And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit – to you it shall be for food.” (Genesis1:29)

Six years ago, when Jeffery Cohan was an omnivore, his favorite dish was Carne Asada Burritos made with grilled beef. Now when he looks as meat, he doesn’t see delicious food; he sees the life of an animal.

JVNA logoCohan is the executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA). Rooted in principles of Judaism, JVNA advocates a plant-based diet on behalf of ecological, human and animal health concerns. Cohan and I chatted about our shared diets and values over big bowls of veggie chili in December at the Hazon Food Conference in Connecticut.

Cohan found his vegetarianism through Judaism and works each day to educate Jews about the health and spiritual benefits of moving towards a plant-based diet through his non-profit organization. JVNA is a leader in the Jewish vegetarian movement, providing educational resources such as Vegetarian Starter Guides, vegetarian recipes for traditional Jewish food and community events such as speaker-talks for Jews interested vegetarianism.

Though Cohan acknowledges the many benefits of a plant-based diet, he believes that animal welfare is the most compelling reason to make the switch. During our conversation, Cohan showed me that the Torah promotes a plant-based diet by citing B’reshit verse 29 (above). “Compassion is a core component of Judaism,” Cohan explained, “We must have compassion towards animals as sentient beings who feel pain just like us…who love their children like we do…To have compassion for them is fulfilling a mitzvah.”

The biggest challenge that Cohan faces in his personal life is engaging with a meat-eating society in the context of the ethical ramifications of meat consumption. “Especially at synagogue,” Cohan explained. “While there is so much talk in the [Jewish] texts about ethical treatment of animals, there is very little talk about it in the reality of Judaism. Judaism is a religion of life and to kill animals is a terrible affront to creation.”

This issue was fresh on both of our minds. The morning before our conversation, Cohan and I both attended a workshop called “Peeling Back the Cellophane Veil,” where we witnessed the shechting (kosher slaughter) of a goat. Together, we watched a Rabbi slash through a goat’s neck and saw its blood flood the grass beneath it.

At the shechting, Cohan says he cried. I volunteered to pluck feathers from a chicken still warm with life. In elementary school, I learned that in order for us (Jews) to eat meat, an animal has to be cut with a knife sharp enough to sever all of its arteries in one deep blow. Thanks to Judaism, I learned that animal slaughter took place before my chicken nuggets were placed neatly in a colorful wrapper. And I don’t think that recognizing meat as dead animal is something most people do. To me, kashrut (following laws of kosher food) is a reminder: If I have to think about where meat comes from and not to eat it recklessly.

Jeffrey Cohan

Jeffrey Cohan, Executive Director, JVNA

But Cohan experienced just the opposite. To him, the shechting at Isabella Freedman was more distressing than a factory slaughterhouse. Witnessing the slaughter of life in an intentionally Jewish context was hard for Cohan. “How can we still be killing when it violates the central principles of our religion?” Cohan asked.

The experience represented a moral contradiction for Cohan who believes that raising animals ethically renders trust and to betray that trust so quickly is morally inconsistent. Cohan thought about his family – about the delicate process of gaining trust with loved ones. Ultimately, to watch such betrayal in a Jewish context was distressing, and raised questions about human behavior. If we are so comfortable instilling and betraying trust with animals, is it something that could become so routine in our own lives?

Ultimately, the ethical components of vegetarianism marry the moral implications of both Cohan’s and my dedication to Judaism. Cohan argues that vegetarianism “activates our divine soul,” and I agree. All of God’s creations deserve respect. Today, Cohan’s favorite meal is a classic Italian dish, Seitan Picatta over mashed potatoes. Seitan is a meat substitute made from whole wheat flour or vital wheat gluten, great for putting that vegetarian twist on old favorites and new.

More information can be found on Cohan’s site, jewishveg.com.