Rethinking our Reform Jewish Food Ethic

March 14, 2011
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This entry is part of our "Let's Get Sustainable" blog post series - look for an environmentally themed post each Monday and learn more on our Greening Reform Judaism web portal.

"Local", "organic", "fair trade", "cage-free", "pastured", "non-GMO", "eco-Kosher," etc...These terms are part of a new vocabulary used to describe the types of foods available today from supermarkets, farmer's markets, food co-ops, community supported agriculture programs, and increasingly, local producers. The last few years have brought a dramatic increase in our desire to know where our food comes from, how it was grown or raised, the way the workers were treated, and the genetic make-up of the seeds. Discussions about contemporary food ethics have seeped from movies, books, and lectures in the secular world into lively discussions and engaging programs in the Jewish community. Additionally, Jewish communities are beginning to use their facilities to make organic produce and sustainable meat accessible to their members.

Last summer my good friend Naf Hanau approached me about working with our synagogue, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, to start a drop off site for his new family business, Grow and Behold Foods. Naf visited KI to check out our kitchen's storage facilities and we agreed to host a trial run of distributing his frozen chicken to our congregants and other Jewish community members in the Philadelphia area.

This is not your typical factory farmed chicken. Grow and Behold Foods specializes in selling, Kosher, pastured chicken. The chicken is raised on small farms in Lancaster, PA. They are never treated with antibiotics or hormones. They roam around the pasture freely. The farmers are committed to the highest standards of care for both the animals and the workers. The chicken is also certified Kosher by the Orthodox Union. This chicken meets the uppermost ethical and environmental standards as well as being traditionally Kosher, a rare combination in Philadelphia, or anywhere for that matter.  It also happens to be the tastiest poultry I have ever eaten!

Our trial run was successful. Naf and I decided to schedule deliveries every few weeks. Each order brings more customers as the word spreads. In addition to bi-weekly deliveries to the Boston, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia areas, Grow and Behold Foods packages and ships orders anywhere in the country. I gave my parents in Virginia a gift certificate for Chanukah. They just placed their order and are eagerly awaiting its arrival!

You may be wondering why a Reform rabbi is interested in providing Kosher chicken to his congregation. For nearly two centuries the Reform Movement, first in Europe and then in America, has been defined by our conscious decision not to strictly follow traditional Jewish law, particularly dietary laws. Many synagogues and summer camps have come up with sort of a compromise "Kosher-style" system where milk and meat are served at the same meal but separately, and pork and shellfish remain traiff, or prohibited. Some Reform families eat Kosher meat in the house, but will eat at non-Kosher restaurants. Others have chosen a vegetarian life-style to avoid any Kosher complications or for other reasons. And the vast majority of Reform Jews do not feel any connection to the seemingly outdated and irrelevant body of law restricting what we eat, where we eat it, and who we eat it with.   

Today, we Reform Jews find ourselves at a crossroads in our eating habits and choices. Over the last ten to fifteen years, leaders across our Movement have begun to return to certain traditional practices that the early reformers abandoned. Significant strides have been made at both the international and local levels to provide Reform Jews with more opportunities to study Jewish texts and become more competent in our Jewish practices. So why not also re-think our Jewish ethics around food? 

URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie officially launched the Reform Movement's "Green Table, Just Table" initiative during his address at the Reform Movement Biennial in Toronto in 2009. Rabbi Yoffie urged members of Reform synagogues to seriously consider the social and environmental impact of our food choices, calling eating "a gateway to holiness." He suggested that we as individuals and institutions use healthier ingredients, invest in sustainable agriculture, consider economic fairness for farm workers and decrease our consumption of red meat.

Staff from the Union for Reform Judaism and Religious Action Center, including KI's own Rachel Cohen, have been working hard to put Rabbi Yoffie's words into action through advocacy and congregational learning on food and environmental issues. You can find more information about how Rachel and the RAC are helping to raise food consciousness in Reform congregations by going to the "Green Table, Just Table" website.

Last year I was asked to write an article for a book soon to be published by the CCAR Press called, The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic. This volume, "presents the challenge of navigating through choices about eating, while seeking to create a rich dialogue about the intersection of Judaism and food." The Sacred Table is a project seven years in the making.  There are many fascinating and diverse articles that will encourage readers to think more carefully, and Jewishly, about the food they eat.

The Reform Movement is not demanding that all members of its congregations radically change the way that we eat. Rather, it is seeking to apply its "choice through knowledge" philosophy to food. I encourage you to visit the Grow and Behold Foods website and to read The Sacred Table and have discussions with your family and friends about the values, Jewish and secular, you wish to embody in your food choices. Botei avon, bon appetite, enjoy your meal! 

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Rabbi Kevin M. Kleinman serves Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA

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