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Learning kosher slaughter

by Rebecca Spence

January 10, 2014 | 1:31 pm

Gabriel Botnick doing a demonstration this past summer for about 40 students ages 18-26. Photo courtesy of Brandeis Collegiate Institute

Gabriel Botnick doing a demonstration this past summer for about 40 students ages 18-26. Photo courtesy of Brandeis Collegiate Institute

“The knife afterwards, what should it look like?” asks Rachel Marder, a first-year rabbinical student studying ritual kosher slaughter. 

Her instructor, Gabriel Botnick, explains that after killing a chicken in accordance with Jewish law, the knife needn’t be perfectly smooth — there will, of course, be blood and feathers — but it can’t have any nicks. 

“If the knife has nicks,” said Botnick, a neat 33-year-old dressed in jeans and a white button-down shirt, “it means something went wrong and the meat’s not kosher.”

Like Marder, 27, Botnick is also studying to become a Conservative rabbi. But the six-month course he is teaching on kosher slaughter, or shechitah, is not held at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, where he is in his fifth and final year, but at his home in Mid-City Los Angeles. 

Teaching out of the spacious two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, also a rabbinical student, Botnick is leading the country’s first independent shechitah course open to anyone, including — as Marder’s presence illustrates — women. In fact, of the five students enrolled in Botnick’s course, two are women. 

That’s enough to make the black-hat rabbis cringe. Kosher slaughter has long been the province of rigorously trained Orthodox men, and while there is no law that forbids women from performing the ancient ritual, custom strictly forbids it. 

But, like many liberal Jews, Botnick — who bills himself as the only non-Orthodox Jew in America certified in kosher slaughter by the Israeli rabbinate — believes that as times change, so, too, should custom. He also believes that Jews across the spectrum of observance should have access to learning the holy trades traditionally performed by Orthodox men.

“We turn to the ultra-Orthodox to write our Torah scrolls, slaughter our meat and circumcise our sons,” said Botnick, as he passed out copies of that evening’s text study. “But if we consider non-Orthodox Judaism to be just as authentic, then we, too, should be able to do these things.”

That conviction led Botnick, a Cleveland native, to seek out a kosher-slaughter instructor while he was studying in Israel two years ago. As a non-Orthodox Jew, Botnick knew there would be roadblocks to finding a teacher, but after months of e-mailing with rabbis prior to his trip, Botnick finally met a Moroccan Israeli rabbi who was unfazed by his membership in the Conservative movement. 

Over the course of six months, Botnick studied the trove of Jewish law related to killing animals for consumption, honed his knife-sharpening skills and slaughtered some 100 chickens before he received his certification, known as kabala, for poultry. When he returned to Los Angeles and resumed his studies at the Ziegler School, Botnick committed to sharing with his broader community what he had learned.

Last May, Botnick launched Tekumah — Hebrew for “revitalization” — a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching Jews of all stripes not just kosher slaughter, but all of the holy trades, including scribal arts. As a fellow with PresenTense, an incubator for Jewish innovation, Botnick worked with an executive coach to hone his vision. In October, he taught his first class. 

Students joined Botnick’s class for a variety of reasons, including wanting to shecht their own chickens for consumption. But, perhaps surprisingly, not all of those gathered around Botnick’s dining room table actually eat meat. 

Marder, a vegetarian, said she joined the kosher-slaughter course in order to better serve her community as a rabbi. “I want to be able to do it for others,” she said. “It’s hard for me to say that I’ll willingly kill an animal, but the more I think about it, the more I think I could do it.”

That prediction will be put to the test come spring, when the course progresses from studying the laws and sharpening knives to slaughtering chickens at a nearby farm. Along with her fellow trainees, Marder will be asked to kill at least a dozen chickens with a razor-sharp blade before taking her final exam. If she passes the test, Botnick said, Marder will become the first female American rabbi to be certified as a shochet

Samuel Ta’ir, another aspiring shochet, said he wants to learn the ancient ritual because it’s a fundamental building block of a Jewish community. A project manager for a New York-based tech company, Ta’ir, 42, recently purchased a 2.5-acre ranch in Lebec, Calif., where he and his wife have started raising chickens he hopes to slaughter one day.

“Shechitah is one of the things that makes a community,” he said. “It should be open to everybody.”

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