Wednesday, December 14, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Jeffrey Cohan...


Hanukkah starts December 24 this year so what better time to talk to Jeffrey Cohan, Executive Director of Jewish Veg? With a background in journalism and Jewish communal service, Jeffrey is a longtime vegetarian and has been vegan since 2010. As blogger behind The Beet-Eating Heeb, Jeffrey explores the spiritual basis of veganism with humor, honesty and insight. Under Jeffrey’s leadership since 2012, Jewish Veg, once known as Jewish Vegetarians of North America, has shifted their focus to a vegan message and they have lots of events coming up, including a college speaking tour in the Spring (dates are still to be announced but you can see last year’s tour) and a free, Jewish-themed vegan starter guide. In October, Jewish Veg posted a video of their sponsored talk in New York, Alex Hershaft’s powerfully moving “From the Warsaw Ghetto to a Lifetime of Compassion,” speech. According to Jeffrey, Jewish Veg has become the fastest-growing vegan advocacy organization in the United States and it clearly shows no signs of slowing down. I am honored that Jeffrey is this week’s Vegan Rockstar.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I was a big-time carnivore, regrettably, until the age of 41. That’s when, as a Jew, I first encountered Genesis 1:29, where God commands us to eat a vegan diet. I went vegetarian that day and, about three years later, went vegan after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I’d like to think that if someone had educated me about what’s happening to farmed animals, I would have gone vegan on the spot. I also would have been open to the compelling evidence that a healthy vegan diet is the only diet proven to reverse heart disease.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

The most effective mediums are live presentations and personal interactions. The power of live, in-person, human-to-human communication is unmatched. Within those mediums, humor and authentic passion are an effective mix. In my blog, The Beet-Eating Heeb, and in my live presentations, I try to incorporate both. We need humor to get people’s guard down and passion to crack into their hearts.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Two things come to mind.

One is that our arrow is pointing up. We definitely have momentum. There are many indicators of that, none more obvious than the proliferation of vegan products on grocery-store shelves. A lot of very smart, hard-working people in our movement have helped make this happen.

The second is that we have the facts squarely on our side, whether you’re talking about ethics, health, the environment, or, in our case, Judaism. We do and will win the debate with carnivores every time.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Again, two things come to mind.

The first is, our opposition might not have the facts on their side, but they have a massive marketing budget, tradition, and majority opinion on their side. Did I mention a massive marketing budget? The fact that we’ve made such progress despite these enormous obstacles is pretty impressive.

Secondly, the animal-rights movement is very divided and is sending out conflicting messages to the public. To a certain extent, some degree of fracturing is inevitable in growing social movements. In some cases, a variety of approaches can be productive. However, in the United States, the animal-welfare message has become a little too dominant. I hope the funding community will recognize this imbalance and offer greater support to the vegan-advocacy movement.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

There is no change you can make today that will have such a powerfully positive effect on animals, on the planet, on your health and on your soul. And today, it’s easier than ever before to make that change.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I love to read, so books have had a big influence of me. Reading Eating Animals instantly transformed me from a vegetarian into a vegan.

The Bible, or what we call the Torah, has been a big influence as well. At Jewish Veg, we are bringing to light religious teachings that have been variously ignored, suppressed or misinterpreted. The Jewish Bible establishes a plant-based diet as the ideal, frames meat-eating as the manifestation of human gluttony, and mandates that we treat animals with exquisite compassion.

It’s amazing, when you think about it, that the authors of the Bible knew 3,000 years ago that killing animals for food was wrong and that eating plants was best for our souls and our health. This was 2,900 years before the creation of the first factory farm.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Shabbat. My job, as executive director of Jewish Veg, is very demanding, which is a good thing. But if not for Shabbat, I would have burned out a long time ago. I don’t work on Saturdays unless I’m speaking at a synagogue. I absolutely love my job, but knowing that I have a 24-hour respite every week enables to me work harder and longer on the other six days.

I also try to do some form of exercise at least four times a week. And I meditate daily.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Here is what I would like everyone to know: The word “dominion” in the Bible absolutely does NOT give us permission to kill animals for food – or to mistreat them, period.

The famous “dominion” verse (Genesis 1:26) is part of the same, uninterrupted conversation in which God tells us to eat plants and only plants (Genesis 1:29).

Furthermore, Genesis 1:26 is where we also find the statement that humans beings are made in God’s image. This means we’re supposed to exercise dominion over animals in the same fashion as God exercises dominion over people. And in Jewish thought, there is no debate that God’s primary attributes are mercy and compassion.

So the English word “dominion” is really an unfortunate translation. “Compassionate stewardship” would be far more accurate.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

… a spiritual awakening.” No one told me this would happen, but I’ve since found out that it’s a common experience for vegans. I feel a much deeper connection to the Universe.


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  2. Great interview. Kudos, Jeffrey Cohan, for your incisive, thoughtful responses.

    To reinforce your powerful message, I would just like to add, as president emeritus of Jewish Veg, that vegan diets are most consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving nature resources, an helping hungry people, and a major societal shift toward vegan diets is essential to efforts to vert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters.


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