Eight years ago, DC VegFest began as a low-key event of a couple thousand people.
What has become an annual event is now a much bigger draw. Organizers estimated that 20,000 people attended last weekend’s vegan festival in Washington’s Navy Yard neighborhood to sample vegan food and peruse the booths of 130 vendors and organizations.
Members of the Jewish community are a part of the growth of the animal rights movement, and many of them approach their activism through a decidedly Jewish lens.
“I see a connection between my vegetarianism and Jewish tradition,” said Adam Gorod, who organizes an animal rights group called Chesed and Hummus at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. “There’s a fundamental idea in Judaism that you shouldn’t cause animals suffering and pain, and a few different texts form the basis of that idea.”
The vegan restaurant Soupergirl, with locations in Georgetown and Takoma Park, D.C., bills itself as “plant based” (meaning it doesn’t use animal products in its ingredients) and it maintains a kosher certification.
“I think that being vegan is the highest level of kashrut,” said Sara Polon, who co-founded the company in 2008 with her mother. “A plant-based diet is really what was in mind when the laws of kashrut were created.”
Soupergirl doesn’t advertise itself as a vegan restaurant, and many of its customers eat meat, Polon said. Nevertheless, she said that the vegan movement in the Washington area is “exploding.”
The real estate site Estately recently ranked Washington as the top city in the country for vegetarians by compiling data from the restaurant review site Yelp. Other new vegan restaurants include Shouk, whose owner, Ran Nussbächer, grew up in Israel, HipCityVeg, Fare Well and a new location of NuVegan Cafe.
While some Jews are relatively new to animal rights activism, others have been working on the issue for years. Alex Hershaft, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in Bethesda, founded the organization Farm Animal Rights Movement in 1976. Hershaft, who gives presentations around the country, connects his animal rights activism to the Holocaust.
He said that when he visited a slaughterhouse in 1972 as part of his job for an environmental consulting firm, he came across a piles of animal carcasses.
“It reminded me of the piles of hair and glasses and shoes and suitcases that I saw when I visited Auschwitz after the war,” he said. “I drew a connection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized we are engaged in subsidizing the wholesale oppression of living, sentient beings.”
Jeffrey Cohan, the executive director of the national organization Jewish Veg, schmoozed with locals Saturday at a Jewish Veg booth at Washington’s VegFest and gave a presentation on a Jewish approach to animal rights at Mishkan Torah synagogue in Greenbelt on Sunday.
In a phone interview, Cohan cited three reasons for supporting veganism from a Jewish perspective. He said there is a scriptural basis for it, kosher laws imply that there is a “moral problem” with eating animals for food and current animal husbandry practices violate the spirit of the kosher laws because of animal suffering.
“Virtually no meat should be considered kosher because you can’t have a mitzvah enabled by a sin,” he said.
Jewish Veg has a chapter in the Washington area. In May, it organized a walking tour of local vegan restaurants.
Nationally and internationally, the Jewish animal rights movement has received support from rabbis. Jewish Veg’s website lists more than 100 rabbis who are vegan, vegetarian or “vegetarian friendly,” including Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.
Area rabbis on the list include Lia Bass of Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, Binyamin Biber of American University, Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, and Warren Stone of Temple Emanuel in Kensington.
Gorod of the Sixth and I group connected his work with a growing movement in the Jewish community at large.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “This is about understanding how what you eat plays a role in contributing to sustainability and creating the world we want to see.”