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Kosher-Keeping Vegans Go Undercover To Break The Biggest Case Of Animal Cruelty In American Jewish History

Philip and Hannah Schein are the Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker of American vegans. This husband and wife team – Philip is forty-three; Hannah, ten years younger – are undercover investigators for the animal rights group PETA. Over the past six years, the duo has taken on almost twenty high profile investigations, including one that shook the Jewish community to its core: Agriprocessors, Inc. in Postville, Iowa, the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. Agriprocessors (the producer of Aaron’s Best, Supreme, Shor HaBor, Rubashkin’s and David’s meats, and owned by Chabad hasidim) is currently in the news for the massive immigration raid that saw close to half of its workforce arrested, and for related allegations of child labor violations, extortion of illegal workers, company-organized identity theft, forced unpaid overtime, and a brutality toward workers reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. In 2004 the Schein’s went undercover at the plant and found different horrors – including the plant’s practice of ripping out the trachea and esophagus of live cattle with a meat hook. (The Schein’s would uncover a similar practice at the company’s smaller Gordon, Nebraska slaughterhouse in 2007.) The Schiens are former Jewish community professionals. What Jewish involvement did you have as a child? Did your family attend synagogue regularly? Hannah Schein: I was raised in a Conservative family, and my parents were very involved in the synagogue. My mother was the synagogue president at one time. I did not attend every Shabbat, but I wasn’t a “High Holiday” Jew either. Philip Schein: I grew up in a more assimilated household (we later became involved in a Reconstructionist synagogue). Early on, we only celebrated the major holidays: Pesach, etc. I just found documentation that my oldest recorded relatives in the 1700s were actually father-and-son shochtim. So I am sort of carrying on the tradition of being on slaughter floors. Did you attend Hebrew school or a Jewish day school? HS: I attended day school for three years, from pre-K through first grade, and then attended public school from second to 12th grade. While attending public school, I participated in my synagogue’s Hebrew school. After my bat mitzvah, I attended the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies (on Sundays). PS: I didn’t become seriously involved until I worked for a Jewish camp for people with disabilities for the Reena Foundation in Toronto. I also attended the Ivy League Torah Study Program, which is run, ironically, by the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE). I say “ironically” because now this organization is the focus of a multi-year PETA investigation into abuses during kapporos. Rabbi Shea Hecht of NCFJE has been completely resistant to making humane changes.

Did you grow up keeping kosher? HS: Yes, in a Conservative way. I have never knowingly eaten pork, shellfish, etc., or mixed meat and dairy. Our home was kosher, but we did eat in non-kosher restaurants.

PS: No, but I went vegan as a teenager, which sort of made me kosher “by default” at the time.

What’s your favorite childhood memory? HS: I have so many—I had a very fulfilling and fun childhood! My parents are the kind of people who were truly prepared to have children and nurture them—they were both teachers and ran Jewish camps in the summers. Some of my best memories relate to when my mom would teach me to love and respect nature—for example, crossing paths with a box turtle while picking raspberries on the edge of a meadow.

PS: Unfortunately, as a child, I used to enjoy going to horse races before I knew about all the abuses in the industry. PETA’s anti-horse racing campaign is particularly important to me because of my personal history.

Where did you go to college? What type of Jewish affiliations did you have as a college student? HS: Princeton University. I was active in the Hillel and was very lucky in that the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) opened during my freshman year. I ate at the CJL’s kosher dining hall every day for several years, participated in the Conservative minyan, and was a CJL board member (house manager) one year.

PS: Hannah always laughs when I say that I am an “Ivy League” graduate (Ivy League Torah Study Program) because she actually is one. I did my undergraduate work in Canada and became very involved in Holocaust studies. I traveled to Poland to make a film for the Toronto Holocaust archives about a man I was working with in Toronto who sustained a brain injury at the hands of the Nazis and then survived hidden by a Polish family for 22 months in an underground bunker. After college, I worked extensively with people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities in the frum community in Toronto. I later did graduate work in York University in Toronto and then at Syracuse University.

How did you two meet? HS: I had been hired as the CJL/Princeton Hillel program director and traveled to Washington, D.C., for Hillel’s orientation for new professionals in August 1998. At one point, a fellow attendee brought Philip over. He wanted to meet me because he heard I used to work for the Yankees. When the annual Hillel national conference rolled around in December, we got engaged.

PS: Shortly after we met, Hannah made me a wager about the 1994 World Cup (soccer), at which she had volunteered. She went to the nearest computer to look up the info and announced that she would have to “eat crow.” I suggested she eat “crowfu” instead.

You both worked for Hillel. Where? In what capacities? HS: Princeton University, program director. PS: Syracuse University, program director (3 years)

What is your impression of Jewish campus life? How many Jews are Jewishly involved? Do you see mistakes made by Jewish campus organizations that limit or reduce this number? HS: I haven’t worked at Hillel since the 1998-99 school year, but I think we did a pretty good job of making options available to students seeking any type of Jewish activity. The CJL is centrally located on campus, and its opening made it exponentially easier to facilitate student involvement. At Princeton, the percentage of Jews was probably a little more than 10 percent of the student body (and the school is on the small side), so we didn’t have the kinds of numbers you see at some campuses, but we had excellent rates of involvement. We had a very successful Jewish advisor program that reached out to incoming students and let them know what kinds of programs and resources the CJL offered.

PS: At Syracuse, we had to work with the student culture rather than impose some generic brand of Hillel community. So we organized events like multi-university Jewish basketball tournaments to get some of the more unlikely students involved with Hillel and the Jewish community; things like that and Birthright Israel built up a base of students across the spectrum. It was very successful in that sense. However, I found it to be somewhat of an immature Jewish community regarding social action. For example, students had a project to collect 6 million buttons for Holocaust commemoration—I think their energies could have been better used actually doing something concrete and useful that would address current injustices.

Why did you leave the Hillel system to work for PETA? HS: I left Hillel to move to Syracuse and marry Philip. He stayed on as program director for SU for two more years, while I earned a masters degree in criminal justice. I wanted to work preventing crimes against animals, so I looked into jobs in the animal protection field. PETA is at the vanguard of the animal rights movement, so I was very gratified to get a job where I could make a real difference. On my first day, they had me review new footage from an undercover laboratory investigation, and I was hooked.

PS: Hillel functioned for me more like a graduate assistantship while I was in grad school, and it was never my intended career track. I had worked for more than 10 years with people with disabilities, and during my graduate work in disability studies at Syracuse, it became clearer that all the “-isms” (e.g., racism, speciesism, sexism) are profoundly connected. For example, women, people classified with mental disabilities, and certain races and classes were all historically presumed to not be able to think abstractly, not be individuals, not have complex emotions, etc., and were depicted as being synonymous with nature. The same misunderstandings are continually applied to other species. So I look at the work I’m doing now as the culmination of all the work I did working with marginalized, vulnerable “others”—those who are full beings but falsely characterized as being deficient. I decided to apply to PETA a few months after watching a TV debate with a PETA vice president. Her arguments and explanations were so reasonable. I had preconceptions of PETA as having extremist views, but the more research I did, the more I found it to be the opposite—advocating for the prevention of unnecessary suffering should just be common sense. The counter-arguments are truly extremist and absurd, such as when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel said, in the words of The Jerusalem Post, that “gratuitous cruelty to animals during the slaughter process does not disqualify the meat.” I soon became convinced that this was the most important and urgent work. Hannah started working at PETA first, in the Investigations Department, while I was working on my dissertation, and I saw how everything she was doing was making such a difference for the animals. I felt compelled to apply to PETA and devote all my energies to this cause.

What was the worst thing you saw at Agriprocessors? What shocked you the most? PS: I was absolutely shocked that workers were ripping the tracheas out of animals while they were still completely conscious. It was such a cruel and brazen violation, and this was standard operating procedure. We knew immediately that AgriProcessors was in enormous trouble. HS: I think seeing the steer actually struggle to his feet and walk out of the room was most shocking to me. It’s shameful that these inhumane slaughter procedures were allowed by all the parties involved.

What about on your other investigations? What was the worst you saw? The most shocking? HS: The worst thing I’ve seen in person was the “shackle and hoist” kosher slaughter of cattle in a slaughterhouse in Uruguay. Workers took minutes hooking and roping each steer’s feet in order to trip him onto his side and chain his legs, then they stood with all their body weight on his legs and pinned his head to the floor with a sadistic trident-type tool so that the shochet could cut his throat. The workers then hoisted each steer quickly by one foot, while the steer struggled to breathe and his lifeblood poured on the floor. The worst investigative footage I’ve seen, period, is the video showing animals being killed for their fur in China: You actually see people peel the pelts off live animals, and you see them suffering horribly, writhing on the ground with no skin. We have footage of one animal who had her fur peeled off—all but her eyelashes—and she raises her head slowly and blinks. Animal behaviorists say that blinking is a sign of consciousness—she was, very likely, still feeling the pain of being skinned alive. PS: Perhaps the most disturbing single incident I witnessed was during a bear-hunting investigation I conducted last September, when a hunter attempted to shoot a black bear at a bait stand and missed, seriously injuring the bear. They tried to track the trail of blood but were unsuccessful, so the bear most likely suffered for days and died from the injury. One of the most viscerally shocking things I experienced was the stench in the first poultry slaughterhouse Hannah and I investigated.

Has your view of Judaism changed since the Rubashkin scandal of 2004 and the various rabbinic reactions to it? (Especially rabbinic reaction to using a meat hook to excise the trachea and esophagus of a fully conscious animal.) PS: I used to buy into the image that kosher meat was cleaner and more humanely produced because of the multiple levels of supervision and added scrutiny. However, the kosher meat industry is complicit in all the abuses of the conventional factory-farming and slaughter industries, and we have documented how some of the worst violations—the most inhumane practices—in recent industry history have been perpetrated in the kosher meat industry as standard operating procedure. In many ways, the additional oversight has served only as a buffer, concealing some of the most abusive practices. HS: It’s been very disappointing that the first reaction by the Jewish community to our kosher investigations has been to circle the wagons and scream, “Anti-Semitism!” It is heartening that the Conservative movement has started to take a stand against the cruel practices that we’ve uncovered, and I have great hopes for Hekhsher Tzedek.

Why do you think Jewish organizations and denominations are for the most part silent on issues of animal welfare? To me, it’s as if Jewish soul food – chicken soup, chopped liver, brisket, etc. – has replaced Jewish values. You’d think any rabbi seeing PETA’s Agriprocessors footage would say, “Not in my shul.” But it rarely happens that way. Why do you think this rabbinic reaction happens so infrequently? What’s missing from the equation? HS: I think there is still shock and disbelief in the Jewish community that the kosher industry could be responsible for such cruelty. There is also confusion about how there could be such a disconnect between Jewish principles about treatment of animals and the reality as it is practiced in the kosher meat industry. But remember, it has been less than four years since the first AgriProcessors investigation was conducted, and there has been a tremendous amount of awareness and action generated since that time. Also, I think some rabbis are reluctant to be too “preachy” when it comes to telling people what to consume and how to live—in many cases, it’s a struggle just to get people in the door. However, I do think the rabbi’s role should include guiding people toward deeper consideration of social justice issues, including animal welfare.

PS: Even some who may publicly defend the technical kosher status of the meat produced by AgriProcessors or defend the kosher status of the meat produced through the “shackle and hoist” method in South America may in more private situations condemn these immoral practices. For example, Menachem Genack of the OU—in a lecture at the “Ask OU” conference in August 2006—admitted that PETA was correct that animals were demonstrating prolonged consciousness at AgriProcressors: “The initial claim from our community was that [the animals] were not conscious, but that’s probably not true because that type of complex motor activity means that there is a certain level of consciousness.” (Rabbi Genack in a lecture at the AskOU8 conference titled “The PETA Controversy,” August 2006) Rabbi Genack, in that lecture, also said explicitly that AgriProcessors never should have been doing trachea dismemberment on conscious animals: “It’s a procedure that shouldn’t have been done, frankly; when the OU found out about it they stopped it right away.” And even before our South American investigation footage was released, Rabbi Genack stated that “shackle and hoist” was “extremely stressful and probably painful” (Rabbi Genack in a lecture at the AskOU8 conference titled “The PETA Controversy,” August 2006). Why then can’t the OU just suspend its hechsher from these companies in light of these horrible abuses? There is still a paranoid mentality that we should never speak out publicly against our own community. Damage control is the priority. Discrediting the messenger seems to be the tactic of choice. Fortunately, initiatives like Hekhsher Tzedek recognize that the only way to preserve the long-term credibility of the industry is to confront, admit, and resolve the most egregious issues in order to avoid the embarrassment of the magnitude that just occurred with AgriProcessors.

A bad but still necessary existential question: In front of you is a lake. In it, equidistant from you and from each other are a man and a dog. Both are drowning. The man is a total stranger. The dog belongs to your neighbor and is a kind, loving creature you really like. You’re alone. You can only save one. You must act now. Which one do you save? PS: This is not a useful exercise. In all real-life cases, doing something to reduce the suffering of animals is not at the expense of some human interest. For example, banning the cutting out of ear tags on conscious animals (this cruel procedure was done at the Rubashkins’ Local Pride slaughterhouse in Nebraska) would not result in the ear mutilations of humans. Except in some fantasy/hypothetical situation, it is never the choice of one at the expense of the other. In real life, it is often the opposite. It is no coincidence that the Rubashkins, whose slaughterhouses are so abusive to animals, also extended this lack of compassion to exploit humans.

Carry the thought to medical research. Obviously, some medical research can be done using computer models and the like. But some cannot be done that way. The only way to do the research is to test on animals. In one hypothetical case, a particular drug that reverses Alzheimer’s Disease needs to be tested before going into human trials. The only way to test this new drug is on animals – there really is no other way. If animal testing is not done, the drug will not be used to help humans, to alleviate human suffering and to save human lives. But if animal testing is done, the animals will suffer. Researchers will do everything possible to curtail that suffering. Still animals will suffer. What should be done? HS: Experimenting on animals is not an effective way of advancing human health. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported in 2004 that 92 percent of drugs tested that were found to be safe and effective in animals were unsafe or ineffective in humans. Drug trials on animals are not predictive of efficacy in humans. Reactions to drugs vary enormously from species to species. Penicillin kills guinea pigs despite being inactive in rabbits; aspirin kills cats and causes birth defects in rats, mice, guinea pigs, dogs, and monkeys; and morphine, a depressant in humans, stimulates goats, cats, and horses. Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, remarked, “How fortunate we didn’t have these animal tests in the 1940s, for penicillin would probably have never been granted a license, and probably the whole field of antibiotics might never have been realized.”

If you could tell every Jew only one thing about why you spend your lives working to reduce animal suffering, what would it be? PS & HS: Unthinkable things are happening to animals all over the world, right now, because people are paying for them to happen. Our work helps open a window so that people can view these uncomfortable scenes and hopefully reconsider the necessity of their turkey bacon or fur-trimmed coat. Besides each other, who is your favorite Jewish vegan? Why? HS: Alicia Silverstone. She walks the walk and has been a super-strong advocate for animals. PS: Vegan chef and cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I tend to improvise in the kitchen, but we love her books Vegan With a Vengeance and Veganomicon.

Again, aside from each other, who is your hero? Why? HS: I learned long ago not to idolize people. I aspire to embody characteristics of people I admire, like PETA vice president Bruce Friedrich’s generosity, cruelty caseworker Peter Wood’s persistence, casework manager Martin Mersereau’s unflagging dedication, and PETA president Ingrid Newkirk’s integrity.

PS: I actually am a nervous public speaker and would much rather be working undercover than in front of cameras, so I absolutely admire people such as PETA Vice President Lisa Lange who welcome the toughest media interviews and are so cool under fire.

Hannah – what did you do for the Yankees? Philip – be absolutely honest. If you could work for the Yankees or the Blue Jays, be at the park every day – every boy’s dream – would you do it? Would you take an extended leave from PETA and play ball? Hannah, would you go with him? HS: I was an editorial assistant for Yankees Magazine, which produced the monthly magazine and game-day programs. In addition to more mundane chores, I was able to write content for the magazine and got to interview players, coaches, and visiting celebrities. Unfortunately, I left for another job right after I was granted a clubhouse (locker room) pass. Of course, I also heard plenty of predictable George Costanza (Seinfeld) references from friends.

PS: I was at the Blue Jays’ first loss ever and celebrated on the street when they finally won their first World Series, so it will always be in my blood. But I don’t romanticize it anymore. Every industry has its sordid underbelly, and after hearing Hannah’s stories about interning/working with World Cup ’94, Major League Soccer, the Yankees, the NHL, and ESPN Magazine, I wouldn’t even dream about leaving a fulfilling career helping animals to work in sports. Sadly, the same type of steroids that scoundrels like Roger Clemens inject are rampantly being given to horses to make them run beyond their physical limits. So stopping this cruel behavior in an industry where the participants have no choice is obviously much more important.

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