Limmud: Food for thought at America and UK initiatives to encourage 'ethical eating'


In the photograph on the screen, Rabbi Marc Soloway, the British-born leader of a Conservative synagogue in Boulder, Colorado, is cradling a young goat in his arms.

Members of his congregation have set up Beit Izim, an urban goat co-operative, where volunteers take it in turns to milk the flock or feed the chickens in return for a bottle of milk or some fresh eggs.

At Eden Village, a Jewish summer camp in the Hudson Valley, they grow most of their vegetables or source them locally. “Other than cereal and ketchup, they basically don’t buy any processed foods,” said Sarah Chandler of the Jewish Initiative for Animals.

“Kids also have cookery classes so they learn to make healthy food.”

And while there is a “junk-food” table available for the few not yet attuned to kale and brown rice, “on the whole, kids love the food”, she said.

One of the most popular Hillel events for Jewish students at one American campus is the annual “Farm Table Shabbat,” where most of the food is locally sourced.

Hazon, the American Jewish environmental organisation founded by Nigel Savage, who is originally from Manchester, has introduced a “seal of sustainability”, a certificate which organisations can earn in various areas such as concern for animal welfare, energy conservation or healthy eating.

These are just a few of the growing number of initiatives - discussed at session at the Limmud conference in Birmingham - to encourage “ethical eating” in America based on Jewish values such as avoiding unnecessary cruelty to animals, preventing wastage or looking after one’s body.

Some synagogues have adopted a food “covenant”, committing themselves to ethical practices beyond simply observance of kashrut.

Ms Chandler’s JIFA colleague, Professor Aaron Gross, said traditional rabbinic supervision bodies still saw their remit as kashrut rather than broader food ethics, but some were “quietly” taking notice behind the scenes.

The split between Orthodox and Progressive Judaism created an “unfortunate situation” whereby “the Orthodox world by and large focuses its energy on kashrut as a religious system and Liberal Jews, who often have little or no interest in traditional kashrut, are the ones talking most loudly about ethics.”

He himself has been campaigning for nearly 20 years, since he was involved in lobbying McDonalds to introduce a vegeburger.

He said the stand taken by religious communities on food could influence large corporations and he urged synagogues to publicise their policies.

“This is something food corporations will be paying attention to,” he said. “As communities do this, corporations hear it and know there is increasing demand for change.”

Some British ventures were also mentioned during the session, such as Sadeh, the new educational farm being planned at Skeet House, the residential centre used by Jewish youth groups in Kent.

At the London Moishe House, Hannah Style has started a programme called Feast! “We collect surplus food from supermarkets that would otherwise be thrown in the bin, take it to a homeless shelter and cook it with the homeless,” she explained.

But one mother recounted her difficulties in trying to change the diet at her child’s Jewish school where she was unhappy at meat being served most days. When she had suggested on social media the school cut down on “refined white-sugar-laden” puddings, other people “got very angry with me,” she said.  There had been “so much cyber-bullying, that the administrator deleted the entire thread”.


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