Phyllis Berman never had any qualms about eating meat when she was growing up, as long as it was kosher. That changed in recent years as the Mount Airy resident learned that animals killed for kosher meat, while slaughtered according to ancient traditions, most likely were raised in just as dirty, cramped and unnatural conditions as those used for conventional products.
With her family's growing convictions about humane animal treatment, "it was increasingly complicated for us to eat meat," said Berman, 68, founder and director of an English-language school for legal immigrants in Manhattan.
This fall, she found the solution to her ethical dilemma: Grow and Behold, a fledgling New York-based company that began marketing pasture-raised kosher poultry in August.
The way Berman sees it, Grow and Behold won't lack for customers as more and more American Jews start paying attention to sustainable food production, spurred in part by Jewish environmental organizations such as Hazon and the Jewish Farm School.
"It's no longer sufficient for Jews to have a hechsher on something that says it's kosher and to close our eyes on the way things are killed, the way things are raised," explained Berman. "That doesn't feel very kosher to me, and I don't think it does to many other Jews … who care about the effects of the world."
The Jewish community began buzzing about food ethics in 2004 after animal-rights investigators at PETA accused Agriprocessors, the world's largest glatt-kosher slaughterhouse, of violating both secular and religious laws. Four years later, federal immigration officials raided the plant in Postville, Iowa, effectively shutting down operations for a time.
A handful of small companies emerged to satisfy consumers who were looking for more humane alternatives, including KOL Foods in Washington, D.C. (www.kolfoods.com)and Red Heifer Farm (www.redheiferfarm.com) in New York.
Grow and Behold (www.growandbehold.com), one of the most recent additions, was born from a craving.
Owner Naftali Hanau remembered how easy it was to get kosher meat from the butcher just around the corner from where he grew up in Rochester, N.Y. Likewise, it wasn't hard to find while he was studying economics, with a minor in Jewish history, at New York University.
After graduation, however, he was isolated from urban life when he joined Adamah, a Jewish leadership program that runs an organic farm at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in northwestern Connecticut.
Meat — much less kosher meat — was hard to come by. Once, he said, he helped the group slaughter a few farm chickens, but the experience felt "kind of brutal," and he couldn't even enjoy the meal because it wasn't kosher.
"That made me think, 'Wow, maybe there's a reason we have a tradition that says only somebody who's been highly trained can kill the meat,' " he recalled.
Brutality aside, "I wasn't eating any meat and I was craving it," Hanau went on. "The simple thing seemed to be, 'Well, why don't I learn to shect?' I don't know why that seemed like a simple answer at the time," he said, laughing.
So, after completing his fellowship at Adamah, he joined a professional horticulture program at the New York Botanical Garden and began studying the art of shechting with a Crown Heights rabbi.
At that time, he said, becoming a shochet was about taking responsibility for providing kosher chicken on the vegetable farm that he and his wife, Anna, planned to start somewhere near his hometown in upstate New York.
A Natural Way to Fertilize Fields
By mid-2010 — after months of intense training at butcher shops and poultry plants in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Indiana and Colorado — Hanau officially became licensed to shecht poultry. But instead of buying farmland as originally planned, Hanau said he realized that he could have a much larger reach by staying in Brooklyn and addressing the lack of good kosher meat.
He partnered with farmers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who raised chickens in movable pens that allow them to spend most of their lives outside, foraging through the grass for bugs.
Though Hanau considers this the most ethical way to raise foul — not to mention a natural way to fertilize fields — he hasn't bothered to certify his birds as free-range organic.
"What this is really about is getting people to understand that the food that we eat is all part of a system," said Hanau.
The chickens do, however, go through all the inspection, salting and soaking procedures required to be certified kosher by the Orthodox Union once they're taken to a slaughter house in Scranton, Pa.
Hanau doesn't shecht them himself to avoid conflict of interest, though he will eventually perform the ritual procedures on the 10 hens that live in the couple's backyard. (That won't happen until they stop laying eggs, however, which could take up to five years.)
The final product is sold under the label "Sara's Spring Chicken" — named after Hanau's grandmother, who remarked that it tasted just like the fresh poultry she had growing up on a farm in Poland.
Though the breed of chicken is close to what is used for conventional production, the farmer's extra time ensuring that the birds get moved to fresh grass doesn't come without a cost to consumers.
Prices fluctuate, Hanau said, but generally run between $5.50 and $7 a pound. And that's not counting shipping.
According to Hanau's estimates, sending 15 to 28 pounds of frozen poultry to Philadelphia via FedEx would tack on about $25.
For Valerie Yasner, who coordinates with a local farmer to provide produce for pick-up at a Cherry Hill, N.J., synagogue, also known as a Community Supported Agriculture site, the additional charge is a small price to pay for quality.
"Maybe this is the Godiva, the splurge, of chicken," said Yasner. "Maybe we shouldn't be eating meat every day anyway."
Yasner actually doesn't eat meat at all, but said she tried Hanau's chicken to see if she could taste a difference.
She said she now buys it for her family.
"The chicken is unbelievably fabulous and you're talking to a vegan," she gushed. "The meat actually has texture to it and abundant flavor."
The price did keep Marty Feigenbaum, who helps Yasner coordinate the Cherry Hill CSA, from placing an order, but he said he's thinking about using it for a Lag B'Omer barbecue event in the spring.
"It is so far superior in flavor and appearance than any other kosher meat I know," said Feigenbaum.
Red Meat on the Horizon?
So far, Hanau has built up enough of a customer base to expand from limited home-delivery in New York to a national mail-order service.
Eventually, Hanau said he'd also like to add red meat to his products. At the moment, though, he's busy filling poultry orders every two weeks.
For customers in certain parts of New York City, a driver still brings the fresh poultry right to their doors or to a drop-off site. For all other locations, the frozen meat is packed in insulated coolers and shipped within two days — most recently to as far as California.
Hanau declined to say how many customers he had in Philadelphia, but said he was filling orders here regularly.
For her part, Berman has reached out to a likely counterpart, Germantown Jewish Centre, to serve as a one-stop delivery site so area customers can cut down on shipping costs and nonrecyclable packaging waste by going in together on orders.
Without the opportunity to get kosher chickens that were raised in a more natural setting, Berman said, "we would have become vegetarian."
"The chickens were delicious, so the rest is history."