NEW YORK - Just hours before Yom Kippur, a federal judge lifted an order preventing the performance of kapparos in Irvine, California. The ruling was the latest development in what has become a yearly ritual of its own, as animal rights activists wage legal battles to prevent Jews from fulfilling the pre-Yom Kippur custom.
“It’s a simple matter of principle and religious liberty,” said Rabbi Alter Tennenbaum of Chabad of Irvine, who operates the kapparos center at the center of the suit, to Hamodia. “At first I thought it wasn’t worth our time to deal with this and we should just shlug kapparos somewhere else, but that would basically be letting [the anti-kapparos activists’] tactics work.”
Activists associated with the Virginia-based United Poultry Concerns, an organization focused on animal rights issues for chickens, have held protests since 2014 at the Irvine site, which services about 150 individuals. The group is tied to demonstrations and legal battles against kapparos around the country.
Last year, a legal attempt to stop the practice in Irvine was dismissed by a local judge. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, United Poultry Concerns brought a case in a federal court alleging that the ceremony violates California laws that prohibit cruelty to animals. The defendants were not able to respond to the claims, due to it being Yom Tov, and a temporary injunction was ordered.
At that point the First Liberty Institute, an organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom, contacted a member of its pro bono team, Matthew Martens, to take on the case.
“I got a team together and we stayed up all night to prepare a brief,” Mr. Martens told Hamodia. “Our argument is that the Supreme Court really decided this 23 years ago when they said that if a jurisdiction has any exceptions to its [animal rights laws] for hunting and the like, it had to provide exceptions for religious ceremonies as well.”
The response brief also makes note of the fact that chickens are handled humanely during the kapparos ceremony and are slaughtered in the same manner as all kosher fowl. Forty-five minutes after Judge Andre Birotte Jr. accepted the response, the injunction was lifted, allowing the practice to continue while the case is pending.
Attorneys for United Poultry Concerns say they plan to continue with their lawsuit despite the setback.
“They [the plaintiffs] have said they want to litigate ’til the end, and frankly so do we, so that we can settle this matter once and for all,” said Mr. Martens. “The plaintiff says that because some observant Jews do this with a bag of coins, then so should everybody. Our response is that it’s not your business to tell me or my client or anybody how to practice their religion. I told the court that some people pray kneeling, some laying on the floor, and some sitting on a chair, but you can’t compel anybody which way to do it.”
Last year, another branch of United Poultry Concerns was denied an injunction in New York City. A case against several kapparos-center operators in Brooklyn was dropped a few weeks ago. Still, a suit against the NY Police Department alleging that they allow for health codes to be ignored during the ritual is ongoing.
“They dropped their case against us, but they’re still making a lot of problems with their demonstrations,” said Yaakov Hecht, who operates a kapparos center in Crown Heights and took a leading role in the New York case. “Their protests are not so peaceful; they pushed women and screamed at children, saying their parents are murderers, and all kinds of terrible things.”
Rabbi Tennebaum was hopeful that a win in federal court would end the continual legal attacks on kapparos.
“What we should take out of this is how strong we have to stand up for a minhag Yisrael; we want to practice Judaism on the highest level, just as our ancestors did, and we’re willing to fight for it,” he said.