Vegan rabbi from NY on plant-based choices, changing the world

Since 2020, he’s been known as the Vegan Rabbi, teaching and guiding people from secular to modern-Orthodox backgrounds through social media, videos, webinars and online courses.

 Rabbi Akiva Gersh, the vegan rabbi. (photo credit: TAMAR GERSH)
Rabbi Akiva Gersh, the vegan rabbi.
(photo credit: TAMAR GERSH)

Akiva Gersh grew up in Rockland County, New York, and got interested in spirituality during his college years at Brown University, in the mid-1990s, when he rediscovered Judaism through the lens of its environmental aspects.

He’d decided to eat a plant-based diet even before learning the Jewish teachings that dovetailed with this decision.

Since 2020, he’s been known as the Vegan Rabbi, teaching and guiding people from secular to modern-Orthodox backgrounds through social media, videos, webinars and online courses.

He recently launched a dating service for Jewish vegan and vegetarian singles, and a consultancy on practical issues related to Judaism and veganism, such as transitioning to a plant-based diet and living as a vegan in the larger Jewish community.

“The Vegan Rabbi allows me to share all the teachings from our tradition that are not well known, from ancient to modern times, from Gemara, Halacha, philosophy and Kabbalah, about our responsibility toward protecting nature and showing compassion to God’s creatures.”

Akiva Gersh

“The Vegan Rabbi allows me to share all the teachings from our tradition that are not well known, from ancient to modern times, from Gemara, Halacha, philosophy and Kabbalah, about our responsibility toward protecting nature and showing compassion to God’s creatures,” Gersh says.

Due to the factory farm conditions under which animals suffer in the meat, dairy and egg industries today, and the “amazingly absurd amount of water, land and food that goes to feeding livestock,” he says, Jews should consider veganism to avoid the prohibitions of causing pain to animals and wasting resources, as well as to fulfill the Torah’s mandate to guard one’s health.

Akiva Gersh  (credit: TAMAR FIELD-GERSH)Akiva Gersh (credit: TAMAR FIELD-GERSH)

At the recent Vegan Fest in Tel Aviv, which drew about 100,000 people over three days, Gersh spoke about Jewish history from the perspective of food, how the Garden of Eden was a completely vegan environment, and how the Torah’s permission to eat meat is considered a concession and not an ideal – an especially relevant consideration in these days when animals are raised and slaughtered “in a way God never intended,” he says.

Akiva Gersh

Gersh is a centrist-Orthodox counterpart to Rabbi Asa Keisar, who brings similar teachings to Israel’s haredi communities. As a native English speaker, Gersh can reach beyond Israel’s borders to Diaspora communities, like the one in which he grew up.

He and his wife, Tamar Field-Gersh, a certified life coach, live with their children, ages 6, 10, 13 and 15, in Pardess Hanna.

Gersh explains that following his religious awakening in college, he and his twin sister went backpacking through Africa and Israel, at age 22. While his sister returned home after two months, he spent another six months at the Shalom Rav yeshiva in Safed.

“I had already begun to discover new and inspiring sides of Judaism that were previously unknown to me, but I knew Israel held important answers to many of my still-lingering questions. My plan was to find those answers and then return to America to continue the rest of my life,” he explains.

“But something happened. Immediately, I felt something in Israel that I never felt anywhere in the world at any point in my life: a deep sense of being home. I just knew that one day, I would spend the rest of my life here.”

In 2004, after earning a master’s degree in Jewish education from Yeshiva University, he made aliyah with Tamar about a year after their wedding.

The like-minded couple had met when teaching in a Jewish environmental education center in the Berkshire Mountains. In 2001, they became staffers for a Jewish teen travel program run by the 92nd Street Y, in New York. They led this program from 2004 to 2009, even after moving to Israel.

IN 2017, Gersh published Becoming Israeli: The Hysterical, Inspiring and Challenging Sides of Making Aliyah, a compilation of essays written by himself and 39 other American-born olim. Yossi Klein Halevi, one of his role models, guided him through the process of putting the book together. It examines what inspires people to move to Israel, the challenges they face, and why they choose to stay despite these challenges.

“I have a passionate obsession with aliyah,” Gersh says, “and I love collecting ‘only in Israel’ moments.”

Those moments, he elaborates, include “the challah you get, instead of the expected newspaper, as a bonus for filling up a full tank of gas on a Friday. Or the bus that has a sticker on it that says, ‘This bus has already been cleaned for Pesach. Please keep it clean.’ Or the woman who hands you her child to hold in the line at the grocery store because she forgot to pick up toilet paper.”

Gersh received rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov in Jerusalem and has forged a career in Israel education.

From 2007 to 2020, Gersh was a Jewish history and Israel studies educator at the JNF-Alexander Muss High School in Hod Hasharon, a pluralistic study-abroad program for American and Australian teens. He taught in the classroom and guided students on weekly explorations of historical, cultural and ecological sites around Israel.

“Working at Muss gave me an opportunity to understand Jewish and Israeli history, and the country better, the sites, hikes and geography. Then corona hit and groups didn’t come anymore,” he says.

This dark cloud had the silver lining: an opportunity to try something different. For the past two years, Gersh has built up the Vegan Rabbi, created online Israel education courses for Jews and for Christians through @Israel Online and Israel365 Online, and led virtual tours of Israel via Zoom for Hebrew schools, synagogues and other US Jewish organizations.

He relates strongly to the Torah verse Kum hithalekh ba’aretz (“arise and walk through the land,” a command given to Abraham). “I love traveling this land: hiking, camping and backpacking. The physical land inspires me.”

Spreading the vegan message can be a sort of uphill hike, as well.

It sometimes feels discouraging when I see fellow Jews post gross and vile comments about eating animals. In general, in the Orthodox world, change is hard,” he says.

And yet, he also is encouraged by the momentum the Vegan Rabbi is building.

“The world today is in a process,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post. “Many have become nauseated at an animal-based diet and are changing the way they eat. More will join the movement until we finally and completely stop eating animals and, as a result, create a more compassionate and loving lifestyle and world... for all.”■

RABBI AKIVA GERSH, 46 FROM NEW YORK TO PARDESS HANNA, 2004