“I grew up on the periphery and…it very much marked my relationship with Judaism,” she said. “I felt like such a weirdo, whenever I walked into Jewish spaces – I grew up on a farm, I was just this farm kid.”
Now, though, Black is bridging that disconnect – and fulfilling a vision she’s had since childhood – by running Avodah Farm with her husband Geoffrey and two sons.
The Wisconsin farm, about 60 miles from St. Paul, is where the family raises cows and chickens. It’s also where Black, certified in 2021 as a shochet, or a kosher slaughterer, preps 200 kosher chickens a year and sells them to the Twin Cities Jewish community.
“I wanted to have these connections that brought it all together,” Black said. “That was one of the things that spoke so strongly to me about shechita is, [out of] every part of our tradition, this is my part…other shochets can join our community, but it is a unique skill that I am uniquely positioned to be able to offer.”
On Aug. 27, Avodah Farm hosted roughly 20 members of St. Paul’s Beth Jacob Congregation for an event titled “Restoring Land, Restoring Tradition: Regenerative Farming and Ethical Kosher Slaughter at Avodah Farm.” The event was co-sponsored by the synagogue’s Climate Action Committee.
The Black family, who are also Beth Jacob members, toured the visitors around their farm and walked through the life cycle of their chickens from coop to kosher table. Along the way, discussions also touched on the family’s approach to regenerative farming, including with their cows.
“My passion is that…I can take a kosher chicken and it will stop being this thing of mystery wrapped in plastic that, like, how do you know it’s kosher?” Black said. “It’s real to me and I can make it real to you.”
No actual slaughter was done during the tour, but Black did explain the process of shechita, including the importance of having a sharp slaughtering knife. While there are different ways to test sharpness, Black uses the traditional method of checking the knife against her fingernail and the flesh of her finger.
Rashi, the 11th-century rabbi and commentator, said “that the fingernail is [a stand-in] for the trachea, and the flesh is for the esophagus,” Black said. “That was a time in our tradition when we were willing to have that level of empathy…we imagined what the knife was going to cut, and we felt it. We took this responsibility into our hands.”
How the knife is used for shechita also defines whether or not something is kosher. Among several rules, there can be no pausing during the slaughter; shechita must be done without tearing or stabbing; and cuts must be made by drawing the knife back and forth instead of chopping with downward pressure.
To Black, shechita is a deeply personal process. Each chicken she slaughters is one she has raised since they were just a few days old. Killing and eating her chickens is a far cry from the cold and relationship-less nature of supermarket shopping.
“I will come to that place in my heart where I know that I am about to take a life,” Black said about her shechita prep. “I have made myself the promise that I will never shecht more animals than the deaths I can feel…if I have become numb to that, we’re doing too many chickens.”
This event is the first of its kind that the Black family has done on their farm, though they plan to do more tours in the future. Given the busy farming schedule, it’s likely to only be a once-a-year event, and Black hopes to have it in June next year instead of August.
In part, organizing a tour for the Jewish community came from basic business needs. Avodah Farm has been selling kosher chickens, which they raise and slaughter between Passover and Rosh Hashanah, to Twin Cities Jews who make a $20 deposit in the winter. People then have to come out to the farm on or after specific slaughter dates to get their chickens and pay the rest of the price.
“That system isn’t working super well, we had only sold about 100 out of our 200 chickens,” for the year, Black said. “We were like, ‘we really need to reach more people.’ However, usually, when I am in the Beth Jacob community, it’s on Shabbos. And I don’t talk business on Shabbos, I really don’t talk money.”
Bringing community members out felt like a good way to bridge business with Avodah Farm’s mission, and to help Jews feel more connected to the food they eat. This way, there’s also more awareness about the kind of product that people can buy from the farm.
“My goal is that everyone who eats my chickens, either through talking to me, or better yet, through coming to the farm and seeing the whole lifecycle…[will] really understand who it is they’re eating, and really receive the gift that is that bird,” Black said.
To Black, doing small-scale shechita is also somewhat of a protest against the kosher slaughter industry and the scale of production. While mass-produced kosher chicken might fulfill the letter of Jewish law, she feels it doesn’t fulfill the spirit of kosher slaughter.
Plenty of Jewish figures have called out the kosher meat industry, largely operated and certified by Orthodox rabbis through organizations like the Orthodox Union, for poor ethics and animal cruelty. The industry has been at the center of several scandals, like the federal immigration raid of the Agriprocessors, Inc. kosher plant in Postville, Iowa.
“I don’t want to abandon shechita to the OU and to Postville, I don’t want to give up this tradition, and have it only look like that,” Black said. “It’s our tradition, it should be meaningful to us…I really feel like every community should have a shochet and a farm that’s doing this.”