The problems with the Lubavitch

Hollywood’s problem with the Orthodox and helped by Chabad Lubavitch
May 10, 2009, 1:45 pm
Filed under: Entitlement, Real Estate | Tags:

Hollywood case asks: When is a chicken a pet?

Family says code enforcement is targeting Orthodox Jews with Middle Eastern surnames

HOLLYWOOD – On one side of the battle in upscale Emerald Hills is a Middle Eastern Jewish family who claims code enforcement is targeting their community for harassment. On the other, there’s a city still reeling from an expensive religious discrimination lawsuit.

In the middle, is Onyx the hen and her gaggle.

The Orthodox Jewish Kohn family, citing the city code, calls them legal “small domestic” pets; the city calls them illegal “fowl or poultry.” The Kohns say their religious tenets favor chicken over dogs as family pets.

“The real issue here is a government telling us what type of animals we can or cannot have,” said the family’s patriarch, Steve Kohn. “Our neighbor across the street can have a parrot, but we can’t have a chicken. Obviously there is no scientific research that shows that a pet chicken is more of a hazard than a pit bull or more of a nuisance than a screeching macaw.”

The city’s response is simple: You can’t have chickens within city limits, so chuck them or face the possibility of stiff fines.

A city-hired special magistrate, who can set the fines, is tentatively scheduled to referee the chicken fight on May 19.

But for the Kohns, it goes beyond cluckers. The Kohns, who are from Syria and Morocco, claim the city’s Code Enforcement Department is targeting them and other Jewish families of Middle Eastern descent. The complaints have captured the attention of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rghts Division.

City officials acknowledge they have some history with the Justice lawyer looking into the Kohns’ complaint. Sean Keveney partnered with the Chabad Lubavitch in 2003 to sue Hollywood over the city’s efforts to oust the synagogue from its Hollywood Hills neighborhood.

The city admitted no wrongdoing, but settled the case for $2 million in 2006. The city was ordered to keep prosecutors updated on efforts, such as employee sensitivity training, to avoid discriminatory practices.

City Attorney Jeff Sheffel, who went to work for Hollywood in 2008, admitted last week the city “simply forgot” to keep the Justice Department updated. He believes that’s the reason federal prosecutors are entertaining the latest complaint.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment, while city administrators insist there is no reason to be concerned.

“This is a city where the city attorney is Jewish, the mayor is Jewish and the commissioner who represents the district is Jewish,” said Sheffel. “I can guarantee you that any hint of anti-Semitism will be dealt with. My belief is that the Kohns are trying to create a big storm of controversy to distract everyone from the fact they have chickens in their property.”

The Kohns say they have proof, and have gone as far as launching their own investigation and filing a police report.

According to them, Irish Gardner, the code enforcement officer for their area, began harassing them before the pet chickens arrived in December, as far back as October. They say the officer parks in front of their home almost every day, warning and nitpicking about a wide variety of things. That includes chastising the family just two days after they moved into the house on North 51st Avenue for stacking empty moving boxes outside.

The family filed a police report on March 23 when the Kohns’ teenage daughter, who was sunbathing in the backyard, said she spotted two heads peering over a six-foot fence and taking pictures of the chickens.

City officials say it was Gardner and a supervisor acting on a complaint. They maintain case law allows officials to peer into yards looking for violations.

Soon the family began comparing notes with neighbors and members of their congregation. They began documenting cases they say unfairly target Jewish families with Middle Eastern surnames, while ignoring others.

Gardner declined to comment through city officials who cited city policy prohibiting employees from speaking to reporters. Clay Milan, his boss, rejects the family’s findings by pointing out Emerald Hills is predominantly Jewish.

On one occasion, Steve Kohn’s wife, Renee, saw and photographed Gardner citing the home of a Jewish neighbor who had just moved in. The home was cited for excessive mold on the roof, but two other homes across the street – – with just as much or even more mold – – went unchecked.

The Kohns have compiled similar incidents from other Jewish families. Members of two of the families did not want to comment, fearing retribution from the city.

Milan said he and Sheffel met with Gardner, who had received sensitivity training as required by the Chabad settlement, and saw no red flags.

“We found absolutely no proof that there is a problem,” said Milan.

Ihosvani Rodriguez can be reached at or 954-385-7908.


Peta and the Lubavitch fight over “chickens”
October 14, 2008, 1:45 pm
Filed under: crime, Ethics | Tags: , , ,

PETA, Chasidim sling mud
over chicking-slinging ritual

Ben Harris
Chickens are ritually slaughtered in Brooklyn on Oct. 8, 2008 during the kapparot ritual.

NEW YORK (JTA) — On the night before Yom Kippur last year, animal rights activist Philip Schein says he was physically threatened when he showed up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for the annual kapparot ritual.

An undercover investigator with People for the Ethical Treatment

of Animals, Schein long has been concerned about kapparot — also known as kapporos — in which chickens are swung over one’s head in a symbolic transferring of sins a day before Yom Kippur (many Jews use money in place of a live chicken).

Schein says he identified himself as a PETA member and was filming the ceremony when several people physically harassed and threatened him.

“It was just fortunate that there were police around,” Schein told JTA. “They said I have the right on a public street. I wasn’t disrupting anything. Who knows what would have happened

if they weren’t there?”

Fearing a repeat, Schein grew a beard and donned a cap in an effort to better blend in with the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim who mount a massive kapparot operation each year in Crown Heights.

Last week, shortly before 10 o’clock on the night before Yom Kippur, Schein and his wife, Hannah, also a PETA investigator, set out to monitor this year’s kapparot.

To the uninitiated, the Oct. 8 scene in Brooklyn and the ritual at its center may seem inhumane and somewhat bizarre.

Amid a carnival-like atmosphere featuring food vendors and street sellers, the largely Chasidic crowd lines up to purchase live chickens from a truck. With a wing and a prayer book in their hands, the Chasidim “shlug,” or swing, the birds around their heads while reciting a prayer before lining up to have the chickens ritually slaughtered.

It’s all in full view of Eastern Parkway, a teeming thoroughfare that is the headquarters for the Chabad movement.

Organizers estimate upward of 10,000 chickens are slaughtered in the street during the ritual, which winds down at sunrise.

Chickens are placed in inverted red traffic cones after they are killed so their blood can run down. Once the chickens stop moving, which can take several minutes, they are transferred to garbage bags and piled on the sidewalk.

Processing takes place in a cramped alley behind the Hadar Hatorah Rabbinical Seminary on Eastern Parkway. With an electric saw, the birds’ heads and legs are removed. A group of yeshiva students then pulls off the feathers and passes the chickens to the mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, who removes their intestines for inspection.

Those deemed kosher — the vast majority — are then soaked and salted and placed in a freezer. All the chickens are then given to charity, says Rabbi Shea Hecht, a prominent figure in the Chabad movement and one of the main organizers of the kapparot event in Brooklyn.

Hecht’s prominent role in organizing the kapparot has made him a target of PETA.

After years of investigating kapparot, PETA asked the New York State Kosher Law Enforcement Division in August to open a fraud investigation against Hecht. As Yom Kippur approached, PETA also issued an action alert to its followers, which led to a flood of e-mails and faxes to Hecht’s office.

Hours before the ritual was set to begin, Hecht issued a statement condemning the PETA campaign, which he claimed had led to some “threatening” and anti-Semitic e-mails. New York City Police reportedly opened an investigation.

The Scheins’ specific objections to kapparot concern the treatment of the birds, which are transported in plastic crates stacked on large trucks and kept without food and water for hours. Though rabbis have urged kapparot centers to have adequate food and water on hand, they weren’t in evidence on the night before Yom Kippur.

The Scheins also claim that the volume of birds slaughtered far outstrips processing capacity, resulting last year in some two-thirds of the birds being discarded in Dumpsters. Organizers are violating two Jewish injunctions, the Scheins say — against causing unnecessary suffering to animals and against wastefulness.

Hecht adamantly denies both charges and says Schein made up the two-thirds figure.

“He’s a liar,” Hecht said.

Schein claims that at 7:15 the morning after kapparot last week,  more than 100 crates of live chickens were still on the sidewalk. A driver told Schein they were being taken to a Chasidic community in upstate New York.

Schein says subjecting the birds to 24 hours without water on stressful transports in cramped, feces-covered cages violates Jewish law by causing unnecessary suffering.

During the kapparot ritual, Hannah Schein dressed to blend in with the Chasidic crowd as she searched for evidence of animal cruelty. She found a seemingly forgotten crate in which several birds that appeared to be dead shared space with other live chickens. She covertly documented it.

PETA is frequently accused of pursuing a radical — and possibly anti-Semitic — agenda because of its criticisms of kapparot and Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher meat producer.

The Scheins, both of whom are Jewish, reject that accusation, saying their work stems directly from their Jewish values.

“I feel like every ethical step I make forward in my life has a Jewish root to it,” Hannah Schein said. “Being kosher, growing up, I was trained to look at labels and always think what’s in this product and where does it come from.”

Hannah Schein admits that PETA’s ultimate goal is to abolish animal slaughter. She also believes that humans have no right to kill animals for food or clothing — and certainly not to expiate one’s sins.

She says she takes what steps she can to minimize animal suffering.

“PETA’s a pragmatic organization,” she said. “We want incremental welfare improvements. Otherwise we’re never going to get to abolition.”

The Scheins met while they were working for Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. Hannah says she used to pray at the Chabad synagogue in Norfolk, Va. on the high holidays.

“I want kashrut to live up to what it’s supposed to be, and to be this model, the whole ‘higher authority,’” Schein said. “It’s been very frustrating. It’s been a real sort of embarrassment to see how the kosher industry has conducted itself. As a Jew, that impacts on me.”

Yet even among those Orthodox Jews who claim to share PETA’s concerns about animal treatment, there is a widespread view that the organization has pursued an unfair and misleading campaign against Jewish ritual slaughter.

“Their agenda is to wipe out shechita — period,” Hecht said last week as hundreds of chickens sat in crates on the sidewalk behind him. “No. 2, their agenda is to hurt Torah-observant Jews.”

As evidence, he cited PETA’s targeting of him as the most visible proponent of kapparot.

“If they take me down, everybody else is going to stop doing it,” Hecht said.

Hecht’s view is mirrored in the Chabad community, where many believe that PETA has a radical and fundamentally anti-Jewish agenda.

Isaac Hurwitz, a Chabad follower and attorney whose father wrote a monograph on Jewish treatment of animals, told JTA he performed kapparot at Hecht’s facility on Eastern Parkway this year specifically because it has been targeted by PETA.

Hurwitz admitted that keeping chickens in “little cramped boxes” made him uneasy, but he said it’s no worse than how birds are normally treated during transport to the slaughterhouse.

“I’m more uncomfortable with my own sins of the past year than these few moments of discomfort for the bird while I’m swinging it above my head,” he said.