Ahead of Yom Kippur, many Jews carry out the Kapparot ritual, where they swing a chicken above their heads to transfer their sins to it before slaughtering it.
But these activists, known as the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos are working to stop what they consider to be a barbaric practice and have been fighting for over a decade to help end it.
For years, they have campaigned and called for legal action and a ban of the practice, but to no avail. Now, they're trying a different approach, focused on community outreach.
Much of their work focuses on educating people about Kapparot, as there are some profound misunderstandings about the practice.
"I'm Jewish, and I come from 18 generations of rabbis. I'm not personally religious anymore, but I grew up ultra-Orthodox. Nobody in my family uses chickens for Kapparot. Some never even did it at all," Alliance founding member Rina Deych told The Jerusalem Post.
The practice of Kapparot is to swing a chicken over one's head while praying, though it can be substituted with money. Men take roosters and women take hens. Pregnant women use three chickens, one hen for herself, another hen for if her child will be a girl, and one rooster for if her child will be a boy.
Many Jews who practice Kapparot, and especially with the use of a chicken, take the ritual's origins for granted, assuming it has been a long-standing part of scripture. But this is not the case.
The practice apparently dates back to the late Talmudic era, with the first known record of it being during the Geonic era around 660 CE. However, Kapparot is not mentioned in the Torah or the Talmud. Rather, its first official mention in a text of Jewish law was in the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century. And that mention was not positive, with the compiler of the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Yosef Karo, calling it "a practice that ought to be prevented," and suggested using money instead of a chicken.
It was only later when noted Ashkenazi scholar Rabbi Moshe Isserles added to the work that the practice was given more legitimization in the Shulchan Aruch.
So where did it come from?
Many believe it to be rooted in pagan customs, and it was for this reason that it was opposed by many rabbis throughout history, most notably the 12th-century authority Nachmanidies, better known as the Ramban.
But other, more modern problems, come from another angle.
"It violates state laws and halacha, not the least of which is tzar baalei chayim (causing distress to a living animal," Deych explained.
Though the chickens are supposed to be handled humanely and slaughtered in accordance with Halacha, this does not happen as much in practice, Deych said, adding that many of the slaughtered chickens, rather than being given to charity, are just thrown away.
"It's not just about the swinging and the killing. It's about how they're kept in a crate," Deych said. "They put all these chickens in a crate squashed together with no protection from the elements, from the heat and rain, without food and water for days. Many of them die in the crates. They get manhandled in the shipping and many lose toes or legs in the process. It's horrific. It's unbelievable."
The problem with the crates is well-known and many have been upset with its perceived careless nature. Just last week, around 300 chickens fell off a delivery truck in their crates on a busy Brooklyn intersection, and many of them died before they could be rescued.
Because of how they've been packed and transported, many of them are deemed treif (not kosher) because they have been being blemished and wounded. As such, they can't be donated to the poor as charity.
"I was speaking to one of the organizers of a Kapparot ritual in Williamsburg, and I was pleading for him to release one of the chickens who had a broken leg and wing," Deych recounted.
"And I said to him, 'This chicken is treif. You can't even use him. Why don't you give him to me? I'll bring him to a sanctuary and give him a long happy life.' He said to me, 'No, it's my merchandise.'"
There are also severe misconceptions about how the ritual is actually done, as many do not realize the chicken isn't calm and relaxed.
The Alliance's outreach is working to combat this, too. One person who worked with them is Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, a Breslov Hassid who lives on a farm in Minnesota and who is the author of many books on animal rights, most notably the 2015 book Kapporos Then and Now: Toward a More Compassionate Tradition.
In a short minute-long documentary from 2013, Gershom debunked some popular misconceptions about the practice.
"You have been told that holding a chicken by its wings that way will make the bird calm and relaxed. This is not true! The bird is terrified, it is playing dead, the way it does if it is grabbed by a dog or a wolf. It is hoping you will let go so it can escape," Gershom explained.
"Please do not torture a bird this way – this is not a mitzvah, our Torah does not require this, it will not cancel your sins. I beg you, please give money, instead of hurting one of God's living creatures."
Now, this outreach has led to the Alliance, which works alongside another activist organization known as Jewish Veg, to educate people about what Kapparot is really like, making sure it is at least done in as humane a way as possible and, hopefully, encourage more people to turn away from it.
"We go to Kapparot rituals when they're being carried out and explain what's wrong with it," Deych said. "I wear a shirt that says tzar baalei chayim. People, usually children, ask if I'm Jewish, I say I am and I tell them why I'm there. I tell them it wasn't in the Torah or Talmud and the original version of the Shulchan Aruch called it a foolish custom. Most of them don't even know. I also make sure they know how to hold the chickens so they aren't in pain. I try to feed the chickens watermelon strips while in the crates so they at least have calories and aren't suffering."
But their battle is far from over, as the Kapparot custom is still strongly rooted in many places. But with protesting having failed, this approach is their next plan.
"Our ultimate goal is to get people to evolve past this and stop using chickens altogether, but we realize that won't happen overnight," Deych said. "So we need to plant seeds of compassion and water them every year and hope they sprout."