Blog post by Jacob Siegel, Jewish Farm School Group Leader and rabbinical student
On March 6th, we invited students on two Jewish Farm School trips in New Orleans to participate in a shechita, a ritual slaughter of chickens. Jewish tradition calls for all kosher meet to undergo a specific process of slaughter, always done in person by a trained and certified professional with a very sharp knife. All kosher meat produced across the world has been slaughtered in the same manner. Yet few people have had the opportunity to see it close and personal.
In addition to co-leading one of the groups, I served as the shochet (trained slaughterer). I saw my own first slaughter in the winter of 2009. I had applied to work at a Jewish farm in Connecticut, and they interviewed me while the farm was slaughtering and processing its flock of hens. That was the bloodiest interview I’ve ever done – and I got the job. At the time, I was a vegetarian, but I resolved that I wanted to learn ritual slaughter myself, and that I would eat the sustainably raised meat that I slaughtered.
Fast forward to 2013, in March, in the plot of an urban farm in New Orleans. We had purchased chickens from two local farms with whom we were volunteering that week. We offered some mental preparation for students, and we made sure there was an alternative activity for students who emotionally couldn’t be present at the slaughter. It’s not easy to see a slaughter – and it’s incredibly important. How many of us eat meat without ever knowing the work that goes into turning a live animal into a nourishing part of our diet?
I explained to students the procedure – lay down dirt, say the traditional blessing, and then slaughter in a focused and silent way, with no distracted talking. Once the gory stuff started, a group of students jumped up and ran to the other activity. After the slaughter, we dressed the chickens ourselves. During plucking and eviscerating, the mood changed – the chickens began to look more like the kind of chicken you’d see on your plate. A number of students returned.
At the end, one of my co-leaders led a circle where students shared their feelings. This felt like perhaps the most important part of the afternoon. I heard many students who felt confused. One person said he would have trouble eating meat for a while; another said she felt more excited to eat meat, knowing the process that went into it. Almost everybody expressed how important it felt to see and learn about this part of Jewish tradition and of a sustainable food system.
We served the chicken in a stew the following night, and we gave the one chicken that had been slaughtered in an unkosher manner to a neighbor who supports the farming project. With all the complicated feelings that people can have about eating meat, I saw some moments of self-revelation and deeper understanding during the session that helped remind me – this is why I do what I do. To feed a community, in body and also in mind and spirit.