Under pressure, Urban Adamah cancels kosher slaughter workshop

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A Berkeley workshop on kosher slaughter — during which 15 hens were to be killed — was canceled this week amid public outcry from animal rights groups and others.

Urban Adamah initially stood firm that its long-planned event would continue as scheduled on Sunday, May 4, even in the face of activists who threatened to picket and protest outside the urban farm and education center.

At a location not affiliated with Urban Adamah, Hope Bohanec carries a hen that she says was abandoned after its egg-laying days were over.

But on May 1, Adam Berman, founder and executive director of Urban Adamah, a nonprofit grounded in Jewish values, sent out an email explaining the cancellation.

“We regret to inform you that we are canceling our shechita (ritual slaughter) workshop planned for this Sunday,” the email began. “Our landlord has asked us to cancel the event. We do not have explicit permission in our lease for this activity.

“It has also become clear that there is a significant protest being organized outside the farm during the workshop. The noise and disruption expected from the protesters would very likely have caused undue stress to the chickens and the program participants, and prevent us from holding a safe, educational and compassionate workshop.

“We believe this program has significant merit and fits into Urban Adamah’s overall mission. We cannot, however, move ahead as planned given the current circumstances.”

In a phone interview with J. on May 1, Berman would not comment on the fate of the chickens now that the workshop is canceled. “We don’t yet know what we are doing with the chickens. We are considering our options,” he said, declining to elaborate.

Earlier in the week, Hope Bohanec, a Petaluma-based project manager for United Poultry Concerns, said her group had informed Berman that three Northern California farm-animal sanctuaries expressed interest in “rescuing” the chickens.

“Animal Place in Grass Valley, Hen Harbor in Santa Cruz and Harvest Home in Stockton are willing to take the hens, conduct a rescue with transport vehicles and volunteers,” she said. “[Urban Adamah] would not have to do anything.”

Berman told J. it was “very unfortunate” that the event was canceled because it would have been a good learning experience for Jewish community members interested in the processes of kosher slaughter.

“The landlord asked us to cancel it because it wasn’t in our lease, and we have a good relationship with them, so it wasn’t a battle we felt like having,” Berman said.

Adam Berman

Berman said the Urban Adamah staff wanted to go ahead with the event, even after opposition began mounting this week in the form of phone calls and emails to Urban Adamah, email blasts from animal-rights activists and several groups calling for protests. There was even a Facebook page titled “Protest in Berkeley: Save 15 Young Hens from Slaughter” that featured a stark image of a chicken having its throat slashed.

“When it became something of an issue, the [Urban Adamah] board was informed, and they were completely supportive” of going forward with the event, Berman said.

The three-hour, adults-only workshop was to be led by local shochet and Jewish educator Zac Johnson and Urban Adamah’s farm manager Willow Rosenthal.

A blurb on the Urban Adamah website, which was removed this week after the event reached its maximum of 30 signups, read in part: “Our flock of laying hens has been generously sharing its eggs with us since Urban Adamah first opened its doors in 2011. Now they are getting older, and it’s time to begin a new flock. With gratitude in our hearts, we will facilitate a kosher slaughter of our 15 birds. Workshop participants will be intimately involved in the entire process and will be able to take home a portion of kosher chicken meat.”

Said Berman: “Our organization is primarily about teaching people where their food comes from and the consequences of the choices they make on the planet, their bodies, on the animals impacted. Many people who eat meat are disconnected from the source of that meat, and as a result are desensitized to the steps involved with meat production.”

In a written statement explaining its organizational policy about its chickens, Urban Adamah noted that the chickens “give our staff, students and visitors the opportunity to practice animal care on a daily basis that is consistent with our values of kindness and compassion. They live in a large open coop. We feed them leftover greens from the Berkeley Bowl. We take them to the vet when they are sick.

“As is common practice in sustainable farms around the country, Urban Adamah kills its chickens at the end of their egg-laying years, and provides their meat to members of our community. We feel it is valuable for individuals who choose to eat meat to have the opportunity to understand directly and personally what killing of animals entails. This experience sensitizes us to the difficult steps that are necessary for eating meat, and leads to greater consciousness around our food choices.

“Our public workshops demonstrate how one can kill chickens in a way that is respectful of and has reverence for the animals, is prescribed by Jewish tradition, and is in alignment with our Jewish values.”

Zac Johnson

The workshop would have allowed participants to “help pluck, clean, salt, and rinse the birds,” Johnson explained before the cancellation. “But anyone is free to do as much or as little as they like. Participants [would not] be doing any of the knife work.”

Berman told J. that the original flock of 25 had dwindled over the years to the current 15. A day before the cancellation, he had called the decision to proceed “the right ethical and moral choice.”

Johnson backed him up. “This is part of the cycle of a farm. These hens are there specifically for laying, and now that they do not lay anymore, they have served their purpose,” he said. “It’s the wish of the farm to purchase new chicks for laying, and for these animals to provide sustenance for members of the Urban Adamah community.”

Early in the week, Bohanec told J. that members of her organization and others, such as In Defense of Animals, would be showing up outside the workshop to protest. In an uncanny coincidence, May 4 is International Respect for Chickens Day, according to the United Poultry Concerns website, which urges people to “do an action for chickens on or around May 4,” such as handing out leaflets, writing a letter to the editor or calling a radio talk show.

Judith Gottesman of Berkeley sent out a bulk email imploring people to join the protest and asking, “Do you really want [a] Jewish or any type of nonprofit to teach people to become numb to suffering and kill these trusting birds who’ve become their friends?” Her email noted “these birds have photos at the center, have names, have been part of their petting zoo” and now organizers plan to “slit their throats.”

She added: “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

Retired Corte Madera veterinarian Elliot Katz, who founded In Defense of Animals (IDA) in 1983, said “Jewish people, who have seen so much unfairness and suffering, should show more compassion toward our fellow beings.”

Raised in an observant home, the former yeshiva student decried the workshop, saying animals, including those raised for food, should not be thought of as property, commodities or things.

“Rather than show what kosher slaughter is about, they should bring out what compassion is about,” he added. “To me that’s what the Jewish religion is about: compassion and caring.”

Early on May 1, before word of the cancellation was out, IDA sent an email blast “condemning the decision” by Urban Adamah to “move forward with the callous slaughter of 15 chickens, despite offers from several farm animal sanctuaries to provide safe haven for the birds.”

Urban Adamah’s decision to cancel came too late for J., as the May 2 edition of the newspaper went to press the evening of April 30 with a story titled: “Urban Adamah won’t chicken out; kosher slaughter workshop to go on.”

Johnson — who was featured in a J. cover story in January headlined “Backyard kosher: Observant Jews take meat ritual into their own hands” — said he respects the opinions of the activists and others opposed to the slaughter.

“I respect their right to voice their opinion,” he said. “I’m actually inspired by it. I think their position and ours are two voices of a longstanding conversation in Judaism about the rights and responsibilities of human beings vis-à-vis other sentient beings. That conversation plays out beautifully in the Hebrew Bible.”

Johnson, who lives in Berkeley, learned his craft studying with a shochet in Jerusalem. He is certified to perform kosher slaughter on chickens.

Arguing to save the birds, Bohanec said, “God put the chicken on the planet for reasons beyond what we want for our use. Those chickens are individuals, with personalities and emotional lives. They want to live out their lives in peace, especially since they gave their eggs. It’s the least [Urban Adamah] can do.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.