Jeffrey Cohan of Jewish Veg speaks at a few local venues next week. (photo from Or Shalom)
There is no disputing the notion that God intended for us to eat a vegetarian diet, though eating meat out of necessity is permitted, according to Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, who will be in Vancouver next week for three presentations on animals and ethics.
Cohan’s father passed away at the age of 52 from a heart attack, when Cohan was 12 years old. “That’s always been in the back of my mind – what I can do to avoid the same fate,” Cohan told the Independent. “But, for the first 40 years of my life, I was a passionate meat eater and, although I was in good shape, I knew I needed a dietary change, as my cholesterol was up to 100 and I was approaching the age where my dad experienced heart disease.”
Cohan recalled a Simchat Torah when he was in his early 40s. The Torah reader came to a verse wherein God says to eat only plants and, for the first time, the possibility of being a vegetarian resonated with Cohan, and he and his wife immediately changed their diet. That was about 11 years ago.
“Then, I started researching intensively what the rest of the Torah and other Jewish texts said about this issue,” said Cohan. “I found out about an organization called Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA). I was very excited. It was getting word out that this is what the Torah and our tradition actually says. At the time, I was working at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.”
Looking further into JVNA, Cohan learned, to his dismay, that it was run by only two volunteers, had an outdated website and no real relationships with the institutional Jewish community. This spurred him to go to New York to meet with these volunteers and a few others who were involved. He gave a presentation about what they could do to build up the organization. They asked him to become JVNA’s executive director – and Cohan said yes.
Since then, JVNA, which is now called Jewish Veg, has gone on to form relationships with some of the biggest Jewish organizations, said Cohan, including “those that deal with the demographic group most receptive to our message – young adults – partnering with Hillel.
“We created the first-ever vegan Birthright trips,” he added. “It’s been very gratifying. We are heading to Vancouver next, which is pretty exciting, being the first time we’ll give presentations in Canada…. Judaism, even when we were living in ghettos in Europe, does not exist in isolation. It is affected by external society to a great extent. Especially in America and especially in the 20th and 21st centuries in America and Canada, it’s been a two-way relationship.
“If you look at every social justice movement that has achieved success in the U.S. in the last 120 years – women’s rights, organized labour, the civil right movement, the LBGTQ movement – every one of these movements has had Jews involved in the leadership,” he said. “And this movement cannot be the exception. It goes back to the very raison d’être (reason for being) in Judaism, which is that we weren’t just given the Seven Laws [of Noah]. We were given a much higher bar to live up to. And, therefore, it is incumbent on the Jewish community, on this movement, to be at the forefront as we have been in other social justice movements. That’s exactly why Jewish Veg’s work is so important, because we’re mobilizing the Jewish community.”
According to Cohan, the work Jewish Veg is doing is inspiring the Christian community to follow suit. As an example, he said he was told by a longtime member of the Unity Church that they are creating a movement within their faith called Unity Veg.
Israel has become one of the most the most vegan-friendly countries in the world, said Cohan. “We actually … point towards Israel as an example for Canadian and American Jews to follow,” he said. “Jews speak on college campuses here [in the United States] about what’s going on in Israel and why they should be following its lead.”
While Cohan’s trip to Vancouver is the first for Jewish Veg in Canada, he is planning to soon speak in Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton.
Cohan hopes all people will become vegetarian one day, but his current aim is to meet people where they are. “We have something called our Veg Pledge program, which you can see on our website, which helps people transition to plant-based diets,” he said. “We don’t just come in, love them and leave them. We give them an opportunity to use our free resources to transition to plant-based diets at the pace that works for them.
“The way it’s structured,” he explained, “is that you start with a pledge, which can either be sticking your toe in the water or diving in head first, based on your comfort level. We really believe that helping people with the how is just as important as the why.”
During his visit here, Cohan will make three presentations: one hosted by the Vancouver Humane Society on Oct. 16, 7 p.m., in the Alma Vandusen and Peter Kaye rooms at Library Square Conference Centre; one at Or Shalom Synagogue on Oct. 18, 7:30 p.m.; and one at the University of British Columbia on Oct. 19, 1:30 p.m., hosted by Hillel BC at a Schmooze & Schmear gathering.
“I think a question you’ll hear many Jewish people ask is, ‘How does the Torah apply to our modern lives?’” said Shelley Stein-Wotten, program coordinator at Or Shalom. “We found it fascinating that Jeffrey’s own path to going vegan stemmed from his study of Torah and we wanted to provide an opportunity for him to share his story and create a space to have an open dialogue around if, as individuals and as a community, we can establish a Jewish framework to address climate change and make healthful food choices, which have inherent connections.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.