The battle over kapparot goes to court

“We refuse to be your Kapores!” a chicken shouts. “We demand our rights,” a rooster chimes in.
September 8, 2015

We refuse to be your Kapores!” a chicken shouts. “We demand our rights,” a rooster chimes in. 

Both are characters speaking from the pages of a children’s book, “When the Chickens Went on Strike,” an adaptation by Erica Silverman of a Sholem Aleichem story about a confrontation in a Russian village over a Jewish custom that takes place in many observant Orthodox communities worldwide.

In Los Angeles, the demands to cease the custom of kapparot are not coming from barnyard foul. Animal activists here have taken on the cause, including filing a recent suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Kapparot, or kapparos, depending on your Jewish background, is a Hebrew word for “atonement,” but it is also the name for a more than 1,000-year-old custom that takes place on the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which an individual seeking expiation for his or her sins swings a live chicken by its wings overhead three times while reciting a prayer. After the ceremony, the chicken is slaughtered in a kosher manner.

On Aug. 26, a group of attorneys representing seven plaintiffs seeking to stop public kapparot ceremonies in Los Angeles filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The plaintiffs include United Poultry Concerns, Nazila Mahgerefteh, Kathy Schramm, Rachel Hoyt, Sarah Jane Gage, Jennifer Mack and Alice Chen Lewis. Using the strategy of “unlawful competition” as a basis for the suit, the attorneys seek an end to the “illegal business practices” of seven sets of defendants who practice the kapparot ritual.

“The unlawful competition law provides that if a defendant is involved in business practices that are illegal, then a plaintiff who has lost money or property as a result of the business practice has a standing to bring a lawsuit and seek an injunction to end that business practice,” said David Simon, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

The losses plaintiffs named in the statements accompanying the complaint include various amounts for expenses for travel to kapparot protests, time lost from work as a result of attending them and the printing of leaflets. One statement by Lewis included $472.94 in veterinarian bills for two chickens she rescued from Ohel Moshe, a Pico Boulevard synagogue named in the suit.

Until last year, the practice had become very public, especially along Pico Boulevard in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, with booths for kapparot set up in parking lots and in public alleyways, promoted with large banners and even barkers in chicken costumes.

“In the various stages of the kapparot process,” including transporting the chickens, storing them on the property, slaughtering them and later hosing their blood and fecal matter into city gutters and storm drains, the suit alleges that those named “violate on average 11 laws, and in some cases as many as 14 laws,” Simon said.

“We would like the practice to halt, because we don’t think it’s possible for it to be done in a way that complies with the various legal requirements,” said Simon, an Irvine-based attorney who does pro bono work in animal cruelty cases, mostly involving suing venues that deny activists access for purposes of free speech.

The complaint includes statements from 10 witnesses to the activities at various named kapparot sites, including one witness who is identified as a toxicology expert, “who says that these practices create a significant public health risk,” Simon said.

The synagogues and individuals named as defendants in the suit are Bait Aaron, Congregation Ohel Moshe, Hebrew Discovery Center, Young Israel of Beverly Hills, Shuva Israel Ad Hashem Elokecha, Shuva Israel Congregation, along with the individuals Moshe Nourollah (aka Masoud Nourollah), Meir Nourollah, Hersel Cohen, Rabbi Netanel Louie and Rafael Guy (aka Rafel Gaye).

Originally, Chabad of Santa Monica was included in the suit as well, but according to Simon, because “they assured us they would not use chickens in Kapparot, we agreed to dismiss them,” he wrote in an email. Many people who practice kapparot now prefer to use coins instead of a live chicken.

Louie of the Hebrew Discovery Center, Bait Aaron, Hersel Cohen and Ohel Moshe were contacted for their response and, as of press time, had not responded. (A woman who was answering the phone for Ohel Moshe said “that’s over” when asked about kapparot ceremonies, though she said she was not authorized to speak for the synagogue).  

The fight against using chickens for kapparot is taking place nationally. Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, is an animal rights activist living in Virginia and is involved with a suit against kapparot practices in New York.

Among the other plaintiffs is Mahgerefteh, a Los Angeles resident who, as early as 2007, put on a chicken suit to call attention to the plight of the chickens used in kapparot; Gage, a professional photographer; Hoyt, who operates an online dating service; Mack, a math teacher; 
Schramm, a data analyst at UCLA; and Lewis, who has been fighting against kapparot since 2013.

Simon went to L.A. Superior Court on Sept. 2 to request a temporary restraining order, just weeks before the time when Jews practice kapparot. “Unfortunately, he denied our request,” Simon said of Judge James C. Chalfant. The judge dismissed the plaintiffs, saying, “We had known about this for years and came in two weeks before it started and asked for an emergency order, and there would have been no emergency if we had filed our papers sooner,” Simon said.

Although Simon had, as required, informed the defendants prior to the hearing, “Nobody showed up to formally oppose the motion,” he said. “They have never responded to any of my communications.”

According to public records, the number of chickens disposed of by city sanitation trucks has dropped dramatically in recent years. Official Los Angeles Department of Sanitation records obtained by Los Angeles activist Pini Herman show that in 2012, on or around Yom Kippur, department trucks recorded picking up 19,685 pounds of dead chickens from “two pickup locations in the Pico-Robertson area and one in the La Brea-Melrose area.” In 2013, however, 3,700 pounds were picked up from those same locations, and in 2014 on or about Oct. 3 — Yom Kippur was on the Oct. 4 — the department reported no pickups of chickens.

However, Simon is not convinced that the practice is not continuing. “Just because there are fewer carcasses being reported doesn’t necessarily mean fewer birds are being killed,” Simon said.

Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director at the progressive advocacy group CLUE-LA (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice), has organized and led many of the kapparot protests in the Pico-Robertson area. Klein believes that, in 2014, kapparot ceremonies were “driven underground,” and he has obtained a photograph of the disposal of some chickens in residential trashcans in South Los Angeles near the city of Vernon, miles away from the traditional Los Angeles Orthodox neighborhoods.

When asked whether he believes Jews are being singled out unfairly, especially by animal rights activists, Simon said he has seen “some evidence” of this. For some “fringe people,” there “may be some anti-Semitic component to their perspective on this,” he said.

Yet, he added, “Nothing about this lawsuit in any way is intended to unfairly target any adherent to Judaism.”

When asked why he is not filing a similar case against other ethnic groups, including Asians and Latinos, who may slaughter live fowl at home, Simon responded, “We’re not seeking to stop any of these defendants from buying a live chicken and taking it home and killing it and eating it. You don’t need a slaughterhouse license to kill a single chicken,” he said.

As recently as 2013, some of the defendants have told people who come to them to participate in kapparot that after the chickens are slaughtered, they will be given for food as tzedakah (charitable gifts).

Simon, however, asked, “Who would want to eat an animal like that? Some are missing patches of feathers, they have open wounds, are covered in fecal matter; they’re filthy.” 

Not everybody involved with the movement to end kapparot or change it to a ceremony using money and not animals was on board with the lawsuit.

“I don’t think my job is to harass members of the Jewish community. My job is to shift the culture,” said Klein, who is not a plaintiff.

On Sept. 8 — after the Journal went to press — Klein, who said his goal is for all applicable laws pertaining to animal cruelty and animal slaughter be followed, was scheduled to appear on the agenda of the Los Angeles Board of Animal Services Commissioners at a meeting in Mission Hills, representing Faith Action for Animals. 

“My goal is to actually move the Jewish community toward a more compassionate relationship with the animal planet,” Klein said.

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