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Not For The Birds: A Week Of Halachic Learning At Princeton

Some college students use their winter break between terms to relax, fly to warm climates and in general recover from the academic burdens of the fall semester. Others study how to slaughter chickens according to kosher law.

A partnership between OU Kosher and its OU Kosher Coming program – which sends the Orthodox Union’s kashrut experts far and wide to provide kosher education to all levels of students – and the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) program brought a week of intensive kosher learning to the Princeton University campus for a week beginning New Year’s Day. Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, the JLIC rabbi at Princeton, played host to Rabbi Chaim Loike, OU Kosher’s bird expert and a skilled shochet.

JLIC, found on 15 major campuses in the United States and Canada, has a young rabbi and his wife, known as Torah Educators, provide the learning and social atmosphere of the yeshiva to Orthodox students who have chosen to attend secular universities. (Rabbi Wolkenfeld is joined at Princeton by his wife, Sara.)

Students came from Princeton, Rutgers, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, all of which are JLIC campuses; Cornell also sent its JLIC rabbi, Ami Silver, and the campus mashgiach. Other students came from Columbia and Wellesley and were joined by an Israeli visiting in America before his army service.

The national JLIC office and the Alumni Venture Fund of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel helped subsidize the program, which enabled Rabbi Wolkenfeld to charge a moderate tuition of $350, which included the cost of the source books, shechita knives and sharpening stones for each participant, a supply of birds, both exotic and common, and food for the eight days of the program.

The program came about because of a conversation several months previously between William Herlands, a Princeton senior and Rabbi Wolkenfeld, in which Herlands asked Rabbi Wolkenfeld to help him learn shechita.

“William may live abroad next year, in a location without a regular supply of kosher meat, and so being proficient in shechita would be a way for him to ensure access to meat wherever he ends up after graduation,” Rabbi Wolkenfeld explained.

“I was eager to help William find a way to study shechita since I too had an interest in learning. Unlike William, I have no plans of living abroad, but I am interested in ways to take greater responsibility for the food I eat. The self-sufficiency inherent in being able to ritually slaughter one’s own meat is also very appealing to me. We buy a lot of the fruits and vegetables for our family at farmers’ markets where we know just how and where the food was grown. Shechita is a way to have that same concern and consciousness when eating meat.”

As part of the OU extended family, Rabbi Wolkenfeld made inquiries and came up with the name of Rabbi Loike who, he learned, is an OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator with a specialty in birds, as well as a teacher of shechita at Yeshiva University. In addition, Rabbi Loike travels far and wide in the OU Kosher Coming program and other educational initiatives of OU Kosher and fascinates audiences of all ages while he lectures on the feathered friends he brings with him.

“It soon became clear, however, that it was not realistic to expect that all of the theory and practice of shechita could be taught and learned in one week,” Rabbi Wolkenfeld said. “Rabbi Loike and I came up with an alternative curriculum that would introduce students to the study of shechita, while also including lectures and observations on “halachic ornithology.”

“Halachic ornithology,” Rabbi Wolkenfeld explained, “is the study of birds for the purposes of determining their halachic status. Since birds can only be eaten with a mesorah that they are kosher, a lot of scholarship has been devoted to authenticating claims that a given species has been eaten by Jewish communities, and also determining which sub-species are included in a mesorah to eat a certain kind of bird.”

Setting up the program was easy, with the two rabbis putting together a curriculum. Rabbi Wolkenfeld then reached out to Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, vice president of communications and marketing for OU Kosher, who coordinates educational programs, to arrange for Rabbi Loike’s services. Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, approved the arrangement, which included Rabbi Loike supervising factories in the vicinity of Princeton that are his regular accounts.

Katie Wachsberger visits one of Rabbi Loike’s fine-feathered friends in Rabbi David Wolkenfeld’s basement.

“We have been gratified to have our OU Kosher experts visit with many of the JLIC campuses including Boston University [formerly in the program], Brandeis, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania and others as part of our ongoing OU Kosher Coming educational programs,” said Rabbi Safran.

“There are campuses where we have been back two and three times. The feedback is always positively enthusiastic. They want more!”

Said JLIC Director Rabbi Ilan Haber, “The Orthodox Union is a multi-faceted organization with broad educational and programmatic resources. As a constituent part of the OU, JLIC benefits greatly from access to these resources. In particular, there has been a long and fruitful collaboration between JLIC and OU Kosher, which has enabled JLIC to provide high-level, engaging content relating to keeping kosher in a modern world in a manner that is relevant and practical to college students.

At Princeton, Rabbi Loike gave several presentations, up to two hours in length. They included:

* Introduction to halachic ornithology and the kashrut of quail;

* Sharpening a shechita knife and the varieties of invalid shechita;

* Dissection of a chicken to observe the internal signs of a kosher bird;

* Identifying non-kosher chickens in one’s local kosher supermarket;

* The kashrut of partridges and the identity of the biblical “slav” – a bird eaten by Jews in the desert (noted in Parshat Beha’alotecha);

* The kashrut of ducks and geese;

* The kashrut of pigeons and doves;

* The kashrut of chicken species.

He also participated in the shechita of chicken, quail, and partridge, and gave a hands-on lesson in gutting and cleaning birds and then soaking and salting them.

Rabbi Wolkenfeld gave two shiurim, including one on “Why Keep Kosher.” Rabbi Silver of Cornell gave a shiur on eating meat in the Torah.

The students were involved beyond their classroom work. According to Rabbi Wolkenfeld, “They pitched in and helped cook Shabbat meals at our home. I think it added to the experience by giving participants full continuity in each stage of preparing the meat, from learning why a specific species is kosher, to assisting the shechita, to cleaning and gutting the bird, to melichah [salting], to cooking the birds, and then finally to enjoying them at a Shabbat meal.”

The students clearly enjoyed the program. As Aminadav Grossman, a junior at Columbia from Riverdale, NY, wrote: “Overall, it was a very enriching week in which I learned a great deal from formally engaging with mekorot [sources], discussing the texts and ideas with participants, and from unique experiential learning led by Rabbi Loike. The program gave me a newfound appreciation for the intricacies of the halachic system through gaining a conceptual knowledge of differentiation between kosher and non-kosher birds and the processes of shechita and melichah.

“Additionally, actually going through the entire process of preparing meat from the slaughter through consumption at Shabbat dinner reinforced my convictions about the morality and sensitivity of the halachot. Rabbi Loike was a dynamic and entertaining teacher who was also incredibly knowledgeable about the areas we studied and I really appreciate that we were able to have him. I think the shiurim, the various philosophic understandings of kashrut and on eating meat in Judaism added a valuable component.”

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the program for the Wolkenfeld family was turning their home into an aviary.

“The birds that were brought to Princeton for Rabbi Loike’s demonstrations lived in our basement for the week,” he said. “Heading down to the basement each evening to give fresh food and water to chickens, quail, partridges, doves and a goose, and waking up each morning to a rooster’s crowing, has certainly been a unique experience in my years as a campus rabbi. Our kids loved visiting the birds each morning before going to school – and the house seems strangely quiet now.”

Stephen Steiner is OU director of public relations.

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