As part of our ongoing Faith, Sustainability & Stewardship article & interview series, we engaged in dialogue with Melissa Hoffman, director of the Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA). Established in 2016 to advance animal welfare and sustainable eating within Jewish communities, JIFA’s work is focused on Jewish education, policy work, and supply chain development (helping institutions to replace factory farmed products with higher welfare animal products and plant-based foods). All of their work to support ethical food practices within Jewish institutions is rooted in Jewish values.
About Melissa: Melissa Hoffman is the director of the Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA), a leading sustainable food and animal welfare initiative. She consults with Jewish organizations across the country to develop and implement ethical food practices, curriculum and other programs that foster compassion through the lens of Jewish values. Prior to working with JIFA, she worked in Jewish education and congregational life. Melissa earned her M.S. in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University.
Interview with Melissa Hoffman, Direcor of the Jewish Initiative for Animals
“Food is at the center of most Jewish programming and JIFA responds to a deep yearning among Jewish communities to be re-connected to their food sources—to make conscientious, ethical choices that do the most good and the least harm. Today, most people agree that there are problems within our food system—how we treat workers, the environment, and animals—and addressing animal welfare typically creates a better, safer system for everyone.
We’re also contributing an important perspective to the burgeoning field of Jewish climate, food, and social justice. A vibrant movement for Jewish communal farming and environmental education programs has developed and expanded over the last two decades. Even so, a few years ago, conversations about animal welfare and factory farming were not given a meaningful place in the Jewish organizations that dealt with food and sustainability. In just four years, JIFA has shifted the movement’s discussion by promoting animal agriculture as a mainstream concern—linking animal welfare, environmental racism and climate change.” -Melissa Hoffman
What do you do in your role as director for JIFA?
Melissa: My primary focus is on building relationships with institutions and work in partnership with them to generate and grow commitments to kinder and more sustainable food choices. JIFA does this through free consultation with individual communities, organizational networks, and national and regional conferences and events. I conduct and manage all of our direct consultation on food sourcing. I then manage the programming that helps these communities integrate Jewish educational and experiential programming that supports institutional food sourcing changes.
For example, a synagogue might say they want to launch a new menu, or host a vegan event, but when is the right time in the Jewish calendar, or what is an exciting, thought-provoking way to tie in connections to Jewish learning and values? It has been my job to develop and oversee the creation of Jewish resources and educational materials that root these values of compassion toward animals, and concern for people and the environment, authentically in Jewish tradition.
I also work on critical aspects of keeping our initiative afloat, like social media and fundraising. So, I wear many hats!
As the website states, JIFA “provides new ways for the Jewish community to bring its values of compassion for animals into practice and strengthen Jewish communities in the process.” What are these new ways and how do you perceive the work of JIFA as enriching Jewish communities, culture and life?
Melissa: When I was in college, I couldn’t have imagined a Jewish communal meal where we talked about ethics of how chickens are raised. My “animal person” and “Jewish person” identities didn’t overlap. Whether or not they’re “animal people,” we’re helping communities unearth their connections to their fellow creatures and the food system upon which we all depend. The institutions we’ve worked with have found many creative ways to implement lasting changes to their food practices, often utilizing resources that JIFA created.
For example, one Hillel (Jewish center for student life on campus) cut back on eggs over Passover—a holiday where the egg plays a central symbolic role, and a time that also celebrates freedom and challenges us to consider modern forms of oppression. They used one of JIFA’s educational resources, co-created with Jewish sustainability organization Hazon, at their communal seder (holiday meal) that teaches about how egg-laying hens are treated today on industrial farms and how we can ensure the freedom of all creatures by using alternatives to conventional eggs.
This deepening and expanding of ritual through food and learning is just one example of how our work can open up new ways of being in community, celebrating sacred times, and relating to Jewish identity.
In what ways does Judaism lift up the value of compassion toward animals and how do traditional Jewish values inform the aspiration of building a healthier food system today?
Melissa: We find the discussion of human-animal relationships in every genre of Jewish text (from the Hebrew bible to rabbinic and legal literature), so it’s a significant topic of religious and moral concern. One could do justice to the rich and robust discourse about animals in Jewish tradition given an infinite amount of time and space. There’s a lot of nuance and a diversity of voices. Essentially, we derive a key value and mitzvah (commandment) from Jewish law to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals (in Hebrew, tzaar baalei chayim).
Many scholars and rabbis debate the motivations for carrying out various acts of compassion for animals, and the degree to which we should prioritize them in relation to human welfare. What’s clear is that animals have always been relevant to and a part of Jewish tradition, and given the sheer number of animals that humans use for our benefit now, especially for food, they deserve serious moral consideration.
We depend upon food for survival, and yet today our food system is broken. We have many Jewish imperatives that help us contextualize these deficiencies and strive for a more perfect model: Jewish scripture and laws teach not to waste, to treat employees fairly, to prevent cruelty to animals, to preserve the health of people, to protect the planet and more. There’s a deep sense that food is important and meaningful in Jewish life, whether or not you’re kosher-observant. For both communities that keep and don’t keep kosher, the concept of having foods that are “fit to eat” and “not fit to eat” is deeply ingrained. Every Jewish community can agree that these are ideals to strive for, and we’ve found that Jewish communities are quick to latch on to the idea of committing to buy food that’s produced in more ethical ways, provided they’re given the resources to do so.
How does JIFA support Jewish communities in adopting more plant-based sourcing and cooking? What do you perceive as future potential for plant-based culinary tradition within Jewish culture?
Melissa: Climate change is a growing concern for Jewish communities, and tackling our environmental impact by “walking the walk” is growing in popularity among those that wish to bring about tikkun olam—the act of repairing the world—on the ground in their own institutions. Institutions in our network increasingly look to food, and specifically plant-forward meals, to achieve those goals. Some of the ways we support them include:
- Consulting with national or regional events and conferences to help align our food sourcing with our Jewish values. JIFA helps with plant-forward menu development, organizes product donations from plant-based companies, produces intentional signage for dining areas, and supports Jewish learning around food and sustainability in conference programming.
- Working with individual communities and organizations to adopt ethical and sustainable food policies. Our signature program, The Jewish Leadership Circle (JLC), offers institutions free consultation to help meet specific food sourcing goals within two years. Our resource guide for the program includes innovative strategies, like adopting DefaultVeg, to help institutions serve plant-forward meals that everyone can enjoy.
- Partnering with culinary professionals to offer plant-based trainings to Jewish institutional dining staff. Since 2017, we’ve coordinated two culinary trainings with the Humane Society of the United States’ Forward Food program, and we look forward to extending those professional development opportunities to many more Jewish institutions that serve food regularly.
In addition to values-motivated eating, there’s so much potential to build upon an already rich culture around tilling and tending to the land. Not only are contemporary Jewish communities breathing new life into our ancient identity as agriculturalists through outdoor and farming-based Jewish programs, but thanks to our globalized understanding of Jewry and the trendiness of foodie-ism, we’re also broadening our palates and dietary repertoire in American Jewish communities. Just like Jewish tradition isn’t monolithic, Jewish food traditions are just as wonderfully diverse. We have recipes from communities around the world that are often plant-forward if not entirely plant-based—we’re in Hanukkah season, a holiday renowned for its oily food tradition, and I’ve become a big fan of sfenj, or Moroccan donuts that are naturally animal-free. As Jewish communities continue to raise awareness that delicious plant-forward choices also happen to benefit people, animals, and the planet it only furthers the recognition that eating Jewishly can (and should) converge with eating in line with our values.
Visit Jewish Initiative for Animals online at https://www.jewishinitiativeforanimals.org/
Feature & Interview by Annika Lundkvist at Pacific Roots Magazine Editorial Desk for our Faith, Sustainability & Stewardship series