One of our stated goals at Ramah Outdoor Adventure is to “lift the veil” on the food we eat at camp. After our second summer, I see this goal as a work in progress, something that will take a few more seasons to fully achieve. With the addition of a “food educator” we accomplished far more of this goal this summer than in 2010, and know that we will continue to make strides in future years. It is important to emphasize that we do not preach about what to eat, but rather that we should be informed about what we are putting into our bodies, and why we (as a camp and as individuals) make certain decisions about our food.
For today’s blog post, I want to share a write up that Yael Greenberg, our food educator, wrote after her masa with a group of Sollelim (7/8th grade) chalutzim back in July. Yael has written a follow up letter to parents of Sollelim campers that I will share early next week on this blog.
July 31, 2011. Written by Yael Greenberg
I’ve had four encounters with ritual Jewish slaughter, or shechita, each of which was a uniquely moving experience. The first was on the edge of a field at the Kayam Farm in Resterstown, Maryland and led me to the conclusion that the “eco” part of “eco-kashrut” stands on its own as a value in our tradition and should not be conflated with the laws of kosher food. The second was when I joined a group of families from Denver in their venture to procure chicken they really trusted. We spent a full day on a farm about an hour from their homes and stood in the scorching heat processing fifty chickens. Fifty is a lot of chickens. But just five days later, at the Center for Eco-Judaism just outside Pueblo, Colorado, I came to appreciate that no matter how many animals are being slaughtered, whether it be fifty or five hundred or just one, Judaism demands a deep, internal understanding of the fact that we take animal life to sustain ourselves.
The fourth shechita was just the other day, back at the Center for Eco-Judaism. But this time I was there as more than just a guest exploring my own values and religious ethics. In my charge were nine twelve- and thirteen-year old campers from Ramah Outdoor Adventure, out on a four-day excursion to this ranch that was so different from the one we had just left behind. Over the course of the trip, the campers learned firsthand what it takes to put food on the table. They weeded, they turned soil, they fertilized, they mucked, they watched sheep herded for breeding. They were tired after ten minutes in the sun, and their eyes grew wide at the thought of facing farm work every day. But when they took their noses away from the grind, they marvelled in the unique little pleasures of life on the ranch. They strolled the fields, picking a carrot here, a sweet pea there, and sampling the offerings of the land. They gleefully ran around the chicken coop, learning to catch chickens and collect eggs, crowing with delight when they caught the fastest bird and got her to perch on someone’s head.
When I first suggested watching a chicken slaughter, I figured the campers would run away screaming, but they didn’t. All but two wanted to watch, even once I offered an alternative activity and emphasized that this was not something for the ambivalent. A number of the campers were filled with gusto and excitement at first, but as the shechita drew nearer, the atmosphere changed. One camper who told me excitedly that he was going to take a video of the event changed his mind and asked one of his friends with a camera if she was sure it was such a good idea to record. The campers caught the chicken themselves, and then spent a long while talking with the shochet, Rabbi Robert, sitting in a circle with the chicken, bringing it into their circle of energy and beginning to comprehend what it meant to take an animal life.
I’d say that reactions to the shechita were nothing short of astounding, but I’d never taken a group of tweenagers to watch their first animal slaughter before. I will say that I was highly impressed. Not only did each camper form his or her own unique opinion on what it means to take an animal life, but they also applied what they saw to their own day-to-day realities and then shared their thoughts with their peers during today’s Limmud period. Though not all of them plan on changing their eating habits, they made the connections between what they saw on the farm and what they see on their dinner plates, and not one of them will look at a piece of chicken quite the same way again. Which was exactly the point. A world of vegetarians is not an attainable dream, nor do I think it’s a noble aspiration. But I do think there can be a world of informed meat eaters, and it’s already getting started — one Ramah camper at a time.