For Jews, the week between Rosh Hashanna (the new year) and Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) is a time of reflection.
And for ultra-orthodox Jews, including the thousands of them in Los Angeles, it is a time to ritualistically kill chickens.
The practice of kapparot, meaning atonement, dates back centuries and involves waving a live chicken over one's head while reciting a short prayer, translated as: "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my expiation. This chicken shall go to death and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace." The chicken is then slaughtered.
Traditionally, the chickens were supposed to be given to the poor, but since that would violate the health code of today, the carcasses are typically thrown away. Pini Herman, a former research director for the Jewish Federation, says that in 2012, Jewish organizations practicing kapparot threw away 10 tons of poultry in Los Angeles — a tonnage that amounts to roughly 6,000 chickens, he says.
For years, animal rights groups have opposed the ritual. Now, the Animal Protection and Rescue League is suing the city of Los Angeles over what it claims is its failure to enforce a statute prohibiting the intentional killing of animals without justification. The suit argues, "Killing and discarding chickens in a manner in which they cannot be used for food violates Penal Code §597(a) and is illegal."
"The police seem to be not enforcing it, because of religion," says the plaintiffs' attorney, Bryan Pease. "But my legal research has not found any basis for that. There’s no exception for killing and discarding animals for religious ritual."
Pease argues that religious ceremonies are not exempt from the law. He points out that courts have upheld state bans on peyote, which is used in some Native American rituals.
Stephanie Taub, a lawyer for First Liberty Institute, which is representing a number of Orthodox congregations that practice kapparot, calls the ritual "perfectly legal."
"We think people have the right to disagree, but you don’t have a right to shut down a religious practice," Taug says. "We’re protecting the right of orthodox Jewish communities to practice their historic tradition."
Rabbi Jonathan Klein, the director and co-founder of Faith Action for Animals, has been fighting to get Jewish organizations to stop performing kapparot for years. Klein says the actual killing of the animals is done in a manner similar to kosher butchers and is not the focus of his objections.
"My primary commitment to fighting this ritual is the fact that all the steps leading up to the ritual killing are horrible for these animals," he says.
Although the practice calls for men to use roosters and women to use hens, Klein and others believe most ceremonies use hens — spent hens, from factory farms, that can no longer lay eggs and are "no longer economically useful."
The ritual typically involves pinning back the chicken's wings and waving it around in the air.
"These animals are calcium-deficient; they all have very fragile bones," Klein says. "They all break very easily when they’re transported to the streets of L.A. They're dealing with very fragile birds that are living in a tremendous amount of pain. Better that they die on the factory farm quickly and more painlessly than they’re brought with terror into these communities."
He adds: "You don’t have to be a vegan animal rights activist to think this is a little crazy." (Klein himself is a vegan.)
Many communities have given up the use of chickens in kapparot and instead have substituted coins, which are then given to charity. But there are some holdouts — notably, in Los Angeles, Chabad still uses chickens for kapparot, as does the Hebrew Discovery Center in Woodland Hills.
Animal rights activists have been known to go to extreme measures in an attempt to stop kapparot. Last week, a few orthodox Jewish communities in Los Angeles and Irvine and a man named Hersel Cohen filed a temporary restraining order against the Animal Protection and Rescue League, for what the motion called "unlawful vigilante acts."
The motion alleges that on Sept. 27:
Approximately 8 to 10 protesters trespassed onto Mr. Cohen’s front yard. They threatened to arrest him ... if he did not give them chickens. Mr. Cohen feared violence would break out. Five protesters rushed past him and opened the gate. They went in very fast and started collecting the chickens and putting them in boxes. Mr. Cohen went in to stop them, telling them, “Bring them back, bring them back,” but he could not stop them. He tried to grab one box as one protester was taking it, trying to stop them from stealing the chickens. They took the boxes and ran out to their car, stealing between 20 and 30 chickens. Mr. Cohen then called 911.
Pease says his clients had nothing to do with the incident described. The request for a restraining order was denied.
Last week, the Hebrew Discovery Center posted on Facebook a letter from its director, Rabbi Netanel Louie. In it, he called last year's protesters "hateful anti-Semite[s]" and "fascists," and went on to state, in part:
It's not only the Kaparot at stake anymore, it's the religious liberty of all people, and it's the tolerance for indifference. Don't assume for a moment that these twisted minded people and their anti-Semite phony attorneys will stop at just Kaparot. Evidently, shekhitah (kosher slaughter) of animals will be their next target, and who knows what will be after that? Stopping Kaparot is only to gain momentum and support for their foolish cause and we're stopping them right here.
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(Neither Louie nor Chabad returned phone calls requesting comment for this story.)
Animal rights groups have sued orthodox Jewish communities before. They've lost every time.
"We think it’s becoming harassment," Taub says, "and trying to chill lawful activities just because they don’t agree with them."
Says Pease: "We’ve never lost on the merits. We've only lost on issue of legal standing."