For Jeffrey Cohan, the beginning of vegetarianism was Genesis. Genesis 1:29 to be precise, in which God tells the first humans: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed — to you it shall be for food.”
Mr. Cohan was listening to the Torah reading during parashat Bereshit in his Pittsburgh congregation in 2007, and the words struck him.
“It occurred to me that God was telling us to be vegetarian,” he said.
He started to look into what the rest of the Torah had to say on the issue.
“To my pleasant surprise it was a pretty consistent theme. That’s when I first became a vegetarian,” he said.
Five years later, he became the first fulltime employee of what was then the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. (Under his leadership, the group has been rebranded as Jewish Veg.)
This month he is coming to two area synagogues to spell out the pro-vegetarian Jewish position.
He will be speaking at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah on Friday night; on Tuesday, May 24, he will be at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.
“I was unlikely as anybody to go vegetarian,” he said. “I was a big-time carnivore for the first 40 years of my life. My friends and family members were surprised.”
Did he have any vegetarian leanings before he entered the synagogue that day?
“Not really,” he said. “The only thing that maybe was operating in the back of my mind was that my father died of heart disease when he was 52 years old. I was outwardly in good health, I was pretty much in good shape, I was a marathon runner — but my cholesterol was high. So maybe I had in the back of my mind the idea that my diet could be a lot healthier.”
While JewishVeg.com promotes the health benefits of an animal-free diet, that is not Mr. Cohan’s focus when he speaks in synagogues. Instead, “I’m going to get into what the Torah writ large has to say about these issues.
“There are really three streams that are important to this topic.
“The first is that a plant-based diet is held up as the ideal, not just in Bereshit but elsewhere in the Torah.
“Second, meat-eating, while permitted, is often portrayed in negative light in the Torah. In some cases, very negative.
“Number three — this is very important — the Torah mandate of the prevention of animal suffering, tza’ar ba’alei chayim, is being desecrated in modern animal agriculture. That renders the question of meat being kosher almost irrelevant. You can’t commit a sin to commit a mitzvah.”
This is a position that is not limited to one stream of Judaism. His organization’s rabbinic advisory board has representatives of all streams. The Orthodox Zionist hero Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook famously was a vegetarian; former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (now on the Yeshiva University faculty) is a vegetarian, and it turns out that Y.U.’s Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik made an impassioned theoretical defense of vegetarianism, though one he did not actually bring to the dinner table.
For Rachel Lendner, the Beth Sholom congregant responsible for Mr. Kohan’s invitation, the conversion to vegetarianism did not stem from a Torah verse or a rabbinic teaching. It happened in 1993, while she was making a pasta salad. A fleishig pasta salad.
“I was shredding a chicken leg into the pasta salad,” she said. “At that moment, it just struck me as gross. Shredding a leg into my salad struck me as disgusting, and I haven’t been able to eat meat since.”
She met Mr. Cohan at a vegetarian convention in Pittsburgh.
Not only is Judaism friendly to vegetarianism; vegetarianism, and particularly the vegan diet, which also avoids dairy and eggs, is particularly friendly to kashrut.
Four years ago, Ms. Lendner, who lives in Teaneck, made the shift from a vegetarian diet to a vegan one. That, she said, “is almost entirely my son’s influence.” Her son, Eliron, was 14, and looking to understand the vegetarian principles he had been raised on. “He wanted better answers to the question of why he was a vegetarian than ‘My parents are,’” she said.
He found a video on YouTube offering “101 reasons to go vegan.”
He didn’t realize that vegan was different than vegetarian.
The video was more than an hour long.
“It was so entertaining,” Ms. Lendner said. “It was a combination of animal rights issues and the nutritional advantages and the effects on the environment. Without being too in-your-face preachy it was very powerful and convincing. He said, ‘Mom, you have to watch this video with me. I’m not having dairy anymore, I’m not eating eggs anymore.’”
Mom was convinced too.
How did the change to veganism work out?
“I like a challenge,” she said. “I like to cook. It really forces you to be creative.
She quoted Mr. Cohan as saying, “food is your best spokesman” for veganism. “People are much more willing to come on board if you them you can make and eat delicious food,” she said.
It worked with Eliron. “This is a kid who never ate anything but pizza and pasta,” she said. “He tried more vegetables. Now he likes green smoothies. He’s super healthy nutritious.”
And what about Eliron’s 16-year-old sister, Margo? “She goes back and forth,” her mother said.
Like Eliron, Margo was raised in a vegetarian house by parents who had never prohibited her from eating meat at a restaurant or with friends.
“For a while, she would just roll her eyes at Eliron and me and say ‘The vegans are talking.’ Really recently, she was watching one of those cooking videos where you watch something being made in 30 seconds. She was watching a dish where they were using a whole chicken. She said, ‘Oh my god! It’s just a bird without a head! I’m in too!’”
Ms. Lendner is happy about Margo’s decision, though she doesn’t expect her daughter to be joining her and Eliron at VeggieFest any time soon.
“I’m not a huge advocate,” she said. “I don’t spend time trying to convince other people to be vegan. Not everyone cares about what I care about and that’s fine.”
Bringing Mr. Cohan to Teaneck “is not step one in my mission to make the whole world vegetarian,” she said. “I
like the idea of bringing this to Beth Sholom because he’s a great speaker, and I know there are vegetarians and vegans in the Jewish community. It would be nice to come together for an hour and hear from a like-minded person.
“If somebody happens to not be a vegetarian when they walk in and are convinced by something that is said — or if they are toying with doing this and it fuels them to make the change — and a few less animals die, that would be a great thing,” she said.