A conversation with Hannah Schein, PETA investigator

A conversation with Hannah Schein, PETA investigator

Hannah Schein, investigations specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has been a key figure in PETA’s ongoing undercover work at AgriProcessors, the Iowa kosher slaughterhouse where violations of laws protecting both animals and humans have become international news.

Hannah Schein does not show her face in photographs because she works undercover for PETA. Courtesy Hannah Schein

Schein, who was brought up in Glen Rock and has degrees from Princeton University and the University of Albany, also is working on investigations involving kosher slaughter in Uruguay; kapporot rituals in Brooklyn, where chickens are killed on the eve of Yom Kippur; and an abusive pig-breeding farm in Iowa. Armed with a hidden camera, she even met with pop star Beyoncé Knowles over an eBay-won dinner and pleaded with her to stop using fur in her line of clothing.

The 33-year-old investigator is married to Philip Lambert Schein, PETA’s senior researcher (who took her surname upon their marriage). Each worked as a program director for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, she at Princeton and he at Syracuse. They live in Virginia near PETA’s Norfolk headquarters.

Q: Tell us about your North Jersey origins.

A: My parents, Jonathan and Maxine Schein, lived in Paterson when I was born. My mother taught elementary school in Paterson, and my father taught and then was an assistant principal in New York City high schools. I attended Yavneh Academy [then in Paterson] for pre-k through first grade, and then we moved to Glen Rock when I started second grade. I went to the public schools and attended the Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies on Sundays. My mom was president of the Glen Rock Jewish Center from 1993-1995.

This is from a video made during the Sheins’ investigation of kosher deer slaughter at Musicon Deer Farm in Goshen, N.Y.

Q: In what ways do you feel this Jewish background informs your work at PETA?

A: I’ve always really liked the fact that Judaism is more about what you do than about what you say – or what you say in shul. We can’t just confess our sins; we must also make things right. I’m trying to live in a way that is more ethical so that I won’t have to worry about repenting for things that weren’t really necessary to do in the first place. For example, I do not wear leather at all, not just on Yom Kippur. It’s always strange to me that people don’t wear animal skins on Yom Kippur but they don’t think about it the rest of the year.

Q: The revelation of animal abuses at AgriProcessors four years ago made big news at the time, but the more recent discovery of labor-related abuses seems to have overshadowed the earlier issue. Your undercover video had revealed workers routinely cutting into the necks of live cattle and removing the trachea and esophagus with a meat hook just after the ritual slaughterer had made his cut. Has the plant changed its methods since then?

A: In August, we were concerned that with the turmoil there over the labor violations, animal care would be left in the dust, so we sent someone in two weeks after the tour they gave to a group of rabbis, during which they did not do that second cut. He was able to video more slaughters, showing that they were still gouging out a hole, causing the cows pain and suffering – the only difference is they weren’t pulling out the trachea and esophagus. We had filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which determined a couple of weeks ago that AgriProcessors were violating the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. We’ve asked the USDA to require the plant to have a third party install a live video monitoring system to make sure they are adhering to federal law. Several other slaughterhouses are already using this technology. This is the only way for the plant to prove to … consumers that they are serious about helping to prevent animal suffering and alleviating the crisis of confidence in kosher food lately.

Q: Hekhsher Tzedek, the Conservative movement’s proposed supplemental seal on kosher products attesting to their preparation according to Jewish ethical standards, grew out of the movement’s reaction to the AgriProcessors violations. Were you involved in that initiative?

A: Not in drafting it, but certainly our investigation helped show there are issues in the kosher food industry that need to be addressed. We’re very pleased the Reform movement has signed on as well. We do want to make sure the animal issues don’t get lost among the other important issues regarding fair labor and the environment. For example, the animals are still coming to the kosher slaughterhouse from the same “factory farms” that other animals are coming from. We work with companies in requiring that certain minimums – for example, 10 percent – come from free-range farms. As they gradually put pressure on producers for this more humane product, the demand will push the supply.

This is a still from the PETA undercover video taken at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa.

Q: What could local synagogues and Jewish schools be doing to better raise awareness of animal abuse issues from a Jewish/halachic viewpoint?

A: Awareness is blossoming. My husband and I have been invited to speak at some synagogues. We are still doing some undercover work and haven’t felt that we can speak in public about our cases, but this year we have decided it’s important enough to get out there and speak. I think the pulpit would be a perfect place to address these issues, especially during the High Holidays. [We heard of one] rabbi who called for a boycott until [Aaron] Rubashkin [AgriProcessors’ owner] improves conditions for workers.

Q: One of the local day schools has an annual program where freshly slaughtered chickens are brought to the seventh-graders so that they can learn how to kosher them. They then eat them for dinner at the school. What do you think of such a program?

A: I wouldn’t want to see animals killed for a school project in any fashion. There are probably children of all different ethical beliefs in terms of what they eat, and I think that is kind of endorsing one point of view. After all, there are many rabbis who endorse vegetarianism. Also, from a health-related viewpoint, you might not want your children exposed to the carcasses. On the other hand, we do want kids to know that their chicken cutlets don’t just appear in the supermarket; they do come from live animals. So if they come to understand a creature had to die for them to eat their nuggets, then some good will come out of it.

Q: There are many in the Jewish community who continue to condemn PETA for its controversial 2003 “Holocaust on Your Plate” ad campaign, which juxtaposed images of the Holocaust with images of factory-farmed animals and carcasses. What was your opinion about the campaign and the negative backlash it caused for PETA?

A: In my work, I open a window to what is going on with animal suffering. What we do every day is enough to awaken compassion and we don’t need to use metaphors or comparisons like that. Unfortunately, because we have a lot of campaigns and try to reach people in any way possible, probably we will always have at least one that is offensive to someone. I hope people don’t condemn the organization for something that happened in 2003 in an attempt to open their eyes to the suffering that is going on. It was not intended to cause anyone pain.

Q: What are some of the other projects you’ve worked on?

A: My husband and I went to Uruguay to investigate concerns about the kosher slaughter methods there. Many U.S. companies import meat from South America. We went to see how the “shackle-and-hoist” method looked in person. It was really disturbing to see them working minutes on end to trip cows onto their sides, then hoist the cow by one foot and pin its head to the floor while the rabbi makes the cut in its neck. This is much more primitive than what we see in the U.S., where there is a metal restraining apparatus called a Facoima pen that makes inverted slaughter much less stressful for cows. The Israeli chief rabbinate has agreed to outlaw shackle-and-hoist although they require inverted slaughter. Most kosher slaughterhouses here do upright slaughter. As calm a process as possible helps the animals lose consciousness more quickly.

Q: As vegans, what will you and your husband be serving for Rosh HaShanah?

A: Kugel, of course, and a new challah recipe with olive oil that I am eager to try. My husband is really the chef in the family. I’m more the baker and I make specialty items, like my own sushi.

Q: Is it difficult to limit your choices to non-animal products?

A: Being vegan has actually expanded my repertoire, because I can eat “cheeseburgers” using meat and cheese substitutes. It’s very easy to be vegan and certainly to be vegetarian. You can get vegetarian kishka and vegetarian sausage, and anything else your heart desires. We hope when people learn about disturbing issues in slaughterhouses, they will do something about it, and the easiest thing to do is to say ‘no’ and stop buying meat.

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