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July 17, 2017 11:07 am

The Synagogue Vegan Challenge

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

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Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz at a group retreat. Photo: provided.

Could your synagogue go vegan for a year?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz — who has eaten only plant-based foods since his wedding day, six years ago — is hoping that it can. The 36-year-old, who was named one of the top 50 rabbis in America by Newsweek in 2012 and 2013, and one of the most 50 influential Jews by the Forward last year, recently launched the Synagogue Vegan Challenge.

Under the program, Jewish houses of worship in the United States and Canada can apply for a grant of $5,000 to be used on food and programs. To be considered, synagogues must commit to a minimum of one vegan event per month.

“There’s not one vegan synagogue in America,” said Yanklowitz, who holds a master’s degree in Leadership and Psychology from Harvard University, and a master’s degree in philosophy from Yeshiva University. “It’s very hard to make changes, and we to have to make it easier for people. If people see that vegan food can be healthy and tasty, they are more likely to consider a dietary change. The synagogue should be a place of education, where people can learn about the health benefits of going vegan.”

Yanklowitz admits that he used to be quite the carnivore.

“I used to eat massive amounts of beef every day, and never thought about it twice,” he said. “Stopping eating meat was a challenge, but once I did that, going vegan was easy.”

He said that he became vegan after learning of the harsh confinement that animals used for consumption face, and added that “the dairy industry is just as harmful as the meat industry.”

Yanklowitz said that he’s already received applications from synagogues of all denominations. The winning five temples will be selected based on size, prestige, the number of participants, the creativity in programs and the commitment that the synagogues make to the program. Vegan kiddushes, cooking classes, speakers, documentary screenings and perhaps a dating or pizza night, could be some of the events that temples undertake, he said.

“This is about saving lives,” he added, noting that the problem of cardiac disease and other health challenges are in part due to excessive consumption of animal products. The $25,000 in grants will come from Vegfund, which provides grants to vegans worldwide.

Yanklowitz said that Israel has the highest number of vegans per capita; according to the activist group Vegan Friendly, there were 300,000 vegans in Israel in 2014. “That’s a great sign, but of course there are also problems of obesity in Israel and here in the United States.”

With problems of terrorism, poverty, and conflict between the Israeli rabbinate and Diaspora rabbis facing the Jewish community, Yanklowitz said that he’s aware that there are skeptics and critics who will argue that diet should not be a priority issue to focus on. But he believes that for the many Jews with poor eating habits, this is a matter of life and death.

Yanklowitz said that he would be thrilled if a synagogue pledged to go entirely vegan for a year, but understood that it would be difficult. When asked how he trusts synagogues to keep their commitment, he says, “there has to be some level of trust.”

For more information on the program, click here.

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  • David Stern

    Open your eyes. There *are* vegan Jews. First of all, the Torah does speak against hurting animals (“Tsa’ar Ba’alei Haim”), and in the animal industries – there definitely is a big tsa’ar ba’alei haim. If you look a little further in the Mitsvot and in the practices of the industries, you’ll clearly see that industrial animal products are NOT Kosher. I recommend you to listen to ASA Caesar:

  • Joseph Feld

    We await the Era of Moshiach and the Third Temple. The Temple Avodah includes animals brought to the Altar. Will there be, for instance, a vegan Korbon Pesach? Will we write Torah Scrolls on ‘vegan’ parchment? There is a general principle that we don’t prohibit that which the Torah permits. The Torah clearly permits wool from sheep, but not shatnes. The Torah permits both milk and meat from kosher animals but not mixed. . . . .

  • TheBigDG

    I know that you have written your note with some sarcasm and anger, and my friend, I do understand that. For some reason, these issues raise our blood pressure. Perhaps because they are so important and if we did not truly care, we would not get upset. Perhaps it is because we feel like we are being criticized and nobody likes that.

    But, I am going to have to defend The good Rabbi. If you truly believe there is no weight to correlation and must wait for causality to be proven, may I offer you a cigarette? Excessive animal products have been shown time again (for those willing to open their eyes and minds) to be harmful if not deadly. Study after study show animal based diets cause and bring about many degenerative diseases.

    I have lost my Father (heart Attack), Mother (ALDS) Brother(Cancer) Brother (ALDS, Kidney failure) I have not had meat for 27+ years and became Vegan 6 years ago. My shul is Vegan and my friend, it is the best investment you can make in your health…but do it now while you are still healthy!

    I write this with love.

  • TheBigDG

    I am Vegan and own two Torahs and 3 sets of Tefillin. G-d allowed Noah to eat meat after the flood because there was a lack of vegetation. G-d was not very pleased about man’s desire for we know there are always problems in the stories of the Torah when the people cry for meat. And, G-d immediately i.e next verse, after allowing meat consumption warns man about murder. One must ask what the connection between meat & murder is. I leave that to your imagination.

    The Torah says only once to love your neighbor, yet there are over 15 specific laws about how to treat animals. The majority of these laws are brutally violated today in factory farms. There are very serious questions about the modern shchita process..but even if you say it is fine…what about the life these animals are given? The abuse, torture, mis-feeding, over crowding etc.. You cannot wantonly violate A-V and say something is kosher because XYZ are K’halacha.

    G-d gives us all kinds of directives to properly and compassionately interact with the animal world. These laws mean nothing to those who are involved in the animal business. These people violate the Torah law in our name when we buy their products. Again, there are in excess of 15 specific D’oraita laws regarding animal care.

    I have much more to say regarding the highly questionable kashrus status…but the above should suffice for the honest among us to at least reconsider what we think is kosher, what is normal and humane and what Hashem truly wishes of us.

  • TheBigDG

    Bet Dovid in Caldwell, NJ IS A VEGAN! For the past 2.5 years, since our first Shabbat..and our first Kiddush.. strictly, utterly and beautifully Vegan! We demonstrate how delicious, nutritious and spiritual food is the perfect follow-up to a spiritual prayer service.
    Speak to Rabbi Donn Gross, AKA the Health Rabbi for ideas and the imperatives of why we should not consume animal products.

  • I for one am not going to be party to a sect of Judaism where some rabbi tells me what I can and cannot eat. What the torah says is good enough for me. Its already bad enough that ancient rabbis told us we can’t eat a cheeseburger, now we have to forgo the burger and just eat the cheese? And only if its non-dairy cheese. Its possible to think of Judaism as a cult of finicky eaters!

  • The criteria seems a little off, since those synagogues with “size” and “prestige” don’t need the funds and small synagogues with as much desire would need the financial help. Do the right thing and choose synagogues based on different criteria.