A Hazon Detroit grant helped Hillel’s cafeteria to switch to more humane higher welfare meat. Jerry Zolynsky

Hazon Detroit grant enables local organizations to make humane food choices.

By Karen Couf-Cohen, Special to the Jewish News

Photography by Jerry Zolynsky

Climate change is arguably THE issue of our time. The looming sense of urgency is inescapable. In trying to “do the right thing,” it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused on issues like recycling, composting, label reading and food choice.

Hazon, the Jewish Lab for Sustainability, founded in 1999, is a nonprofit organization that promotes creating sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. With visionary leadership, led by founder Nigel Savage, Hazon serves, by many accounts, as the Jewish community’s north star regarding environmental issues. With headquarters in New York City, it operates offices in Boulder, Colo., and Detroit.

By recommending small, intentional and humane actions, Hazon is leading the charge for Jewish organizations to re-think the way they eat, what they eat, how humane the food they eat is raised and, most importantly, how their food choices impact the planet.

“Our goal is to change people’s thinking, but to do so in a gradual way without pushing the panic button,” said Wren Hack, Detroit Hazon’s new director. Last year, Hazon Detroit received a $25,000 grant from an anonymous family to offset the purchase of higher welfare kosher meat and eggs and make it affordable for local Hazon Seal of Sustainability sites.

Most consumers are familiar with the term organic (food grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and without growth hormones or antibiotics for animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products). Higher welfare goes a step further and values the animals’ natural behavior, letting them be what they were meant to be, with exposure to sunlight, to range free in pastures (not pens or cages), and to eat naturally in that pasture (grass, hay and legumes, versus grains or corn). Bottom line, the animal lives a humane life.

“We are encouraging people to continue to aim higher in what their intentions are when purchasing meat or eggs,” Hack explained. “And we recognize that all people are not going to jump immediately to the far end of the humane spectrum. If we, as Jews, want to make changes that will have an impact on the planet, this is one area where you can make a change. “

Sites On Board

The Hazon Seal of Sustainability is a credential granted to Jewish organizations that have met a basic threshold of sustainability practices. Hazon provides the roadmap for them to become healthier and more sustainable through education, action and advocacy. Metro Detroit has 16 participating sites; five have committed to purchase higher welfare meat and eggs.The past three years, these Hazon sites have been assisted by Brittany Feldman, Hazon Detroit’s manager of sustainability and outdoor engagement. In that time, the sites have improved recycling policies, switched to LED light bulbs, started gardens and began composting.

“So, naturally, the next step was to tackle food policies, with the vision to have the Seal sites consider higher welfare food products,” she said.

Through research and community outreach, Feldman found Kol Foods of Silver Spring, Md., the country’s only grass-fed, higher welfare kosher meat online store.

“Once we received the grant specifically for the purchase of higher welfare meat and eggs, I connected with Kol Foods and learned how they could ship frozen meat in bulk across the country,” Feldman said. She reached out to Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills and other participating Hazon Seal sites and put them in touch with Kol Foods directly to set up purchasing.

Hillel COO Scott Reed talks to Hazon Detroit’s Brittany Feldman in the Hillel cafeteria Jerry Zolynsky

Hillel’s Journey

Hillel Day School goes through hundreds of pounds of meat per week, providing breakfast, lunch, weekly packaged Shabbat dinners for students and their families, and catering for outside organizations using Hillel’s facility. Scott Reed, Hillel COO, was interested in giving higher welfare a fair try, so they struck a deal with Kol Foods.

“Making the conscious effort to choose higher welfare meat — these are healthy, ethical, kinder Jewish values, and that’s what we are all about,” Reed said.

He says parents have been 100 percent supportive, and a meeting is planned with Hazon to see how the Hillel families can be more involved. Ilana Stern, a West Bloomfield Hillel mom of three, environmental activist and regional leader of Moms Across America, buys Kol Food products herself through a meat-buying club.

“Stern’s meat-buying club has grown with more and more Hillel families,” Reed said.

“It took decades for us to take a hard look at the implications all this meat consumption had on the planet and human health,” Stern said. “The kashrut industry has tied itself up with factory farming, which is unethical.”

Stern points out that just because something says its kosher, it isn’t if, as the Talmud says, the animal was not treated ethically.

Re-thinking Kosher

Daily trips to the local kosher butcher shop are long gone. In its place, are factory-farmed kosher slaughterhouses. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kol Foods right now faces no competition.

“No one else is producing kosher domestic grass-fed beef the way we are,” said owner Devora Kimelman-Block. Her company not only works with higher welfare farmers, but she also supports farmers that utilize regenerative agriculture techniques. “This is where farmers move cattle and livestock around to allow the soil to regenerate and regrow the perennial grasses and greenery the animals need to flourish,” Kimelman-Bloch said. It’s an exciting time to be doing this, she notes. “Regenerative agriculture techniques yield a higher grade of beef, meaning it’s more tender, not as dry. And you don’t have to add Worchestershire! Chefs love it.”

Ethical Treatment

So, how do Jews wrestle with the widespread purchase of kosher meat not certified as higher welfare? And why is the way an animal is killed the defining principle as to whether meat is kosher or not, and not how the animal was treated during its lifetime? Where does the concept of cruelty to animals, or tzaar baalei chayim, a core value in Judaism, come into play?

Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield explains that while the laws of kashrut are ancient as prescribed by the Torah and elaborated upon by the rabbis, “in modern times, both because of our desire to uplift the Jewish value of tzaar baalei chayim and some people’s effort to seek a ‘reason’ for kashrut separate from preventing intermarriage, notions of ethical kashrut have taken form.”

He adds that “what Hazon defines as animal ‘welfare’ is exactly the way our ancestors would have treated their animals prior to the industrialization of food production.”

Demands for ethical kashrut, he notes, seek a return to treating animals with dignity as God’s creatures and to ensure the cleanliness of [the] meat.

“The traditional laws of kashrut presume our animals are treated in this way and, therefore, do not stipulate specifically such practices. In the name of health and of tzaar baalei chayim, the time has come for rabbis concerned with kashrut to further expand the system’s laws to perpetuate animal dignity and cleanliness while, at the same time, affirming the business realities of the kosher meat industry.”

Hack said, “We recognize that the increased costs for organizations to go kosher, let alone higher welfare, can really be prohibitive. So, if we are able to cover the overages through this grant and educate them on higher welfare, then the hope is that they will eventually pick it up on their own.”

At Hillel, for example, the average monthly budget for meat is about $1,700; to buy higher welfare meat, the cost climbs closer to $3,000 monthly. The Hazon grant covers the extra cost each month.

Steve Fryzel, Hillel chef manager, wit ha tray of sliders made from higher welfare meat Jerry Zolynsky

 Others Stepping Up

Another Hazon Seal site taking advantage of the Hazon grant is Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy. Executive Director Lorelei Berg says her organization is getting ready to place its first order for higher welfare eggs and chicken.

“This is something that totally aligns with our congregation’s philosophy,” she said. “We are warm and welcoming — and we are open and aware of all the decisions we make and how they affect the world.”

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, Jewish Ferndale and Congregation Shaarey Zedek are also Hazon Seal sites taking advantage of the Hazon grant monies to purchase higher welfare eggs. “Shaarey Zedek serves a weekly Shabbat lunch with egg salad and kugel, feeding a minimum of 200-400 congregants every Shabbos,” said Jeri Fishman, congregation president.

“If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat,” Starr said, “then what we eat ought to be healthy and ethical; it ought to be in keeping with God’s expectations of a life well lived.”

For details about Hazon, its seal of sustainability credential or higher welfare purchasing, email Brittany Feldman at Brittany.feldman@hazon.org. For a graphic comparing grain-fed and grass-fed meat, go to bit.ly/2FhqVV7. Higher welfare eggs (Alfresco Eggs by Vital Farms) can be purchased at Target and select grocery stores.


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