When he was alive, the Lubavitcher rebbe distributed dollar bills to encourage people to give tzedekah. Dollar bills were also distributed on the first day of the annual kaparot event in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights this year but not by the Lubavitchers.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals this year stepped up activism against the practice — when a Jew takes a live chicken and rotates it in a circle while saying prayers to absolve himself of sin. By handing out dollar bills shaped into origami chickens to Lubavitchers in Crown Heights, as well as to Hasidim in Williamsburg and Boro Park, PETA hoped to persuade passersby to give money for their pre-Yom Kippur atonements rather than swing chickens.
The PETA people also tried to distribute, near the kaparot center on Eastern Parkway, posters that read: “Gelt, Not Guilt — For a Cruelty-Free Kapporos, Please Use Money, Not Chickens.”
While residents gladly accepted the cash, some ignored the activists’ plea, and a few loudly challenged them.
While Philip Schein — the PETA senior researcher who since 2005 has been pressuring Lubavitch and other Hasidic leaders to stop, or at least reform, their kaparot practices — spoke with a reporter, a middle-aged woman screamed at him, “Get a life!” Another woman screamed at Schein that he was the moser (informer) who put two Rubashkins in jail and that he should leave the neighborhood. (The Lubavitch-affiliated Rubashkin family owned the Iowa kosher slaughterhouse that was the site of documented animal abuse and a massive federal immigration raid.)
Meantime, two tiny Lubavitch girls handed out copies of a picture of a man clad in a Hazmat suit throwing a puppy into the trash, an image from an anti-Peta Web site.
There was a carnival-like feeling to the goings-on in Crown Heights, punctuated by the odor of fowl feces. Families with young children bought chickens — a hen for women and a rooster for men — from a large truck stacked high with crates and parked in the emergency lane alongside Eastern Parkway.
Meir Simcha Kogan and his wife were helping their 7-year-old daughter and three younger sons, including 3 1/2-year-old twin boys, with the ritual.
The girl hung back, but the boys circled around Empire Kosher Poultry Supermarket carton that held two chickens. One boy eagerly tried to pet the birds, while the other twin looked frightened by their squawking as each was lifted from the box by its wings. The chickens quieted when Kogan held each one gently underneath its breast and tucked its wings under his other hand.
As his wife, who declined to give her name, helped one twin say the blessing — which asks God to make the chicken the proxy for the person and carry his sins away — Kogan circled the chicken carefully over the boy’s head.
“I have nothing against PETA,” Kogan said, “but this is a tradition. There are a lot of kabbalistic reasons that we do this.”
When asked what some are, Kogan said, “Not everything we do do we understand.”
After the ritual, the chickens would be slaughtered and the meat distributed to the Lubavitchers who flock to Crown Heights for the Jewish holidays, he said.
Schein noted a hose being used to spray the chickens’ cages with water.
“That’s a huge development,” he said. “It’s better than nothing, and shows that the message is getting through to [Rabbi Shea] Hecht that they have to do something to improve treatment and conditions even if they are only doing it because of all the public scrutiny.” Hecht is chairman of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, which sponsors the Crown Heights kaparot event. He describes Schein as “a wacko who has a vendetta against us.”
In 2004, Schein went undercover at Agriprocessors, the Rubashkins’ slaughterhouse, documenting animal abuse. Further investigations led to the 2008 federal immigration raid, the arrest and deportation of 389 Central American workers who were here illegally, and the arrest of members of the prominent Rubashkin family. Two Agriprocessors’ executives — a son and grandson of founder Aaron Rubashkin — are in custody, one already sentenced to prison and the other awaiting trial October 13.
Hecht says that “shlugging kaparot,” or “swinging chickens,” is a matter of religious freedom.
“My grandparents and your grandparents came to this country for religious freedom,” he said. “This is my religious prerogative.”
Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org