A reverence for life: Rabbi Shalom Kantor talks about his path from hunter to shochet

By: Rebecca Goldstein Kahn

 It’s a fiercely guarded business, with only the most trusted individuals able to break into the field. Once accepted, it takes a grueling year of training to become certified. 

Rabbi Danniel Landes (right) fulfilled the law that if a great and wise rabbi is present, then he must be given the knife to check before any slaughter is performed. Rabbi Shalom Kantor (left) also viewed the knife.

Few become shochets (kosher slaughterers), but Rabbi Shalom Kantor’s status is even more rare. According to Kantor – the KOACH Hillel Campus rabbi at Binghamton University – he’s the only non-Orthodox shochet in the world. That’s right: the world.

In order to understand how this came to be, it’s necessary to set the backdrop. Kantor grew up in a non-observant Jewish family in the mountains of Sun Valley, ID. He, his father and brothers were avid hunters, an activity that was an integral part of their family bonding experience.

"It’s important to understand that hunting [is] not just killing," he explained at his office at Binghamton University. "Hunting is learning about the environment, nature, habitat, animals. I came to have a massive level of respect for the wilderness."

The most important aspect of hunting for Kantor, however, was the connection it made to the food he ate: "When I would transform an animal from fur or feathers to what was going to be a meal – it was very different than eating a white chicken breast on white Styrofoam, covered with clear cellophane. It gave me a reverence for life. There was recognition of the source of my food."

As Kantor grew into adulthood and became an observant Jew, hunting became a halachic impossibility. (Hunting is prohibited, according to Jewish law.) "I wouldn’t kill anything I wasn’t going to eat and I wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t kosher," he said.

Hunting had given the future rabbi a spiritual connection that he now lacked; he realized the only way to recapture it was to become a shochet. However, he was well aware that it would not be a simple goal to accomplish. In general, it’s difficult to find training as a shochet, but it’s even more difficult as a Conservative rabbi since the field is traditionally relegated to the Orthodox world.

"The world of shechitah is a very much guarded world," he said. "It’s guarded because you are responsible for the kashrut of Jews. People rely on you to not make mistakes. You are the only one who knows if you’ve made a mistake. And so, the only people who can be shochets are people who can be trusted with their observance, trusted with their exactness, who are God-fearing, who are truthful and who are devout. They say that the shochet is responsible for the entire community’s spiritual well-being, i.e., their kashrut. That’s a massive pressure on somebody’s shoulders. And if you’re somebody who believes that this is a God-given set of laws, this is important."

That’s not even taking into account the financial competiveness. "There is a finite number of observant Jews and there is a massive amount of overhead for kosher slaughter," Kantor explained. "It’s very competitive so people don’t want you in."

In order to learn shechitah, one has to be trained and certified by a master. Masters are traditionally Orthodox and not willing to train someone outside of their sect.

"But, I knew somebody who knew somebody, who knew somebody, etc.," he said. "I found a Yemenite haredi man in Israel who agreed to take me on as his student even though I wasn’t haredi. He didn’t speak a word of English – not one word. He didn’t ask about my background. I think to a certain degree he didn’t want to know. He didn’t ask and I didn’t tell him I was a Conservative rabbinical student at the time."

The complications of learning shechitah don’t end with finding a master. Hours of book learning must supplement the hands-on experience. There is extensive Jewish law, as well as anatomy and technical training, in the kosher slaughter of animals that must be learned. During the morning hours, Kantor would study at Machon Pardes (The Pardes Institute) in Jerusalem and then spend the afternoons with his haredi teacher, encountering "many adventures traveling to various farms in what is called the shechitah schora (the black market) world."

Slaughter houses display a stamp showing they are kosher, but as soon as a student is taken in, they can no longer display the sticker since it is assumed the novice student may make a mistake. So, how can a shochet in training practice? The shechitah schora solves this problem.

"People will raise a lamb [or another kosher animal] in their backyard, kibbutz, moshav, etc., and comes time for Passover or Sukkot or a wedding, you go out to these people’s yards and slaughter it," Kantor said.

After a year of arduous work, Kantor received his certification from the Yemenite master and from Pardes. The two framed documents hang side by side on the wall of his office at Hillel.

The practice of shechita entails much more than the actual slaughter. And, that’s not even the hardest or most time-consuming aspect, according to Kantor. "It’s the processing," he mentions several times during the interview. He used a bird as an example: "Normally, once the chicken’s dead, they dip it in boiling water and the feathers fall off. You can’t do that with a kosher animal because you have to soak and salt the animal to get the blood out. And once you dip it in hot water, it’s as if you cooked it. So you have to hand pluck all the feathers."

The big kosher slaughter plants have $10,000 machines specifically designed for kosher plucking, however, Kantor is a one-man-band. "I don’t have machines," he said. "In massive slaughter plants where they kill 600 cows an hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it’s boom! Done. It takes me a whole day to do one cow or even two or three days. It’s a huge amount of work."

Ultimately, Kantor would like to be able to provide meat for himself and his family. (His wife is Shana Teig Kantor, director of Hillel, and the couple have a young daughter.) Currently, he does small, limited engagements for people who hire his services.

"This is a way I can connect with my Jewish local community. Especially with everything that’s going on in the world today, the more local we can buy, the better," he says.

He also sees his work as a vehicle for Jewish education: "I love learning Torah and this is definitely Torah. This is an area of Judaism that really has not been taught, yet Judaism is all about recognition of where our food comes from. We have to say a different blessing depending on whether something came from the ground or grew on a tree. Judaism is about recognition and giving thanks. But, to give thanks, you have to acknowledge where something came from."