(RNS) Animal rights activists, health officials and mainstream Jews all cry foul over a sacrificial rite conducted by ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities every fall, but most practitioners remain unruffled by the outcry.
Kaparot (the spelling sometimes varies slightly) is a ritual that involves swinging a live chicken while praying that it symbolically assumes your sins, then slaughtering it and eating or donating the meat. The ceremony is performed during the week between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which falls at sundown Sept. 17 this year.
Only observed by a tiny percentage of American Jews, the custom has grown increasingly controversial since 2005, when dozens of cooped-up birds drowned in the rain in Brooklyn, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began submitting footage and complaints to various enforcement agencies.
Health officials concerned about unsanitary conditions at the huge events, and non-Hasidic Jews who find the ritual theologically or ethically problematic have also stepped up efforts to get religious leaders to modify the ceremony — with limited results.
The protests have raised awareness and prompted small changes in how the chickens are handled, but "the situation hasn't improved substantially," said Philip Schein, a PETA investigator.
''The industrialization of kaparot has made it almost impossible to do the ritual humanely," he said. "These are massive makeshift slaughterhouses on urban streets with tens of thousands of panicked chickens being trucked in horrible conditions and handled roughly by the public."
PETA has opted for a less confrontational strategy this year, Schein said, working behind the scenes with local rabbis.
Meanwhile, the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos, a new group organized by United Poultry Concerns, has collected more than a thousand signatures for an Internet petition and planned rallies for Sept. 12 — the first day the ritual takes place this year — in Hasidic parts of Brooklyn.
Shmarya Rosenberg, a former Chabad Lubavitch member, said most ultra-Orthodox Jews don't question their authorities, and criticism from the outside tends to prompt a defensive backlash.
Community leaders, who acknowledge some problems with kaparot, argue that bad publicity has focused on the exceptions, rather than the thousands of public and individual ceremonies that take place without incident each year.
''Respected rabbinical figures have put out clear statements about the ritual, which include the admonition that Jewish law forbids Jews to cause animals unnecessary pain," said Avi Shafran, spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America.
Some efforts, though, have been made to point out that the ritual is not religiously required and can instead be performed with money. As little as $5, representing the price of a live chicken, may be swung around, prayed over and donated to the poor instead of the meat.
Though technically acceptable, this substitution misses the point of respecting and maintaining centuries of tradition, Shafran responds.
''Members of the Orthodox community place much value on maintaining the religious customs of their families," he said. "And I think that the religious freedom our Constitution affords its citizens well covers the choice to use a chicken in a ceremony."
But critics say the ceremony was historically conducted by families or small groups in eastern European villages — not in parking lots with thousands of caged birds trucked in for the occasion, by people who rarely touch live poultry. Moreover, the birds killed at these large-scale events become unfit for consumption when they're not handled properly, defeating part of the ritual's purpose.
Rosenberg said he never considered substituting money or gave much thought to whether the chickens had adequate shelter, food or water, until the controversy emerged about Agriprocessors, the now-defunct kosher meat plant in Iowa that was exposed for questionable slaughtering and employment practices several years ago.
''You expect that whatever is being done is meeting all aspects of Jewish law, and since there's a Jewish law that forbids cruelty to animals, you expect that that's being taken care of," he said, recalling his last kaparot experience in 2004. "You just assume it's all OK."
Rosenberg also blames government officials for allowing violations to continue, rather than risk upsetting a voting block in predominantly Jewish areas.
In Rockland County, a New York City suburb with a high concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews, public health officials say they have tried for years to work with kaparot organizers to prevent ongoing violations. But as of Wednesday (Sept. 8,) they had not heard back from the men behind the annual gathering with more than 10,000 chickens. Since 2007, the ultra-Orthodox community has accumulated more than $15,000 in fines related to the ceremony.
It can take years to go after an individual who violates a sanitation code, said Thomas Micelli, the director of environmental health in Rockland County. About half of the fines have been collected so far, and last year's event had fewer violations, he said.
''We can't have fecal matter going into streams; we can't have blood and feathers just left all over the place. I think what we're asking for is reasonable; it just takes effort and a little extra expense," Micelli said.
Rosenberg doesn't think organizers are willing to spend the time or money to follow recommendations from outsiders. It's just easier, as well as culturally appropriate, to keep doing things the way they've always been done — even if it's a tradition that continues to abuse animals, endanger the public's health, rack up fines and generate bad publicity.
He concluded, "The same thing is going to happen again this year, just like it did last year, unless there's some kind of miracle."
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