Chicken ritual sparks PETA squawk

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The debate over the arcane Orthodox ritual of kapparot – in which Jews ritually sacrifice chickens as they purge themselves of their sins before Yom Kippur – has turned into a snarling dog fight between a borough religious leader and animal rights activists.

Last week, just before residents throughout the borough marked the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Shea Hecht of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education told police that his office had been inundated with offensive faxes and e-mails lambasting the practice of kapparot.

Some of the e-mails bordered on anti-Semitic, he alleged.

Hecht said that the letters came from members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who have charged for some time that the practice of kapparot needlessly abuses and kills chickens.

“I got over a thousand e-mails in one hour,” Rabbi Hecht told the New York Times last week, claiming that at least one of the e-mails contained threats.

While Hecht’s offices are based in Crown Heights, the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education has dozens of centers throughout the borough, according to their own website. Centers in Gravesend, Midwood, Flatbush and Williamsburg all practice kapparot, members said.

During the ritual, an Orthodox man or woman purchases the chicken from anywhere between $2 and $7 and then waves the fowl over their heads while reciting prayers, symbolically imbuing their sins into the animal.

The chicken is then ritually sacrificed by a rabbi. The chicken’s remains are collected and given to the less fortunate for food, practitioners say.

Yet PETA members claim that the chicken carcasses are not used for food and are simply thrown away. They also charge that the chickens are kept in deplorable conditions before they are killed.

“(Kapparot) is not even an obligatory religious tradition,” explained PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich. “Two of the most respected Jewish rabbis in history denounced the ritual, claiming that it comes from pagan origins. It’s a black eye on the Orthodoxy and should be stopped.”

Friedrich admits that PETA members were asked to lend their name to an e-mail blitz to Rabbi Hecht decrying the practice of kapparot.

The pre-written e-mail says that the sender is “disgusted” by the practice, which they see as a “disgrace,” but no overt threats are made.

“The vast majority of people simply sent the draft text and filled in their contact information,” Friedrich said. “If what Rabbi Hecht says is true, then a sender changed the text.”

“It’s unfortunate that anyone would hand an animal abuser some cause for self-righteousness by sending them something threatening and anti-Semitic,” he said. “It’s unethical and counter-productive.”

Police have reportedly logged Rabbi Hecht’s complaint about PETA, but an investigation had not been launched as this paper went to press.

“I haven’t heard from Rabbi Hecht or the police,” Friedrich said.

PETA members do not apologize about their stance against kapparot and have recorded the alleged inhumanness of the practice since 2005. They have specifically focused on Rabbi Hecht, who they claim runs the “most inhumane kapparot operation in the borough.”

“From a distance, kapporot sites look like street festivals,” the PETA website states. “But up close, they are horrifying makeshift slaughterhouses on public streets.

“Just in Brooklyn, New York, more than 50,000 chickens are trucked in for this ritual. They languish without food and water, stacked in cramped, filthy transport crates on public streets for hours. Many don’t even survive until the time when they would be slaughtered,” continued the website post, which came with a video of how the chickens are transported and used in the ritual.

The video is filled with images of screaming chickens being hoisted over the heads of Orthodox residents before having their throats slit.

In one scene, an Orthodox man screams back at the keening chicken, ordering it to “shut up” as he finishes his prayers.

Hecht disputes PETA’s allegations, claiming that thousands of the sacrificed birds are given to needy Jewish families for food each year. He did admit that “a few hundred” had to be thrown out, because they were not deemed kosher.

Although the popularity in the practice has waned over the years, Hecht said that he and his followers will continue the ritual if there is still an interest among borough Jews.

“We’re still out there, still koshering the chicken,” Hecht said.

Over the past few years, local police precincts, among them the 61st Precinct in Sheepshead Bay, have received complaints about Orthodox residents killing chickens on neighborhood streets.

No one has been summonsed or arrested for conducting the ritual, which is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

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