After Kaporos: The Bushwick brownstone that serves as a chicken rescue center
Throughout the three days leading up to Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement” in Judaism, roughly 50,000 chickens are slaughtered in pop-up butcher stands in the streets of Hasidic communities in Crown Heights, South Williamsburg and Borough Park.
Animal rights activists have protested the ritual, called Kaporos or Kapparot, for nearly a decade, most opting in the past two years for more peaceful demonstrations aimed at providing the animals with comfort rather than clashing outright with religious adherents.
At a Kaporos site on Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights on Monday, activists fed chickens through crates while others confronted the families buying chickens and used their phones to record them.
For some, like animal activist Rocky Schwartz, the action doesn’t stop at protesting. For the past two years, Schwartz and a group of volunteers have rescued and rehabilitated dozens of chickens in the basement of her Bushwick brownstone during the week of Kaporos. Working with an avian specialist vet in Long Island, they triaged more than 100 birds this year. Now, they are preparing to transport them to sanctuaries across the country.
According to Schwartz, there are at least four other makeshift, home-based rescue operations in Brooklyn rehabilitating hundreds of escaped chickens.
The Kaparos ritual involves swinging a chicken above one’s head, reciting a prayer and then giving the bird to a kosher butcher who slaughters it by slicing the throat.
The meat is then customarily donated to charity, but whether or not that actually happens in most cases has been disputed by some observers.
According to State Assemblymember Simcha Eichenstein, whose district includes Borough Park, the Kaporos chickens in his district are given to needy families following the ritual.
“The ritual is actually more humane than the standard factory farming practices. The real difference between Kapparos and factory farming is that factory farming takes place behind closed doors, whereas Kapparos is oftentimes performed in public venues,” Simcha told the Brooklyn Eagle in an email.
At the Crown Heights ritual site this year, at least some of the dead chickens were left sitting on the curb in garbage bags for several hours.
Activists have sought to end the practice on public health grounds, but in November 2018, the State Court of Appeals ruled Kaporos could continue.
Orthodox communities around the world practice Kaporos with chickens. Scholars trace the custom back to the 13th century and possibly earlier, although it doesn’t have its roots in Hebrew scripture.
“It’s not entirely clear how it originated,” said Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Brody, a scholar of Judaism and columnist for the Jerusalem Post, who noted that, regardless of whether it has a biblical source, a long-established tradition carries a lot of weight in Jewish law.
Why chickens? “On the one hand they’re cheap and accessible, so that makes them usable,” Brody said. “At the same time, one of the Hebrew words for ‘chicken’ can also mean ‘human’ or ‘man.’”
Symbolically, the chicken takes the form of one’s sins during the ritual. Killing it is meant to inspire repentance, Brody said.
Many Modern Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish people today donate money in lieu of slaughtering chickens, though for some, the alternative lacks symbolic weight.
“It doesn’t evoke in people the same response,” he said.
Jonah Wachtel, a 22-year-old who identifies as Modern Orthodox, has taken part in the ritual six times. He traveled to the Kaporos site on Eastern Parkway last year to participate.
“It’s an ugly scene, but it’s part of the process,” he said. “It smells because of the chickens, and it’s loud, but there’s no other way to do it.”
Wachtel said the presence of activists at the Kaporos sites makes some Jewish people second guess the practice.
“No one likes to feel like they’re treating animals badly. I know I don’t want to feel like that,” he said.
More than 100 chickens scampered around Schwartz’s basement on Monday night, with more expected to arrive over the coming week. She estimates there were about 70 last year.
Most of the birds huddled in a large pen at one end of the basement. A few with more serious injuries, like compound fractures, large gashes or broken bones, were segregated from the general population in smaller cages. Name tags were wrapped around the chickens’ legs, and a whiteboard listed the birds’ injuries.
Some of the birds were handed over to activists by members of the Hasidic community or poultry delivery workers, Schwartz said. Others escaped their crates and were captured.
“There is basically a rule in Jewish law against using chickens who are in some way injured,” she said. “So the activists can say, ‘Well, you can’t use that anyway. Just give them to us.’”
An activist named Cindy, who did not wish to provide her last name, said she planned to go out the next day to search dumpsters and garbage bags on the sidewalk for birds that might still be alive.
Finding living birds in the trash after Kaporos is common, Schwartz said. Last year, two activists helped rescue a chicken “that had literally been slaughtered, throat slit, and was alive and is alive today. People saw a trash bag moving and opened it up,” she said.
Schwartz says she knows of five other chicken “safe houses” in the city, four in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan, where activists work around the clock during the week of Kaporos to rehabilitate the birds. They then coordinate the distribution of the chickens to sanctuaries across the country, using regional networks of activists.
Kaporos chicken adopters lined up to receive Schwartz’s birds this year live as far south as Florida and as far west as Oregon.
The activists will first transport a large group of chickens in a moving van to a “regional hub” in Michigan, where other volunteers will come to move smaller groups of chickens to shelters in Colorado, Texas, Washington State and elsewhere, Schwartz said.
The effort requires absolute coordination.
“I think activist groups always have in-fighting,” said Schwartz. “But during Kaporos week, even groups that don’t like each other put that aside.”
Many of the rescuers are connected through a Facebook group called “Vegans with Chickens.” This year, Schwartz put up her own website to coordinate the effort.
Several of the chickens from past Kaporos ceremonies now live with Schwartz and roommate Alexa Stone indoors at their Bushwick brownstone, like pets, although Stone prefers the term “companion chicken.”
At one point in the evening, two activists arrived from Crown Heights with four chickens in a box. Schwartz and Stone rushed to check the chickens for injuries, give them antibiotics and inject them with IV fluids. For up to a week before the ritual, the birds are kept in crates on the street, Schwartz explained, so most arrive dehydrated.
“A week ago, this was pretty much a normal basement,” she said. “Ideally there would be a big rescue organization doing this, but there isn’t, so we’ve got this volunteer crew operating in a brownstone.”