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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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