Mendel Rice, who is likely the first shochet in the history of Solano County, visiting the Maui Kosher Farm in Hawaii, Sept. 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Rice)
Mendel Rice, who is likely the first shochet in the history of Solano County, visiting the Maui Kosher Farm in Hawaii, Sept. 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Rice)

This animal lover is becoming a ritual slaughterer to fulfill a higher purpose 

Mendel Rice of Vacaville loves animals, and always has. Yet he has chosen to become a shochet, a ritual slaughterer.

Rice sees no contradiction.

In fact, the 33-year-old rabbi says that his work allows an animal to fulfill God’s purpose if that animal was destined for a plate.

“By slaughtering it properly, you elevate it to something you are allowed to eat,” he said. “And if you are using the energy gained by eating the animal to do something good, you help bring it to what it was created for.”

Rice, a Marin County native and married father of three, is close to finishing the requirements to become a certified shochet, exclusively for now of the sheep and goats he raises. He just has one more knife skills exam to complete under a yearlong program through Chabad veteran shochets Chezy Posner, a New York rabbi, and Dovid Banon, a head rabbi and member of a beit din, or rabbinic court, in Montreal.

Slaughtering is not Rice’s only work with animals. The son of Chabad emissaries in San Rafael also owns Fire Goats for Hire, which rents out goats and sheep to graze grassy areas to reduce the amount of potential fuel for wildfires. That part of his business also helps enable him to raise his animals on grass.

“Ever since I finished yeshiva, I’ve been involved with agriculture,” he said. “No one has been available locally to provide [fresh] meat in a kosher way. I thought I could fill that need.”

In the North Bay, religiously observant Jews have occasionally brought in a shochet from Los Angeles. But that’s not practical, Rice said.

“So I studied to do it myself,” he said.

He has also worked on farms and studied sustainable agriculture at the College of Marin.

“I got into raising animals like sheep and chickens, and I’d process the meat,” he said. “When Covid happened, I started raising sheep and goats and now own a few hundred head.”

Rabbi Chaim Zaklos of Chabad of Solano County believes that Rice is the first shochet in Solano County’s history.

Mendel Rice in 2017 with the first lamb he ever shechted (Photo/Courtesy)
Mendel Rice in 2017 with the first lamb he ever shechted (Photo/Courtesy)

On the consumer side of the practice, Rice said his prices are competitive. He sells an average sheep for about $400, which works out to about $20 a pound. By contrast, he said, shipping the same meat from Los Angeles can cost $20 to $40 a pound, depending on the cut. Locally, kosher lamb chops sell for around $18 a pound.

He almost exclusively sells sheep because, well, people aren’t asking for goat meat.

Rice estimates that he has slaughtered about 30 sheep with a certified shochet present since 2019. He sells the living sheep, which people buy shares of. Then they hire him to slaughter it.

Rice said he and other small operators work within U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that allow livestock owners to slaughter small numbers of animals without undergoing inspection. He may decide to slaughter chickens someday, but they would be covered under different government regulations.

Rice does the ritual slaughtering himself on a Napa farm but usually has a few workers to help skin and clean the animal. Most of the blood goes into the ground as fertilizer in a grassy area of the farm he uses, Rice said. He processes the meat at the same farm, which has a walk-in refrigerator where the meat ages for about three days.

“We keep everything up to the highest kosher and cleanliness standards,” Rice said.

Rice’s wife of nearly seven years, Batsheva Rice, 32, said she’s proud of his efforts and has adopted his dream as her own. She works as a doula and body worker.

“We try to lead a health-conscious lifestyle in line with Torah values, and it’s a longtime dream of ours to bring grass-fed, kosher meat like this to the Bay Area table,” she said.

New York native Linda Lantos, who has lived in the Oakland-Berkeley area for nearly a decade, said she purchased one of his first “runs” and calls what he’s doing “groundbreaking work.”

The mother of two said she’s “so excited to see this happen and to watch it grow.”

Lantos said she has struggled with the alignment of the kosher meat on store shelves and her values around the ethical treatment of animals. She is always seeking out sources for humanely raised kosher meat, she said.

“As a parent, I also really wanted to be able to put my values on a plate for my family,” she said.

By slaughtering it properly, you elevate it to something you are allowed to eat.

This is significant for the Jewish community more broadly too, Lantos said.

“Creating hyperlocal models where we can bring the process into the community” is important, she said. “The industrialized process we have created is not sustainable.”

Having convenient access to fresh kosher meat is important, Zaklos said. Observant residents in the North Bay normally drive to Oakland or San Francisco to shop or have meat shipped from Los Angeles or New York at significant expense.

Keeping kosher is the “best way spiritually and physically for a Jewish person to consume food,” Zaklos said. “When a person consumes food, he’s not just stuffing his face. He’s feeding himself to be able to serve his Maker. It’s a step in the process of serving God.”

The act of ritual slaughter is sacred, he said.

“God tells us that if you need to eat, this is the way to do it,” Zaklos said. “A shochet doesn’t see what he does as killing an animal, but as a gentle way for a person to be fed.”

Slaughtering an animal in a kosher way involves multiple elements, Rice said.

“First it must be ritually slaughtered by someone trained and certified to do that, and not killed in some other way,” he said. “The lungs must be checked and certain parts separated and the meat must be salted to remove the blood.”

The knife used must be without nicks, and there must be no pressure applied, Rice explained.

“You must make the cut in the right spot and be done in one single motion, and be able to see the blade the whole time,” he said. “This is believed to be the kindest and least harmful way of dispatching an animal, but ultimately, the reason we do it this way is because this is the tradition.”

Rice said he’s created a balance in his life when it comes to his relationship with animals.

“I really love animals. I love raising them. But you have to be able to balance that with what you’re doing,” he said. “And I think it’s great to be able to provide kosher meat.”

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.