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Ethical eating – the new Jewish food tradition

Sharon Berger
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Published: 29 March 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Prompted by her daughter’s rejection of meat, Sharon Berger’s eyes are opened to the way Australian Jews are embracing vegetarianism, veganism and more

JEWISH PENICILLIN HAS been a cure-all for generations. When their kids get sick, Jewish mothers make chicken soup. But what does a Jewish mother do when their child rejects Jewish penicillin for ethical or environmental reasons?

Gradually, my daughter has been eating fewer food groups. It started with foregoing red meat, then chicken, now fish (most of the time). It’s probably just a matter of time before she becomes vegan. While she is still the minority in our house, my daughter is part of a movement that includes an increasing number of Jews.

While I am happy to support her on this journey (supplemented by iron tablets and blood tests), I feel she’s turning away from some of our most valued Jewish traditions, which are inexorably linked to food. How can you have Pesach without chicken soup and matzah balls? No more chicken schnitzels?  She was never a fan of chicken liver, but you get the drift.

Jews in the vegan movement have adapted age-old family recipes to be more animal friendly. Many use their understanding of Judaism in making their choices, particularly the Talmudic prohibition against causing suffering to living creatures (ts’ar ba’alei chaim).

There are online platforms, books, cookbooks and resources creating Jewish vegetarian or vegan spaces, with a plethora of alternative recipes and sources for faith-based ethical eating. Books include Beyond Chopped Liver: 59 Jewish Recipes Get a Vegan Health Makeover and Oy Vey Vegan: Vegan Cuisine with a Mediterranean Flair. In the US, there are even vegan delis serving plant-based lox, schmears and bagels, alongside chicken liver and whitefish.

While the Australian Jewish community is not yet hosting vegan seders nor opening vegan delis (to my knowledge), there is a growing number of Jews who are paying more attention to what they eat and are looking to find other Jews who share these values.

The world is progressing towards veganism, vegetarianism, flexitarianism, and there are Jews who want to follow these lifestyles - JAYDENE TUCKER

Jaydene Tucker founded the Plant Based, Vegan and Vegetarian Jewish Community Sydney, a Facebook group, about two years ago. A vegetarian for many years and a vegan for eight, Tucker wanted to combine her Jewish and vegan identities. “The world is progressing towards veganism, vegetarianism, flexitarianism, and there are Jews who want to follow these lifestyles and be able to incorporate their tradition within that,” she told Plus 61JMedia.

Jaydene Tucker, founder of the Australian Facebook vegetarian community
Jaydene Tucker, founder of the Australian Facebook vegetarian community

The community arranges vegan potluck events, including picnics and Shabbat dinners, allowing members to connect socially and eat Jewish food. They share recipes and baking tips online. While Tucker admits  she has yet to “nail” her vegan matzah-ball soup, she does have fantastic recipes for vegan babka and vegan rugelach.

Tucker sees her food choices as grounded in her Jewish values. “Being vegan not only shows respect for the land we are living on and concern for the environment. It overlaps with our values on animal cruelty.”

There are others in the Jewish community pushing for more ethical food choices. In Australia, Netzer (the international Reform Zionist youth movement) became pescetarian in 2000 and in 2008 voted to become the first Netzer group globally to become vegetarian.

The senior rabbi at Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue, Jeffrey Kamins, a pescetarian, insisted that following the synagogue’s refurbishment it’s kitchen would be meat free. Although he met opposition from congregants (and possibly colleagues) he insisted on the change for Jewish, environmental and ethical reasons.

“I think from the opening story of Bereshit/Genesis there is deep teaching in the Torah to support a vegan/vegetarian diet and given the implications of factory farming on climate and our collective human soul, I believe we must do everything to cease treating animals as objects and recognise them as sentient beings with rights”.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins stopped eating meat in 1978
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins stopped eating meat in 1978

Kamins’ decision in 1978 to stop eating meat stemmed from ethical values and environmental concerns regarding the amount of land it took to grow plant protein compared to animal protein, deforestation and water usage. 

“Over time,” he says, “as I learned more, issues concerning factory farming and animal cruelty rose to the fore.” Kamins says he feels “more spiritually attuned the less I eat animals. And the less we eat animals the more we make the world a better place - environmentally, vis à vis our treatment of animals and of course, food distribution and combatting hunger.”

He says there is a growing number of students at Emanuel School exploring ethical eating and that Israel has one of the world’s highest per capita rates of veganism.

Former Sydneysider Ondine Sherman, managing director and co-founder of Voiceless, the animal protection institute, lives in Israel. She says an increasing number of rabbis and Jewish leaders are doing “great work” in this space, which gives her hope.

Growing up, she read a book about Judaism and vegetarianism that made her “appreciate the thinking behind Jewish faith and culture, but also question the current practice of Jewish kashrut and leadership, which she says ignores the real values around protecting animals that are embedded in the Torah”.

Ondine Sherman, founder of Voices animal rights group
Ondine Sherman, founder of Voices animal rights group

She says many of the laws around eating, food and animals are based on compassion, such as the injunction to feed your animals before feeding yourself, or the fact that the slaughter method was designed to minimise suffering, insisting on the sharpest knife, etc.

“The Torah wasn’t written in the times of factory farming and mass industrialised systems,” she says, “and today the whole system is not kosher from beginning to end and slaughter is just a minute at the end of an animal’s life, and that an animal’s life is usually filled with suffering, pain and distress.

Slaughter is just a minute at the end of an animal's life, and that animal's life is usually filled with suffering, pain and distress - ONDINE SHERMAN

 “Given that we have plentiful choices not to eat animal products and there is inherent suffering in every system that we use to grow and breed animals and transport them, I think the most ethical Jewish position would be to not kill and eat them.  Otherwise, you are making very superficial changes.”

While both Sherman and Kamins wax nostalgically about their favourite Jewish foods, not coincidentally made by their grandmothers (gefilte fish for her, chicken liver for him), their priorities are animal welfare and their interpretation of tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Next time I am making a separate meal for my daughter I’ll need to remember she is not rejecting her traditions and recognise that she is interpreting them in her own way.

Main photo: Facebook page of Plant Based, Vegan and Vegetarian Jewish Community Sydney

About the author

Sharon Berger

Sharon Berger is the Events & Partnerships Manager at TJI. Sharon is a former journalist for The Jerusalem Post, Reuters, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Australian Jewish News.

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