My work with Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA) engages institutions and individuals of all stripes to turn the Jewish value of concern for animal welfare into action—a mission that aligns with and transcends the four propositions that Sid Schwarz outlines in Jewish Megatrends.
There are ways in which the traditional Jewish framework for the treatment of animals is too distant and narrow for the challenges our food systems pose for us today. We live in a time of factory farming, a phenomenon our sages couldn’t have fathomed. And yet, Judaism has a robust tradition for interpreting and navigating the human-nonhuman relationship in every genre of Jewish text. Before JIFA was launched, I conducted formal research interviewing Jewish leadership across the country which found that “animals in contemporary Jewish settings… are of interest to people as a topic of Jewish education and experiential programming, and relationships with animals in general are both fundamentally important to many people and raise serious issues that often lack a developed contemporary dialogue.” JIFA has responded to this desire for such dialogue.
JIFA’s educational curriculum both enhances the educational resources offered by partner organizations with mission-aligned work, and creates novel opportunities for Jewish community members to explore the Jewish value of compassion for animals and its implications for ethical food choices. From resources like our educational signage developed for Jewish farms, to new sections in Hazon’s Food Guide, JIFA is combining forces with other innovators to bring a long-standing Jewish concern for animals to bear within our communal practice. Materials ranging from our comprehensive service-learning curriculum for b’nai mitzvah to our stand-alone text study guide on Jewish animal ethics, weave together classical Jewish text study with experiential Jewish and humane education to inspire new ways of thinking about animal welfare in Jewish tradition.
Tzedek / Social Justice
JIFA leverages the buying power of Jewish institutions to align their supply chains with Jewish values like tzaar baalei chayim (concern about the suffering of all of God’s creatures) to change the way animals are raised for food. By offering educational tools and free consulting, we help ensure that institutions make successful transitions to source and serve food that is better for our communities, animals, and the planet. This is the essence of our justice work.
Jewish continuity takes on a much broader and basic existential meaning in the age of climate change. Young individuals aren’t only worried about the survival of their own communities and networks, but of the larger network of humanity, and the animals and ecosystems upon which our societies depend. JIFA is empowering Jewish communities to be part of the solution. Our work broadens our conception of tzedek by educating about these intersections within our food system. The food system does not exist in a vacuum, and animal welfare, worker rights, supporting local economies, addressing world hunger, and protecting the environment are not isolated issues. We urge communities to address this complicated web of abuse and oppression by meeting each individual and institution where they are at and supporting incremental change. By leveraging our communal and institutional buying power, we can indeed tip the balance towards a future free of destructive and abusive factory farms.
Kedusha/Lives of Sacred Purpose and Kehilla/Community
JIFA provides individuals with new entry points to connect to Judaism—especially to those who care about animals and where their food comes from. Food is also at the center of almost any Jewish gathering. JIFA’s work responds to a growing need among Jewish families and individuals to find communal support and celebration in venues that reflect their personal ethical values. By helping Jewish institutions align their choices with values like environmental consciousness and animal welfare—a growing and well-documented top concern among the consuming public—we are helping Jewish institutions and independent Jewish communities achieve more humane food practices that are important to their members. As Schwarz notes, especially in an age where, “there are even more Jews involved in groups that gather with a Jewish focus other than prayer,” there is perhaps an even greater opportunity to engage people for whom ethically produced food is a key part of their spiritual experience and practice.
JIFA also advances the purpose of kehillot as culture-makers and changers. One way that JIFA departs from many other emerging initiatives in the Jewish community is that it was founded by a secular organization whose religious outreach takes seriously the impact that religious leaders and communities have on the greater world. Religious institutions often play a gatekeeper role for mobilization on topics of social concern, and engaging religious institutions is a crucial factor for gaining wide acceptance for factory farming alternatives. JIFA’s work therefore aims not only to keep mainstream Jewish institutions relevant to Jews with these values, but to inspire cultural shifts that transcend institutional settings and change the way our entire nation eats and farms.
Jewish Megatrends emphasizes the need for looking to other religious traditions for inspirational wisdom, and JIFA’s work strives to not just learn from, but work with other faith-based communities. Our mutual cooperation not only helps us achieve a shared agenda for change; it achieves our mission to carry out advocacy that “strengthens Jewish communities in the process.” By working in relationship with other religious leaders and faith-based initiatives, the Jewish approach to animal welfare takes unique shape and texture in relation to its other religious counterparts and has the potential to help strengthen the Jewish community’s attachment to its own heritage. For example, since its inception, JIFA has partnered with groups like the Humane Society of the United States, where JIFA has played the faith outreach department’s de facto “Jewish arm” for engagement around legislative campaigns. JIFA has secured multiple op-eds from Jewish clergy and leaders on vital ballot measures and federal regulations that impact animal welfare. Jewish readership not only learned about farmed animal welfare legislation, but saw their leader’s position as one rooted in core Jewish values. Through multi-religious partnerships, we demonstrate how collaborative work can respect the particularity of each tradition while fueling the collective energy to effect large-scale change.
In her role at the Jewish Initiative for Animals, Melissa Hoffman consults with Jewish organizations across the country to develop and implement ethical food practices, as well as curriculum and programs that foster compassion for all living beings through the lens of Jewish values.