Skip To Content
Fast Forward

This rabbi is betting $5,000 he can convince you to go vegan

Shmuly Yanklowitz has been an animal rights activist for years. Now, he’s putting his money where his mouth is

Forget the brisket, this vegan rabbi is hoping to win other Jews to his side and he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president of the animal advocacy group Shamayim issued a challenge this week to any contemporary across the United States and Canada: Debate me on veganism, in front of your congregation, with the winner getting $5,000. 

Yanklowitz, who has been vegan since his wedding day 12 years ago, said his reasons for adopting the diet were “partially about health and partially about environment, but primarily about animal suffering.”

While advocates for kosher meat claim that the method is as humane as any, not everyone is convinced: Several European countries have moved to outlaw the kosher and halal methods of slaughter, citing animal cruelty.  Yanklowitz found himself disturbed by “the assimilation of kosher America into the worst sides of American capitalism.”

“Just keeping kosher is not necessarily more ethical than not,” he said, a conclusion that led him to realize “the next level of Jewish actualization of food ethics was going to require a move towards veganism, ultimately.”

Jewish scripture on what is permissible to eat is comprehensive, including not just which animals are kosher, but also how they are slaughtered. But Yanklowitz believes that has led to “a misunderstanding that, if the Torah permits something, then the Torah thinks it’s good.”

“I think there’s many things that the Torah permits,” he said. “But the Torah calls us to a higher ethic beyond it. And so I think this is a perfect example where nobody could argue that the Torah forbids meat. But I want to make the case for a higher ethic that emerges from Torah.”

Yanklowitz has spent years making this point, which ultimately led him to found Shamayim along with actress and Jeopardy! host Mayim Bialik and pop singer Matisyahu. A conversation with one of the organization’s donors resulted in the debate idea. The goal is to have five to 10 such debates in front of congregations within the next year — a goal that Yanklowitz said is within reach, as there have already been intrigued rabbis reaching out. But Yanklowitz said he’s not necessarily expecting to convince his rabbinical colleagues to switch to veganism. Rather, he’s hoping to get his ideas wider exposure.

“I think my goal is to win over about 25 to 50% of attendees, such that they’ll realize that this is the most authentic form of Judaism.”

Yanklowitz is especially eager to get invites from Orthodox rabbis, who he said he will likely view a debate as “as a Grand Slam win for them. Because obviously, everybody Orthodox eats meat. Whereas in the Reform world, which is very liberal, there’s already many people who are vegetarians, at least.”

The prize money, which is fronted by a donor, will go to the winning side’s congregation, with the congregation itself voting on the winner. That might seem like a bit of a conflict of interest, but Yanklowitz said the main point isn’t winning, it’s exposing Jews to new ideas about their food and where it comes from.

“I’ve heard your arguments,” he said. “And so that’s kind of the idea, is to ensure that people have heard this side of the argument, because I think a lot of people have been taught some myths and misconceptions around what Judaism’s ideals are.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.