CROWN HEIGHTS, Brooklyn (WABC) -- Around 100 protesters gathered Monday night for a vigil in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to protest the use of chickens during a religious ritual called Kaporos.
The ritual dates back to biblical times, and among the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, is performed yearly in the days leading up to Yom Kippur for the atonement of sins.
"It's an ancient tradition," said one man participating in the event who asked not to be identified. "It has a spiritual meaning, and the chickens and the people are physical."
Kaporos is performed by swinging a chicken around one's head three times while reciting a prayer for forgiveness, then slitting the chicken's throat.
"From that we actually elevate and give the animal the opportunity to be brought up to God," explained Shlomy Ceitlin, who was also participating in the ritual. "That will also elevate us because we have a closer connection to God."
In a statement provided to Eyewitness News, the New York, New Jersey Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League called for respect and civility toward the Jewish community in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, including the practice of Kaporos.
"New York City is a microcosm of the world where persons of all faiths and backgrounds should be treated with civility, respect and understanding," said Evan R. Bernstein who added that protests, "should never cross the line into verbal threats, anti-Semitic rhetoric, or physical violence."
David Pollock, of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said even among the Jewish community, the ritual is controversial.
"Kaporos is a custom, it is not a law," said David Rosenfeld who is Jewish but who also opposes Kaporos. "If you don't have to do this there is no reason to. They're not getting food and water, and they aren't getting it for several days."
Rosenfeld said the custom can also be performed using money as an alternative to chickens but some participating in the ritual said the use of chickens is seen as more effective or more in line with God's calling.
"I do what God wants and when other people think otherwise that doesn't make a difference to me," Ceitlin said.
Those participating in the ceremony Monday night largely ignored the protesters.
Some also expressed reservations the protests could lead to a backlash against the community.
Others said they could sympathize with the protesters' concerns.
"If there is some kind of pain to the animal beyond normal, protesting that is a legitimate expression of concern," said the man who asked to remain anonymous.
Protesters argue the ritual is inhumane and also violates more than a dozen health and safety codes New York City officials fail to enforce.
Despite challenges in court, judges have upheld the city's ability to use discretion in enforcing health and safety laws as it relates to the ceremony.
"Key here is that we have not found Kaporos to be a significant public health threat," NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene press secretary Christopher Miller wrote in a statement. "Our surveillance has shown no increase in illness in the area. Further, this ritual is an important practice for some Orthodox Jews."
While protesters continue to pursue the issue in court, this year they also utilized an animal rights law to enter public areas and private properties where the chickens are being held in cages by the dozens to provide them food and water.
That law prohibits anyone from denying animals food and water for over 12 hours.
"We are only here for the chickens, we are not here to oppose anyone's beliefs," activist Jill Carnegie said who added she would prefer observers find an alternative way to practice Kaporos that does not involve the death of chickens.
While Monday evening's gathering was largely peaceful, the protesters had been met by much resistance during earlier demonstrations beginning late last week.
On Friday, the NYPD responded to one protest in Borough Park, following accusations the group had trespassed on private property.
The NYPD declined to press charges and allowed the protesters to continue attempting to provide food and water to the chickens.
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