New org to educate haredi community on animal rights

Group won’t get involved in controversy over fur use in streimels, cofounder says.

Haredim in Bnei Brak (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredim in Bnei Brak
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ezra Zohar has tended to all kinds of animals since he was a child – cats, dogs, scorpions, spiders, everything he could bring home with him. Even today, at 43, he is proud to have a pet rabbit.
“I had a really special collection of animals. I traveled a lot in Israel in the desert and I found them there,” he said. “My mother was really tolerant about it.”
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This tolerance for animals – and their rights – is something that Zohar would like all of Israel’s communities to be aware of and support, and to accomplish this goal he has teamed up with a haredi community activist, Yehuda Shein of Beit Shemesh, to co-found a haredi animal rights advocacy group called Compassion, whose Hebrew letters are also an acronym for “haredi recruits for animals.”
Compassion had its official launch event on Thursday, with representatives from the organization distributing information on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv.
The organization will serve to spread knowledge about the cruelties endured by animals as well as general environmental issues, according to the team.
“What we want is just to increase people’s awareness of animal suffering,” Zohar said. “We believe that we can create change, bring people to see what they don’t see.”
The idea for this group originally came to Shein, 32, when a woman from an animal rights activist organization approached him at a fuel demonstration attended by a host of social activists including Shein’s own Equality Now Movement, which brings together haredi and secular Jews, he said.
She asked him why there is no haredi organization that supports animal rights, and how he can possibly say that secular and haredi people are acting together when haredi MKs consistently fight against anti-fur legislation, Shein explained.
To this, he said he responded that while haredi activists are more likely to champion human issues – like advocating for families with special-needs children – one other reason why the MKs might be lobbying against the fur bill is because they may fear that such a bill will be used as anti- Semitic material against Jews who have worn fur streimels for generations.
“Already today there are publications in the international media that display this topic with pictures of haredim wearing the streimel,” he said, emphasizing, however, that “no one will kill any animal just for its tail,” which is all that is required for a streimel.
However, the woman’s question alerted Shein to the need for an organization that creates awareness about animal rights among the haredim, and so he launched Compassion, which provides crucial information to a community that lacks exposure to such matters, the cofounders explained.
The group is now distributing explanatory material in public places such as the the Kotel, synagogues and schools. But the group is simply providing information, both Zohar and Shein stress, not forcing people to change their beliefs.
“What is necessary is to bring their attention to what happens in this area because they do not have a iota of an idea about what goes on in this merciless industry,” Shein said.
“I’m not asking people to be vegetarians,” added Zohar, who is a vegetarian himself, and referred to certain methods of meat production as an example of cruelty to animals.
“I am only trying to show them the facts of how meat is manufactured. Maybe they will choose to eat less meat, or to buy organic meat.
“I don’t have the right to tell someone to be vegetarian. It is our right according to the Bible to eat meat.”
As far as the issue of the streimel goes, both Zohar and Shein said that the organization does not plan to involve itself in this topic whatsoever.
“I must stress that as an organization we are in no way dealing with the topic of the streimel,” Shein said. “We are in no way engaged at all with politics, laws or legal proceedings, directly or indirectly. We involve ourselves in providing information only.
“The reason we are not involved in the issue of streimels is because as noted, no one will kill an animal only for its tail. The streimel industry is only a tiny branch of the giant fur industry.
“We definitely support the move to synthetic substitutes in everything that is connected to fur,” he continued. “We do not believe in coercion, only in providing information that is translated into practical changes.”
While Compassion’s efforts at first are going to be directed mostly to the haredi community, Shein said that the group does plan to reach out to the general public as well.
“We are turning to the public – haredi and secular,” he said. “In a natural fashion, we are turning more to the haredi public because the majority of them aren’t followers of the mainstream media and therefore it is necessary to bring this to their awareness in a special language suited to them. Indeed, the values of preventing harm to animals and safeguarding the environment are definitely also Jewish values.”
Zohar added that he hopes Compassion will be one more tool to bring secular and haredi communities together over a mutual interest.
“We think there is a lot of work to be done with the haredim,” he said. “This is our advantage – we have the same mentality as them and they don’t consider us outsiders, so we can do work with them that non-religious organizations cannot do. “But we don’t want to stop there. We want to do work with the non-religious people too.”
One of Israel’s largest animal rights advocacy organizations, Anonymous for Animal Rights, expressed enthusiasm over the establishment of Compassion and the increasing willingness of the country’s haredi population to support animals.
“We’re very encouraged by the growing awareness to animal rights among the religious public in Israel,” said Hila Keren, a spokeswoman for the group Anonymous for Animal Rights. “The Orthodox Knesset members have played a key role in the effort to ban forcefeeding of geese and ducks, explaining that the prohibition to inflict pain on animals comes directly from the Torah.
“Recently, we’ve received the support of important rabbis from all streams in our campaign to ban battery cages for laying hens, among them Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner and Rabbi David Rosen.”