Atonement chickens — swung and tossed

A few days before Yom Kippur, thousands of white-feathered chickens land on Pico Boulevard. Not there to be broiled, boiled or fricasseed in any of the nearby kosher restaurants in this predominantly Jewish business district, they nonetheless have arrived in time to be served up.
September 3, 2013

A few days before Yom Kippur, thousands of white-feathered chickens land on Pico Boulevard. Not there to be broiled, boiled or fricasseed in any of the nearby kosher restaurants in this predominantly Jewish business district, they nonetheless have arrived in time to be served up.

Kept in cramped wire cages holding dozens of birds, the chickens are to be used for the kaparot ceremony observed by some Orthodox Jews who live in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Kaparot, or kaparos, depending on your Jewish background, means “atonement,” and is the name of a more than 1,000-year-old custom that takes place a few days before Yom Kippur, in which an individual swings a live chicken by its wings over his head three times while reciting a prayer.

According to Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of the Orthodox Union West Coast regional office in Los Angeles, the custom is similar to that ascribed to the scapegoat found in Leviticus, on which the people’s sins were placed. Through kaparot, sins are placed on the chicken, said Kalinsky, who has practiced the custom.

After the swinging, the chicken is brought to a shochet, a ritual kosher slaughterer, who cuts the chicken’s throat.

Jewish custom is to “give a donation for the chicken and a portion goes for tzedakah,” Kalinsky said. “In the ideal situation, the chicken should be given to the poor,” he added.

The Chabad Web site, which provides how-to kaparot instructions, also explains that the “chicken’s monetary worth is given to the poor, or, as is more popular today, the chicken itself is donated to a charitable cause.”

In Los Angeles, while some kaparot chickens might be given to the poor, this was not the case last year, according to a letter from the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation dated March 20, 2013, obtained by the Jewish Journal from its recipient, Pini Herman — who is a Jewish demographer and blogger for jewishjournal.com. On or around Yom Kippur of 2012, department trucks picked up a recorded 19,685 pounds of dead chickens from “two pickup locations in the Pico-Robertson area and one in the La Brea-Melrose area.”

A few days before Yom Kippur, Herman, who grew up Orthodox and has in the past participated in the ritual, stopped to observe kaparot ceremonies being held at Congregation Ohel Moshe, an Orthodox synagogue on Pico Boulevard whose membership includes many Iranian Jews.

Other kaparot services were held that year in Los Angeles at Bait Aaron Torah Outreach  (baitaaron.com) on Pico Boulevard as well as at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, near La Brea and Melrose avenues.

Herman said that after the chickens were slaughtered, he witnessed dead or dying chickens sliding down a chute into a 55-gallon drum lined with a plastic bag. Herman said he had had read reports of kaparot chickens being thrown away in Brooklyn, N.Y., so he wondered if the same thing would happen to the chickens in the drum.

The next day, driving by Ohel Moshe, Herman, who said he was on his way to pick up his son at school, saw a blue Department of Sanitation truck parked alongside the temporary enclosure where he had witnessed the kaparot service the day before. He stopped and saw bags of chicken being loaded into a truck equipped with a hydrolic lift. “Some of them were clear, and I could see the chickens,” Herman said. He took pictures. 

Disturbed by what he had seen, Herman began looking into what had happened to the chickens. He was referred by the Iranian American Jewish Federation of Los Angeles to Rabbi Michael Segan-Kohanim, who initially showed interest, Herman said, saying he would raise the issue of the disposal of the chickens with the Persian Rabbinic Council. “He said he would get back to me, but never did,” Herman said.

Herman also wrote to Rabbi Avrohom Union, rabbinic administrator for the RCC, to ask, “Should a person wanting to do kaparos make sure that the schechita [ritual slaughter] is kosher, even if they don’t intend to eat the chicken themselves?”

In late September 2012 in Los Angeles, nearly 20,000 pounds of chicken believed to have been used in kaparot were trashed. Photo by Pini Herman

Union’s response was “yes.”

Ohel Moshe was contacted for this story, but declined to comment. Rabbi Ezra Schochet, Yeshivah Ohr Elchonon Chabad’s dean, when contacted, said he knew nothing about it. Segan-Kohanim also declined to comment, due, he said, to a “personal hardship.”

“I heard people being told the chickens were going to tzedakah, and I wanted to see if the community had a mechanism that would self-correct,” said Herman, who conducted the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Community Survey.

Beyond issues of disposal, the practice of kaparot has been getting increased scrutiny nationally from animal rights groups like PETA, as well as from an organization called the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos.

According to Karen Davis, the alliance’s leader and spokeswoman, the organization is not against the idea of kaparot, but supports replacing the live chickens with coins.

Davis operates a chicken sanctuary in Virginia, where she houses more than 90 chickens; she cites several rabbinic sources supporting the organization’s cause, including Orthodox Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, who raises chickens in Minnesota.

Gershom, a Breslov Chasid, wrote on his blog of the kaparot ceremony: “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 alliance organizes a protest each year in Brooklyn, and Davis said she has observed dead and dying chickens being thrown into dumpsters afterward. 

Davis, who has a doctorate and has written on the “Social Life of Chickens,” cited published research from the University of California as well as her own work with chickens in estimating that the chickens used on the West Coast — former egg-laying hens—probably weigh about 4 pounds each,” and given the city’s pickup of nearly 20,000 pounds of chickens, that would mean almost 5,000 chickens were used here. 

In Los Angeles, signs, newspaper ads and even a man standing on Pico Boulevard costumed as a chicken have been used to promote kaparot. Currently, in the Aug. 29 issue of The Jewish Home newspaper, an Orthodox publication, a quarter-page advertisement tells of upcoming kaparot at two locations — at the Bnos Devorah High School yard at 461 N. La Brea Ave. and at the Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad yard at 7215 Waring Ave. 

There have also been protests in past years in Los Angeles. Nazila Mahgerefteh, who moved to Los Angeles from Tehran when she was 14, put on a chicken suit in 2007 to call a different kind of attention to kaparot.

“The children came up and hugged me,” Mahgerefteh recalled of her experience wearing her suit in front of Ohel Moshe, but then “they saw the chickens being killed, and they began to cry.” 

Two years later, while videotaping a kaparot event, she said she was punched in the face by someone waiting in line, which also broke her camera.

“We have nothing against prayer or charity,” Mahgherefteh said. “We do not believe that by taking the lives away from animals, that our sins will be forgiven. Animal welfare is in the Torah.”

When a reporter told Orthodox Rabbi Dovid Tropper of Yeshivas Ohev Shalom on Fairfax Avenue of the letter from the sanitation department, he said that he “was appalled.”

“The documentation should be brought to the attention of the rabbinical authorities,” Tropper told the Journal. “The chicken that you paid for should be given to a poor person,” he said.

However, Rabbi Yona Landau, founder of the California nonprofit Touch of Kindness, which encompasses an organization called Tomchei Shabbos (Supporters of Shabbat) that provides food and other assistance to needy Jewish families, suggested in an interview that the kaparot chickens “would not be good enough to give to our recipients.

“A lot of chickens may not be fit for kosher consumption,” he said. “What else could you do with them?” Landau also said he did not believe the city figures about the number of chickens thrown away. 

In a later e-mail, Landau wrote, “Chabad does give them [kaparot chickens] to the school and the school kashers and cleans them.” Landau offered a phone number for Rabbi Levi Raichik at Chabad’s Congregation Levi Yitzcho “to verify,” but Raichik did not respond to calls.

Tropper, recalling how kaparot was practiced in his family as a child, said, “We would eat the chicken, and my father would donate its value to the poor. The credit for a good deed comes when you give it away,” Tropper said.

He suggested it may be difficult for modern Jews, who might not know how to prepare and kasher a chicken, to keep up the tradition this way. For convenience sake, Tropper said he now prefers the use of coins instead of chickens. 

“Kaparos doesn’t justify throwing away the chicken,” he said. 

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