Lorraine, but shared the same keen interest in whatever I might be doing. She proved to be extremely fast on those big feet, and the moment I would reach for something or approach her water dish, she jetted across the room like lightning. When it was feeding time, I had to work really fast so that I did not lose a finger in all her frenzy.

Just as she adapted, so did I. After the initial bombast of her introduction to the kitchen, I noticed her agility and discernment. What I first considered to be her ungainliness was just her learning to cope with such a full figure. She didn’t ask to be born so well endowed.

I continued to learn from her, finding little lessons hiding in her feathers each time I picked her up. Her attentiveness, her ability to shake off her injury, and her quick but mesmerizing eyes were signs of an intelligent mind.

Having brought her to the Sanctuary, there was a uniquely satisfying depth to bringing her into my home to heal. It was like reaffirming to her that I was glad that she was safe and alive.

After narrowly escaping slaughter at a Kapparot ritual in Brooklyn, Medina and her 20 companions step onto grass for the first time.  They are an exhuberant, rambunctious, and profoundly joyous group that clearly relishes every day.

In about a month and a half, Medina would somehow manage to break her wing, landing her in Kevin Archer's apartment for recovery.  Read his story of this burly wildwoman who barged into his kitchen - and into his heart.

Video by Abbie Rogers