For Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Thanksgiving is more than simply a holiday to gorge on carbohydrates while reciting a laundry list of things to be thankful for. It is one the year’s primary opportunities to affirm her belief that being a vegetarian is both one of the most healthy and ethical ways to live.
“By radically reducing the amount of meat that we eat, we really are contributing to saving the world,” she said. “We are cutting down too many trees to accommodate an expanding global population.”
Cardin, the founder of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, has been a vegetarian since she was 18 and initially eschewed meat for dietary reasons.
“I did not really think I was saving the world,” she said. “I wanted to save animals, I wanted to be healthy, I wanted to keep kosher.”
For the last 14 Thanksgivings, Cardin has held the main feast on the preceding Wednesday with about 30 friends and family members who gather around a tofu turkey — a roll of vegetable protein with a filling — and a series of seasonal vegetable side dishes. She said the dinner serves as a forum for debate, which can range from serious issues during an election season to a subject as mundane as whether a tofu turkey should be called a “tofurkey” or “foturkey.”
“There’s entertainment that goes on,” she added.
But for diehard carnivores who need a more traditional meal, Cardin offers that too, although she of course does not partake of the meat.
“Thursday is much quieter,” she said. “Growing up I can never remember having a big Thanksgiving dinner. But for people who want to celebrate an American Thanksgiving meal, we gather around the fireplace and have sliced deli turkey.”
Chava Goldberg, a kosher-keeping vegetarian, also puts out a tofu turkey each Thanksgiving and makes a regular turkey for guests.
“I make them a turkey and all the stuff that goes with it,” she said. “But for the kids and me, I’ll make a vegetarian substitute.”
Goldberg said she often uses meat substitutes in her food such as Gardein and Litelife products, while also going heavy on eggs and nuts. Goldberg is limited in the types of vegetables she can eat due to kashrut laws about making sure they are free of insects. (Many of today’s vegetables, say some authorities, are notoriously difficult to check for bugs.)
“We can’t have brussels sprouts anymore, and that used to be a staple before we kept kosher,” she said. “It’s not like I can just go to the store and just wash it. It’s a tedious process. It’s a little bit harder keeping kosher when you’re a vegetarian and it’s a little bit enlightening because of the bugs.”
To further complicate matters, Goldberg eats only non-GMO products.
Goldberg grew up on Johns Island off the South Carolina coast and said she became a vegetarian when she was 9, because she didn’t like eating foods with veins or bones that reminded her she was consuming an animal. She said this “made her parents crazy,” because they didn’t know what to do.
“I grew up on a small island where my family hunted, so it wasn’t unusual for my family to clean the animals that we ate,” she said.
Sarah Wasserstrum became a vegan three years ago after her grandfather began researching the vegan diet and chose it for himself.
“Within two months of being straight vegan, he was able to go off of every single medication, and there were about 20 of them,” she said. “My family just saw it happening and they were like, ‘Oh my god, changing your diet can completely change your health in a way you never thought before.’”
Wasserstrum said she adheres to the rules about 85 percent of the time, but she will sometimes eat fish and poultry. She said since becoming a vegan — others would call her a “flexitarian” — her mood has improved dramatically.
“I feel so much better when I’m not eating any forms of meat or dairy,” she said.
Jeffrey Cohan, a Pittsburgh resident who is the executive director of Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), said the inspiration to become a vegetarian came while he was sitting in services nine years ago at Rodef Shalom Congregation and the creation story in Genesis was read.
“My wife and I looked at each other and said it looked like we’re supposed to be vegetarians,” he said upon hearing the verse about God setting aside trees and seeds for food. “It’s a fairly consistent theme between the five books of Moses, the Tanakh and all the sacred texts.”
Cohan said examples of vegetarianism as a regular diet can be found throughout history and was the social norm up until the period of the Industrial Revolution.
“Up until then there was not a lot of meat eating going on. But generally speaking, our great-grandparents and our ancestors before them, Jewish or not Jewish, were not eating a lot of meat.”
Cohan said he has noticed that many Reconstructionist and Reform Jews have become vegetarians, in part, he thinks, due to the social justice aspect of the movement. But he said some in the Orthodox community have also embraced it, such as reputed vegetarian Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.
“A number of top rabbis across the entire denominational spectrum are vegetarian or vegan for various reasons,” said Cohan.
JVNA turned 40 years old this year, and after several years as an all-volunteer advocacy group it is beginning to transition to a more professional model. Cohan said chapters will soon be starting in Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and Houston, with the D.C. chapter’s first meeting scheduled for Dec. 2.
“It was not in our strategic plan to be starting chapters, but the demand was coming from localities and we wanted to be responsive to it,” he said.
Cohan said up until two years ago it was very difficult to incorporate plant-based products into Thanksgiving, but it has now become easier. He usually purchases plant-based pot roast as a substitute for Turkey.
“The family is very accommodating so there’s lots of side dishes without animal products,” he said.
Cohan said he thinks kosher-keeping Jews have incentives to transition to a vegetarian diet due to its simplicity.
“If everything you’re eating is pareve, there’s only one set of plates, one type of food, and it makes life a heck of a lot easier,” he said.
Jewish Veg assistant director Sarah De Munck, who lives in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md., said she has also incorporated vegan products, including plant-based butter and imitation turkey into her Thanksgiving menu.
“A lot of the sides are easy to make vegan, like vegetables and potatoes,” she said. “With every passing year it gets easier and easier because more and more companies are emerging.”
Last week, Jewish Veg helped sponsor a lecture at Georgetown University by renowned animal-rights activist Alex Hershaft, who started the organization Farm Animal Rights Movement in 1976. Hershaft is a Holocaust survivor who spent time in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was confined with 400,000 others into a 1.3 square-mile area and witnessed more than 100,000 die of starvation and disease.
After spending five years in an Italian refugee camp, Hershaft eventually immigrated to the United States at the age of 16. He settled in New York and earned a degree in general chemistry from the University of Connecticut. He moved to Washington in 1972 and got a job with an environmental consulting firm, at which point he was already involved in the environmental and religious freedom movements.
“It was satisfying, but it didn’t answer the fundamental question of what were the lessons of the Holocaust,” Hershaft said.
At the lecture, Hershaft explained that he once had the task of performing a waste inventory at a slaughterhouse and began to see parallels between the animal remains and the human carnage from the Holocaust. Among the similarities he listed were the crowded housing of victims in wood crates, the arbitrary designation of who lives and who dies, the social legitimization of abuse and the deception behind the horrors of the death camps and slaughterhouses.
“This is when I finally realized that there was a valid reason for my surviving the Holocaust and a valid way to repay my debt for surviving,” he said. “This is when I resolved to spend the rest of my life fighting all forms of oppression, starting with our oppression of animals raised for food.”
Hershaft said he sees hypocrisy from those who condemn violence going on in the world but consume meat: “But then we do a food run and use our hard-earned dollars to directly subsidize the holocaust of the animals — the greatest oppression in the history of humankind, right in our own back yard.”
Daniel Schere writes for Mid-Atlantic Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.