Last November, when Zac Johnson needed a kosher turkey to serve for Thanksgivukkah, he turned not to his local butcher shop but to his own backyard in North Berkeley.
Trained in Israel as a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, Johnson, 32, procured a pasture-raised bird from a farm in Petaluma, and with six people looking on, he cut the turkey’s esophagus and trachea with one quick stroke. Then, as per Jewish law, he proceeded to gut its warm body before plucking, salting and eventually serving the fruits of his labor to a table of grateful friends.
Johnson, who studied with a Sephardic shochet in Jerusalem, feels such compassion for a bird before he kills it, he said, that since receiving his certification (for poultry only) two years ago, kosher slaughter has become something of an esoteric experience for him.
“I decided I needed to do this myself,” he explained of his decision to learn the ancient ritual. “Not only to have an alternative to the economy of the slaughter of animals en masse, but also to have it as a spiritual practice.”
Director of Jewish enrichment for BBYO’s Western regions, Johnson is one of a small but growing number of observant Jews who are taking matters of shechita, or ritual kosher slaughter, into their own hands — literally. These backyard slaughterers are hoping to liberate kosher meat production from the massive companies that dominate the industry, and to help those who keep kosher forge a closer connection to the animals that nourish them.
“I want to empower people to have the experience to learn shechita,” said Yadidya Greenberg, an animal welfare educator and shochet who organized a one-time course on do-it-yourself kosher slaughter in Boulder, Colo. “The point is that I want people to connect with the animals, to connect with death.”
One of the students in Greenberg’s weeklong course was Josh Shupack, a freelance Web programmer and former Berkeley resident who now lives in Oregon. Shupack’s interest in kosher slaughter was sparked by the 2008 federal raid on Agriprocessors, then the largest kosher meat supplier in the United States and long a target of critics concerned about worker and animal abuses in the industry.
“I realized that all the kosher meat is factory-farmed from the Midwest,” said Shupack, 32, who lives in Ashland with his wife, a cantorial soloist at their local Renewal synagogue, and their 19-month-old son. “When the Agriprocessors thing happened, it started me thinking.”
Soon after, Shupack linked up with Greenberg, one of the loudest voices in the growing chorus of “eco-kosher” Jews, and joined his course, which was led by Rabbi Israel Landsman, one of the few Orthodox Brooklyn rabbis willing to teach outsiders.
Following the September 2011 class, in which he killed 15 chickens and a duck, Shupack studied the trove of Jewish laws related to killing animals for consumption. He was eventually certified as a shochet for poultry by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, considered the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.
Shupack is scheduled to return to the Bay Area this spring to slaughter chickens at a one-day event at Urban Adamah, the organic Jewish farm and environmental education center in Berkeley. He organized the event with the help of Roger Studley, a co-founder of the East Bay Minyan who once tried to start a sustainable kosher meat business for the West Coast. Shupack and Studley hope that this small-scale shechting will lead to a larger educational event, in which the public can participate in the plucking process.
Meanwhile, in Sebastopol, a large-scale educational shechting event has already taken place. Two years ago, Steve Schwartz, a nonprofit advocate and small farmer who raises Jacob’s sheep — a breed of spotted sheep said to be descended from the biblical Jacob’s original flock — hosted an afternoon of kosher lamb slaughter at New Carpati Farm, named for his father’s birthplace in the Carpathian Mountains.
Some 40 participants from across the Bay Area came to learn the principles of kosher slaughter and watch the ritual take place; each went home with two pounds of meat to serve for their Passover meal.
While the afternoon proved a success, it had taken more than a year for Schwartz to find a shochet who would do the job. Backyard slaughter is considered an off-the-grid practice, and most mainstream shochets are either uninterested in participating, or are afraid of angering the big certifying agencies that provide the bulk of their employment. Schwartz ultimately located a shochet in Los Angeles, who drove from Southern California to perform the slaughter.
In the case of Greenberg, who organized the kosher slaughter course in Colorado, he brought in Rabbi Landsman — the same Orthodox rabbi who taught him how to schect — all the way from Brooklyn to teach the holy practice.
Raised on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, Greenberg, 29, first learned to slaughter after he became religiously observant 10 years ago and wanted to establish ethical eating practices around animals. After completing three months of study with Landsman, Greenberg made it his mission to demystify the process and help others do the same.
On his blog, the Kosher Omnivore’s Quest, Greenberg has gained a legion of followers in the Jewish food movement. People contact him on a regular basis wanting to learn shechita, he says. And it’s not just men, he adds, noting that more than five women have reached out to him in the past two years seeking a rabbi who will teach them kosher slaughter.
But Greenberg doesn’t know where to point them. While there is no specific Jewish law barring women from performing the ritual, and Greenberg believes women have as much of a right to shecht as men, current Orthodox custom is that women do not slaughter.
While Jewish women in rural areas shechted poultry well into the 20th century, and in Italy, women worked as shochets until World War II, these days in North America, it’s big business — and men have the market cornered.
“No Orthodox rabbi will teach a woman how to shecht,” said Tami Berman, who raises chickens in her Fair Lawn, N.J., backyard and is planning to teach herself how to ritually slaughter them. “So I’m going to have to just wing it at some point,” she said.
A homemaker, Berman, 46, recently paid a shochet $100 to slaughter just two chickens. She had to do all of the plucking and cleanup herself.
“It’s not cost-effective,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it again.”
While Berman may be comfortable teaching herself to shecht her heritage chickens, some bristle at the thought. Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said it’s laughable that amateurs believe they are capable of deciphering complex instructional texts on religious slaughter.
Even some in the small but growing world of ethical kosher meat suppliers frown on the notion of DIY slaughter.
Naftali Hanau, who with his wife, Anna, founded Grow and Behold, a New York–based company that distributes pasture-raised kosher meat, says he has “some reservations and questions” about the idea of someone taking a weekend class, then starting to shecht without supervision.
Hanau himself underwent a rigorous three-month training process back East, in which he killed at least 1,000 chickens before he received his first letter of reference toward certification, known as kabala.
“We have a very strong tradition of only letting those who are very qualified and trained and regularly checked up on by the community’s rabbis do this,” Hanau said. “And I think there’s value in that.”
Greenberg, who hopes one day to open a school for kosher slaughter, clearly disagrees — though on one point at least, he and Hanau are in perfect accord.
“This is not pickling,” Greenberg said, alluding to the popular DIY trend. “This is life and death.”
A version of this article first appeared at jta.org.