Learning to Veg Out Jewishly in Philadelphia

By trading in their brisket and pastrami for mushroom barley cholent and garlicky thyme tempeh, one group of Jews is taking a different path in traditional Jewish feasting.
The Jewish Vegetarians of North America — which is open to vegetarians, vegans and even people just moving in a meatless direction — is creating a community of people who focus their dietary habits on a plant-based lifestyle that parallels Jewish values relating to animals, health and the environment, according to JVNA’s mission statement.
The organization held its first Philadelphia chapter meeting at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on Tuesday, where they discussed the values of the organization and shared ideas about how to develop this local chapter (with vegan snacks provided, of course).
Jeffrey Cohan, JVNA executive director, said the organization has actually been around for 40 years, but it picked up momentum during the last two years by becoming more engaging and interacting with more people.
The New York-based nonprofit has a long-term vision of establishing more chapters — hopefully three or four by 2016, Cohan said — but the organization received such a strong reaction from Philadelphians that he said they had to implement the organization’s first chapter here.
At the Philadelphia Veg Fest, held in June in Headhouse Square, Cohan said a lot of people came up to JVNA’s table and really liked what the organization is all about.
“The demand to create a chapter was coming from the Jews in Philadelphia,” he said. “We love Philadelphia — it is one of the most vegan-friendly cities in America.”
Of the 2,400 people on the national email list, about 40 Philadelphians were added as a result of this new chapter.
The chapter will serve two purposes, Cohan said. First, it will create a community among Jewish vegans and vegetarians, many of whom feel isolated in the Jewish community. He also wants to encourage the “plant-based message,” which says that, generally speaking, meat eating is presented in a negative light in the Torah, and, as such, we should not engage in the practice.
Cohan said JVNA upholds Jewish ideals, and following the plant-based message is a logical extension of keeping kosher. And for vegans, keeping kosher is even easier because they do not eat meat or dairy, eliminating two sets of dishware and dietary restrictions altogether.
“Being vegan is the ultimate form of kashrut,” he said.
Cohan said that in the rabbinic tradition, there are two understandings of kashrut. In one sense, keeping kosher makes eating meat difficult, but it was also intended to wean us off of carnivorous behavior altogether, he explained.
All plants are kosher (as long as they don’t have insects on them), but there are boundaries when it comes to killing animals for food.
“That distinction obviously tells you something,” he said.
Cohan claimed there are some instances of Jewish vegans and vegetarians across the country becoming alienated or separated from the Jewish community because their synagogues have not met their dietary needs, even though he said they are “living up to highest ideas of Judaism.”
“There is no way Judaism or Jews should be complicit in the cruelty of animal agriculture today, especially when our religion places an emphasis on the compassionate treatment of animals,” he said.
Overall, Cohan said, reconnecting Jews to the community is another goal of JVNA. He said some might not even realize that their own lifestyles are already related to Jewish values.
Risa Mandell, a member of JVNA and the new Philadelphia chapter, has been involved with the organization for more than a year.
Mandell said she has been a vegan for about 10 or 12 years (she did have a couple slips with dairy products). But her main inspiration for being a vegan comes from her late dog, Sidney.
Mandell always had a love for animals, but there was a 30-year period where they weren’t a part of her life.
She adopted the Jack Russell terrier mix and named him Sidney, later giving him the last name Greenstreet in honor of the “Casablanca” actor.
Spending time with her beloved dog reawakened her love for animals, veganism and also Judaism.
For Cohan, he and his wife became vegetarians eight years ago on Rosh Hashanah. While sitting in shul at Rodef Shalom Temple in Pittsburgh, they listened to the Torah reader recite the creation story. Cohan said he felt a turning point when he heard Genesis Chapter 1, Verse 29, which explained that God gave people plants and fruits to eat.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘It looks like we’re supposed to be vegetarians,’ ” he said. They had never even talked about becoming vegetarians beforehand, but after services, they became vegetarians on the spot.
Cohan said he found the transition to being a vegetarian very simple. With so many online resources, specialized grocery stores and cookbooks, he said he didn’t feel restricted.
Four years after that, they switched over to veganism.
In fact, he said, being vegan has opened their eyes and expanded their dietary repertoire to even more new types of food.
And over the years, he’s found that the rest of the Torah is fairly consistent on this theme of solely eating plants.
“Living up to Judaism’s ideals generally is very important to me,” he said. “Kashrut is just one facet of that.”
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