Furor over rite confounds butcher

LoHud.com, New York/September 24, 2009

Monsey - Moshe Lefkowitz has been conducting the kapparot ceremony for ultra-Orthodox Jews for more than 30 years. So he can't understand what the recent fuss has been about.

The ceremony, which involves the circling of live chickens over the head of the faithful and later slaughtering them as a means of atonement for sins, has invited fines from the county Health Department, which says health codes have been flaunted, and the ire of some neighbors.

Lefkowitz, 59, said his community was saddened by the furor over the ceremony and its description as something violent.

"I am proud of our customs," said Lefkowitz, a butcher who walks with a cane. He said he has lost almost all of his sight. "It's very difficult to explain some things to people who do not believe."

Lefkowitz said he wouldn't pay the fines the Health Department has imposed because he believes it is trying to wrest money from him. He said he tried as much as possible to comply with the rules, but that the county had unrealistic expectations. He called some of the fines "ridiculous."

"I'm trying to control the chickens, but the chickens are doing what they are doing. I don't have Pampers for them," he said, referring to complaints by the Health Department that there were chicken feces and feathers on the ground. "They told me to clean it, but when I cleaned it with water, they gave me a fine. The dogs are doing a lot more contamination in the river. ... Feathers on the chicken, the wind is blowing it. It's not something I can control."

A spokeswoman for County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef said that if Lefkowitz refused to pay the fines, legal action would be taken against him.

Lefkowitz has paid $1,400 of the $3,000 fine levied against him for the 2007 ceremony and none of the $6,500 levied against him and Congregation Birchos Yosef, owner of the property where the ceremony is held, in 2008.

More fines could be forthcoming for the four violations that have been issued against him for this year's ceremony, which concludes early Saturday.

"We would pursue legal action as we would do with any individual or business or organization that has been fined and hasn't paid," said C.J. Miller, Vanderhoef's spokeswoman.

On Wednesday morning, Lef kowitz stood in the parking lot of Congregation Birchos Yosef and fielded calls on his cell phone, even as he complained about incessant interruption from people. As a father of 13 with 39 grandchildren, he keeps busy.

Lefkowitz is a man in demand in the week when the ceremony is held, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Hundreds of families call him to book tickets for the ceremony, which are sold at $10 each.

Each ticket entitles the buyer to a live chicken, which is believed to become a repository for that person's sins.

When the faithful arrive at the Route 306 location, they can choose from female or male chickens depending on their own gender - women and girls pick female chickens, which are easily identified by their thinner and stiff legs and their pink crown, while men pick male chickens with red crowns and squat, thick legs, Lefkowitz said. The chickens are also segregated by gender into separate tents.

Depending on how much they want to spend, families can buy a chicken for each member or make do with one chicken for males and another for females.

At the end of the ceremony, the chickens are taken to another location to be slaughtered. On Thursday and Saturday, he said, the chickens will be killed at the site in accordance with rules set down by the county Health Department during an Aug. 25 meeting that included a representative from Vanderhoef's office.

Lefkowitz did not say how much money was generated by the sale of tickets. The money supplements his income as a butcher. In the past, the money has paid for his children's tuition and their weddings, a ramp to his front door for his wife's wheelchair and an upgrade for her car, among other things.

Though he benefits from the income from the kapparot, Lefkowitz said, he was performing a public service by organizing the ceremony for the community, much in the same way his father, also a butcher, did it in New Square decades ago.

Few people have the interest or the ability - as he does as a kosher butcher - to organize the elaborate event, he said. "In these days some people don't have the stomach to do it," Lefkowitz said.

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