ASHLAND, Ore. -- It’s a crisp fall day in southern Oregon and Josh Shupack, 32, is gently whispering in a chicken’s ear.
“We’re going to return your soul to heaven, your blood to the earth,” he says, petting the bird's bright red comb. “And nourish our bodies with your flesh.”
This is what Shupack tells every chicken before he cuts its esophagus and trachea with a razor-sharp blade and holds it by the feet as it bleeds out into the dirt below. Its body quivers and shakes for a minute, black and orange feathers flapping, before it goes limp in his hands.
After the birds are cut, he and his sister, Jamina, 26, hang them from a backyard arbor and spend half an hour plucking each one, their bodies still hot. Then the innards are removed and their hearts, gizzards and feet are placed in Mason jars lining a blood-spattered table.
A freelance web programmer from San Diego, Shupack is one of a small but growing number of observant Jews who are taking matters of shechitah, or ritual kosher slaughter, into their own hands -- literally. Long considered the sole province of rigorously trained Orthodox men, these backyard slaughterers are hoping to liberate kosher meat production from the massive companies that dominate the industry and help kosher keepers forge a closer connection to the animals that nourish them.
“I want to empower people to have the experience to learn shechitah,” said Yadidya Greenberg, a Boulder, Colo.-based animal welfare educator and shochet, or ritual slaughterer. “The point is that I want people to connect with the animals, to connect with death.”
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 kosher meat industry. The raid on the Iowa slaughterhouse inspired a small group of dissatisfied Jews to apply the doctrine of Do-It-Yourself to ritual slaughter.
“I realized that all the kosher meat is factory-farmed from the Midwest,” said Shupack, who lives in Ashland with his wife, a cantorial soloist at the local Renewal synagogue, and their 17-month-old son. “And when the Agriprocessors thing happened, it started me thinking.”
Shupack soon linked up with Greenberg, one of the loudest voices in the growing chorus of “eco-kosher” Jews, who was organizing a weeklong course led by an Orthodox Brooklyn rabbi. Following a class in which he killed 15 chickens and a duck, Shupack studied the trove of Jewish law related to killing animals for consumption. Eventually he was certified as a shochet for poultry only by Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the former Chabad rabbi considered the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.
Raised on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, Greenberg, 29, first learned to shecht after he became religious 10 years ago and wanted to establish ethical eating practices around animals. After completing three months of study with Yisrael Landsman, the rabbi who taught Shupack to shecht, 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 shechitah, he says. And it’s not just men. According to Greenberg, more than five women have reached out to him in the past 18 months 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, Orthodox tradition is that women do not slaughter.
“No Orthodox rabbi will teach a woman how to shecht,” said Tami Berman, who raises chickens in her New Jersey 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 from Fair Lawn, Berman, 46, recently paid a shochet $100 to travel from nearby Passaic to slaughter just two chickens. She had to do all of the plucking and clean-up herself.
“It’s not cost effective,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it again.”
While Berman may be comfortable teaching herself to shecht the chickens that roam her backyard, some bristle at the thought. Yitzchok Alderstein, an Orthodox rabbi who teaches Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said it was “risible” that amateurs believe they are capable of deciphering complex instructional texts on religious slaughter.
But 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 in Brooklyn and Scranton, Pa., 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. “This is life and death.”