On the night before Yom Kippur in New York last year, animal rights activist Philip Schein says he was physically threatened when he showed up in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn for the annual kapparot ritual.
An undercover investigator with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Schein long has been concerned about kapparot in which chickens are swung over one's head in a symbolic transferring of sins a day before Yom Kippur (many Jews use money in place of a live chicken).
Schein says he identified himself as a PETA member and was filming the ceremony when several people physically harassed and threatened him.
"It was just fortunate that there were police around," Schein told JTA. "They said I have the right on a public street. I wasn't disrupting anything. Who knows what would have happened if they weren't there?"
Fearing a repeat, Schein grew a beard and donned a cap in an effort to better blend in with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidim who mount a massive kapparot operation each year in Crown Heights.
Shortly before 10 o'clock on the night before Yom Kippur, Schein and his wife, Hannah, also a PETA investigator, set out to monitor this year's kapparot.
To the uninitiated, the October 8 scene in Brooklyn and the ritual at its center may seem inhumane and somewhat bizarre.
Amid a carnival-like atmosphere featuring food vendors and street merchants, the largely Hassidic crowd lines up to purchase live chickens from a truck. With a wing and a prayer book in their hands, the Hassidim shlug, or swing, the birds around their heads while reciting a prayer before lining up to have the chickens ritually slaughtered.
It's all in full view of Eastern Parkway, a teeming thoroughfare that is the headquarters for the Chabad movement.
Organizers estimate upward of 10,000 chickens are slaughtered in the street during the ritual, which winds down at sunrise.
Chickens are placed in inverted red traffic cones after they are killed so their blood can run down. Once the chickens stop moving, which can take several minutes, they are transferred to garbage bags and piled on the sidewalk.
Processing takes place in a cramped alley behind the Hadar Hatorah Rabbinical Seminary on Eastern Parkway. With an electric saw, the birds' heads and legs are removed. A group of yeshiva students then pulls off the feathers and passes the chickens to the mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, who removes their intestines for inspection.
Those deemed kosher - the vast majority - are then soaked and salted and placed in a freezer. All the chickens are then given to charity, says Rabbi Shea Hecht, a prominent figure in the Chabad movement and one of the main organizers of the kapparot event in Brooklyn.
Hecht's prominent role in organizing the kapparot has made him a target of PETA.
After years of investigating kapparot, PETA asked the New York State Kosher Law Enforcement Division in August to open a fraud investigation against Hecht. As Yom Kippur approached, PETA also issued an action alert to its followers, which led to a flood of e-mails and faxes to Hecht's office.
Hours before the ritual was set to begin, Hecht issued a statement condemning the PETA campaign, which he claimed had led to some "threatening" and anti-Semitic e-mails. New York City Police reportedly opened an investigation.
The Scheins' specific objections to kapparot concern the treatment of the birds, which are transported in plastic crates stacked on large trucks and kept without food and water for hours. Though rabbis have urged kapparot centers to have adequate food and water on hand, they weren't in evidence on the night before Yom Kippur.
The Scheins also claim that the volume of birds slaughtered far outstrips processing capacity, resulting last year in some two-thirds of the birds being discarded in dumpsters. Organizers are violating two Jewish injunctions, the Scheins say - against causing unnecessary suffering to animals and against wastefulness.
Hecht adamantly denies both charges and says Schein made up the two-thirds figure.
"He's a liar," Hecht said.
Schein claims that at 7:15 the morning after kapparot last week, more than 100 crates of live chickens were still on the sidewalk. A driver told Schein they were being taken to a Hassidic community in upstate New York.
Schein says subjecting the birds to 24 hours without water on stressful transports in cramped, feces-covered cages violates Jewish law by causing unnecessary suffering.
During the kapparot ritual, Hannah Schein dressed to blend in with the Hassidic crowd as she searched for evidence of animal cruelty. She found a seemingly forgotten crate in which several birds that appeared to be dead shared space with other live chickens. She covertly documented it.
PETA is frequently accused of pursuing a radical - and possibly anti-Semitic - agenda because of its criticisms of kapparot and Agriprocessors, the country's largest kosher meat producer. The Scheins, both of whom are Jewish, reject that accusation, saying their work stems directly from their Jewish values.
"I feel like every ethical step I make forward in my life has a Jewish root to it," Hannah Schein said. "Being kosher, growing up, I was trained to look at labels and always think what's in this product and where does it come from."
She admits that PETA's ultimate goal is to abolish animal slaughter. She also believes that humans have no right to kill animals for food or clothing - and certainly not to expiate one's sins. She says she takes what steps she can to minimize animal suffering.
"PETA is a pragmatic organization," she said. "We want incremental welfare improvements. Otherwise we're never going to get to abolition."
The Scheins met while they were working for Hillel, the Jewish campus organization. Hannah says she used to pray at the Chabad synagogue in Norfolk, Virginia, on the High Holidays.
"I want kashrut to live up to what it's supposed to be, and to be this model, the whole 'higher authority,'" Schein said. "It's been very frustrating. It's been a real sort of embarrassment to see how the kosher industry has conducted itself. As a Jew, that impacts on me."
Yet even among those Orthodox Jews who claim to share PETA's concerns about animal treatment, there is a widespread view that the organization has pursued an unfair and misleading campaign against Jewish ritual slaughter.
"Their agenda is to wipe out shechita - period," Hecht said last week as hundreds of chickens sat in crates on the sidewalk behind him. "No. 2, their agenda is to hurt Torah-observant Jews."
As evidence, he cited PETA's targeting of him as the most visible proponent of kapparot.
"If they take me down, everybody else is going to stop doing it," Hecht said.
Hecht's view is mirrored in the Chabad community, where many believe that PETA has a radical and fundamentally anti-Jewish agenda.
Isaac Hurwitz, a Chabad follower and attorney whose father wrote a monograph on Jewish treatment of animals, told JTA he performed kapparot at Hecht's facility on Eastern Parkway this year specifically because it has been targeted by PETA.
Hurwitz admitted that keeping chickens in "little cramped boxes" made him uneasy, but he said it's no worse than how birds are normally treated during transport to the slaughterhouse.
"I'm more uncomfortable with my own sins of the past year than these few moments of discomfort for the bird while I'm swinging it above my head," he said.