How are we going to eat together again?
As reopening communal life grows tantalizingly close in many parts of the U.S., Jewish institutions are considering the best ways to resume in-person activity. To reduce the risk of suffering through a similar catastrophe again any time soon, the aspect of gathering that many have missed most, and that will inevitably grace our spaces once more—eating together—should be at the center of our communities’ planning process.
Resuming communal dining for Jewish institutions that have been closed for the past year will pose many new logistical questions and challenges. Perhaps none more important, however, than what food will be served, a question that often goes unexamined beyond confirming products are kosher.
At the start of the pandemic, the Jewish Initiative for Animals urged our community to consider the well-established links between industrial animal production and pandemic risk. The way we raise both kosher and non-kosher animals for food, especially chickens, poses a consistent and growing threat to our public health. Even the seemingly wild origins of pathogens that spur virus outbreaks often trace back to agricultural encroachment that has disrupted wildlife patterns. Preventing the next pandemic means stopping it at the source (host animals), and to do that, we need to address our obligation to consume fewer animal products.
Reducing the number of animals to prevent the spread of disease also coincides with another important goal: mitigating climate change. The climate impacts of animal products dwarf most plant-based foods.
The EAT-Lancet Commission warns that even if net-zero carbon emissions are achieved for every other industry by 2050, we would still fail to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement if we don’t reduce meat and dairy consumption. But there is hope, a recent study in Nature argues that we can remain within a 1.5 ºC temperature rise if we facilitate a global shift toward plant-forward food systems.
Religious communities must grow awareness and act upon the link between our food choices, our health, and the health of our planet. In January, expert scholars from Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian Universalist traditions gathered to dialogue about the connections between protecting public health and our relationship with animals and urged religious communities to talk about their food practices. Our religious communities are the perfect venue for interrogating ethical values, which can form the basis of our practices.
Communities can take action by publicly committing to sourcing fewer animal products overall, rooting their decision in their Jewishly-informed concerns for protecting the planet, animals, workers, and public health. University Hillels, for example, have taken advantage of this past year to reevaluate their practices and start to shift their own norms. During the pandemic, Central Florida Hillel and Northwestern Hillel joined the Jewish Leadership Circle, committing to reduce the volume of animal products served by at least 20 percent within two years.
Post-COVID, many of our default practices will change to ensure safety, and Jewish communities and events can similarly embrace more sustainable food policies by default to ensure good public and planetary health. This includes making simple changes, such as serving plant-based meals by default, while still allowing people to opt in for meat, dairy, and other animal products if they want.
It will take spiritual fortitude and practical creativity to make group gathering possible, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. As we heal from the communal trauma of the pandemic, may our Jewish institutions inspire bold action to ensure our ability to thrive and continue to enjoy the simple things, like the abiding pleasure of sharing a meal together.
Melissa Hoffman is the Director of the Jewish Initiative for Animals.