The Chicken Whisperer: Meet the LA Rabbi Who Gives Thanks to His Chickens Before Killing Them

Conservative Rabbi Gabriel Botnick couldn’t find kosher, local and ethical meat, so he decided to take up the knife himself, and this Thanksgiving, he will be giving thanks to his first turkey.

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Gabriel Botnick, a Conservative rabbi and shochet, instructs one of his students, Rachel Marder, on the proper way to hold a chickenCredit: Samuel Stern

It was Valentine’s Day, 2012, and before Gabriel Botnick could spend the evening taking his future wife on their first date, he had to slaughter three chickens. Botnick was a rabbinical student in Jerusalem, studying to receive certification from the Israeli Rabbinate in shehitah, kosher slaughtering, and the only non-Orthodox student in the class.

He had been studying the laws of shehitah for four and a half months, but today, for the first time, he himself would hold the blade to the chicken’s neck. Although disquieted by the sight of blood, Botnick was on a mission to learn how to slaughter a chicken so that he could provide kosher, ethical and local meat to his non-Orthodox community in Los Angeles.

Steeling himself with force of will, he plunged the small, perfectly smooth blade into the first animal he would ever kill. The weight of taking the life of an animal brought him to tears and separated him from the other students who were joking around.

But that night, when Rose Prevezer, the woman he would go on to marry, showed up for their first date, Botnick told her to close her eyes so he could lay out a gift for her: something warm and red and heart-shaped. He had laid out the three hearts from the first three chickens he had slaughtered. Botnick knew he was with the right woman when she burst out laughing at her romantic present.

Now the second rabbi at Temple Aliyah, a Conservative synagogue in LA, Botnick had landed in that class thanks to his quest to eat mindfully. Raised kosher, in his mid-20s he read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which strongly influenced him to also eat ethically and locally because he “wanted to know that the food [he] was putting in his body was raised properly, was killed with respect,” and was generally good meat.

Arduous journey

But in the United States, finding meat that satisfies all three requirements is nearly impossible. So Botnick gave up being kosher to eat ethically and locally. But when he applied to rabbinical school and explained his eating habits, he was told that he had to commit to being kosher. He did so, but realized that if no one else was offering kosher, ethical and local meat, maybe he could be the one to bring it to his community.

And that was the beginning of an arduous journey to become certified in shehitah.

Botnick spent the next few years while in school in Los Angeles reaching out to people all across the country, pleading with them to teach him to become a shohet (ritual slaughterer).

“I learned that doors were just shut to me because I was a Conservative rabbinical student. Nobody wanted to even talk with me,” he says.

But after endless calls and emails, while spending his third year of rabbinical studies in Israel, Botnick reached an Israeli rabbi who “just loved teaching.” He declined to give his rabbi’s name for fear he could face a backlash.

This rabbi, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community, runs a school in the “holy trades.” Many men in that community have spent their whole lives studying in yeshiva and are not proficient in the basic skills required to work outside the Haredi world, and becoming a shohet, mohel (circumsizer) or sofer (scribe) are some of the few jobs available to them. So Botnick began commuting once a week, for an hour and a half by bus each way, out to the countryside for his class.

The first three months he spent learning how to properly sharpen his knives – the knife cannot have a single nick in it – and studying halakha, the body of Jewish religious law that also governs shehitah.

That Valentine’s Day when Botnick cut into the neck of his first three chickens, while it was the culmination of years of dedication to kosher and ethical eating, was still not easy for him.

“I felt horrible for taking the life of another creature,” he recalls, “and I feel like that every time I kill an animal to some degree ... I think the ideal is we don’t eat animals, but as long as people are going to be eating animals, I would rather the person killing the animal cares.”

Conservative Rabbi Gabriel Botnick holds up a chicken in his shechitah classCredit: Mel Aranoff

Now every time he slaughters an animal he pauses, looks in its eyes and says “thank you for giving your life for our sustenance.”

At the end of Botnick’s six-month class, he had to take a test that included a written exam on the laws of shehitah, a knife sharpening exam in which he had to remove the nicks from a knife, and a practical exam in which he had to slaughter three chickens perfectly in front of his rabbi. He then received a certification from the Israeli rabbinate that authorizes him as a shohet.

He’s taken this certification along with his knives to different “kosher supervision” places in the U.S. and after demonstrating his knife skills, was told that his shehitah was kosher by their standards. This has allowed him to perform demonstrations at summer camps and schools, and while he acknowledges that these places would probably not hire him in their factories because he’s not Orthodox, he’s satisfied that they accept his shehitah as kosher.

“I perform shehitah according to the letter of the law,” he says. “And this being the case, my shehitah should be considered acceptable by everyone.”

Recently, Botnick returned to Israel and reunited with his rabbi to get certified in slaughtering larger animals like cows, deer and goats. His relationship with his rabbi has grown over time, but he has always been honest about his own background.

Bringing Jews closer

Botnick has explained why he is Conservative and why he believes women deserve to be able to participate in Jewish life commensurately with men and sit together in synagogue.

He says his rabbi “understood that everything that I’m doing is a way of trying to bring Jews closer to Torah and mitzvot. And whatever way we do that is necessary. It may not be the way he would want to do it, but he understands that there are people in the world who need to fulfill this role, to be able to bring people closer.”

And while the Orthodox may not fully accept him, the Conservative movement has embraced his endeavors with enthusiasm. In fact, according to Botnick, the dean of his rabbinic school, Rabbi Brad Artson, had only one concern: that as a heterosexual man, Botnick might have had privileged access to knowledge his female or LGBT colleagues would never gain.

So when Botnick returned to Los Angeles, he founded an organization, Tekumah, dedicated to teaching the holy trades to any Jew who wanted to learn and taught his first class in shehitah, training his students, including one woman, in the same laws, traditions and practical exams that he himself studied. For those who pass, Botnick even convenes a Beit Din in Los Angeles of Conservative rabbis to award them a certification in shehitah.

Rabbi Artson said that when Botnick first approached him about teaching a class in shehitah, he thought it was “out-of-the box, a little kooky and wonderful.”

But Artson fully supports Botnick’s dedication to diversity, saying that “in his willingness to teach anyone, Rabbi Botnick is living the values of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. I could not be more proud.”

As for those who argue that only Orthodox men should be ritual slaughterers, Botnick says that there is a long tradition of women, especially in the Sephardic world, slaughtering animals. He points out that in the Shulhan Arukh, a 16th-century code of Jewish law, the first line on kosher slaughter specifically says that “even women” can perform a ritual slaughter. His mission to rebrand Judaism as inclusive and relevant extends far beyond shehitah, and he is bothered by the fact that Conservative Judaism still allows the Orthodox to claim so many traditions within its exclusive domain.

“Liberal Judaism has ceded all aspects of ritual life to orthodoxy which really bothers me,” he says. “We have Conservative rabbis and cantors, why would we only eat meat that’s coming from Orthodox men? Why are the Siphrei Torah, the Torah scrolls, that we’re buying only written by Orthodox men?”

This is the same reason that Botnick also became a mohel because he wants to continue to bridge the divide between the traditional aspects of Judaism and a modern couple who if gay, for instance, might not feel accepted by an Orthodox mohel. He says he has no “issues with Orthodoxy,” but simply prefers “that there be more pluralism in more aspects of ritual life.”

Because so many people from all around the country are contacting him about learning shehitah, he plans to teach his next class mostly online, and have the students fly into LA for a few intensive weekends of learning. He also wants to start a meat co-op for people in Los Angeles to get local, organic, kosher meat and involve local synagogues. He thinks that eventually people will simply be able to call their local shohet and arrange for him or her to come over and shecht (slaughter) the chickens they’ve been raising in their backyards. He has even gotten his first request this year to schecht a turkey for Thanksgiving.

“Too many people go to the store and buy meat on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in saran wrap and say that’s meat,” he says. “They never pause to think about everything that goes into it.”

Botnick plans to change this, one kosher chicken at a time.

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