LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Drivers in the Los Angeles region are being greeted with billboards displaying farm animals juxtaposed with Jewish comfort foods, posing the question: “Is this kosher?”
“Chicken soup? More like discomfort food.”
“Noshing on lox? Something’s fishy about that.”
“That schmear? It’s udderly suspect.”
The billboards went up Monday and Tuesday (April 17 and 18) as part of a campaign launched by the Jewish Initiative for Animals, an organization seeking alternatives to factory farming that align with Jewish values.
The Jewish Initiative for Animals notes that Jews and non-Jews spend a lot of money for kosher meat, thinking of it as a “seal of approval” for a product that’s higher quality, healthier and more humane for the animals and workers.
“But none of that is true,” the organization says.
Kosher animal production is no different from conventional industrial farming, according to JIFA. The organization cites data from the Sentience Institute showing that 99% of all animals are now factory farmed, including what JIFA says is “virtually all kosher beef, dairy, poultry, eggs, and farmed fish.”
The term “factory farm” is commonly used to refer to large, industrialized facilities that raise animals for food, but it isn’t a legal or scientific term, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“When people hear the word kosher, they have an association as to the way this animal is being treated, and our response is that is no longer true,” said Rabbi Jonathan Bernhard, executive director for JIFA.
To Bernhard, the industrialization of the food process has “warped” the values that “people hold and would want to see practiced in how we treat other sentient creatures.”
Through this campaign, JIFA aims to shed light on the rising consumption of chicken and poultry farm conditions, aquaculture or the controlled cultivation of fish, and the artificial insemination of cows. It also highlights the working conditions of factory employees. The United States Department of Labor notes that meat processing workers are “exposed to biological agents during slaughter” and when “handling meat that is freshly slaughtered.”
JIFA’s billboards have been placed in the neighborhoods of Pico-Robertson and Tarzana as well as in the cities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, areas where the Jewish community is prevalent, Bernhard said.
Bernhard said the messaging of the billboards is “meant to be an invitation to a conversation.” The billboards direct people to JIFA’s website, where they can find information about farming practices. To Bernhard, the most sustainable way to be kosher is through a plant-based diet, although, he said, “that doesn’t mean they have to be vegan.”
“We want communities, institutions, congregations, schools … to reflect upon this and work with us to change their food policies,” he said.
Adrienne Krone, an assistant professor of religious studies and environmental science at Allegheny College, said issues over kosher food and sustainability are not new.
She noted Arthur Waskow and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi discussing eco kashrut, or eco-kosher, in the late 20th century and raising the issue of rethinking the kosher system given the rise in processed industrial food.
Now, as more people are paying attention to the climate crisis, and the ways agriculture contributes to carbon impact, Jews “are starting to say there might be a better way to do this, given the impact that our food system is having on the planet,” said Krone, who teaches a “Judaism, Justice, and Food” class.
Krone, who serves on JIFA’s board of directors, does acknowledge the difficulties of limiting certain foods that are so intwined with Jewish identity, especially for Jews who may not be going to services every week and only celebrate a few holidays.
“What they do on those holidays becomes proportionally more of their Jewish identity, and it becomes really important that the food they are eating is representative of their sense of what it means to be Jewish,” she said.
In 2019, congregants at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, one of the oldest synagogues in LA, gradually transitioned to only eating vegetarian meals after hosting a vegan Passover seder that was well-attended and -received.
Rabbi Jason Rosner, who joined the synagogue in 2019, said congregants have discussed sustainability issues concerning kosher. They’ve noted the Jewish principle of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim, which prohibits causing unnecessary pain to any creature, and have also considered the working conditions of workers in processing plants.
Kosher meat, Rosner said, must be produced in a manner that honors the employer-employee relationship.
“Now that most communities in the progressive Jewish world and some Orthodox synagogues believe that global warming and climate change are issues that need to be addressed, we believe in the Jewish value that we have to take care of our planet,” said Rosner, who is vegan.
Rosner said he has seen more high-profile rabbis coming out as vegetarian and vegan, like Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, as well as a focus on vegetarian Jewish food. He noted “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook,” the first vegetarian Yiddish cookbook in 1938 that was newly translated in 2015.
“We believe in the Jewish value that we have to take care of our planet,” Rosner said. “High carbon emission foods, especially things like beef have become a no-no for people who believe that we are ethically bound to take care of the world.”