Hersh Saunders' transformation from prosthodontist to kosher slaughterer

  • At the end of a busy day, Elisheva Brenner looks on as her husband and partner, Hersh Saunders, hugs Rocky, their Great Pyrenees dog and ranch mascot.

    Shanna Lewis
  • Rabbi Hersh Saunders mentally prepares for the ritual slaughter of a lamb. The barn is quiet, providing a calm setting for the animal.

    Shanna Lewis
 

In a barn on his 400-acre ranch south of Pueblo, Colo., Hersh Saunders sharpens a long blunt-end knife called a halaf.  A blue crocheted kippah, a Jewish skullcap, covers the bearded rabbi's silver hair. Outside the barn, sheep graze and chickens peck near a small synagogue and rows of organic vegetables.

Saunders has spent the last 27 years working as a prosthodontist, fitting people with dentures, crowns and bridges. But these days, you're just as likely to find him breaking ice in livestock troughs on cold winter mornings, or using a skid-steer to mix manure into his huge compost pile.

Sliding the knife across a whetstone, Saunders explains that nicks can't mar this blade. He's a shochet, a kosher slaughterer who follows ancient Jewish law. When he takes an animal's life, the cut must be clean and swift.

"I don't hate these animals," he says. "I like them a lot, and if someone was going to kill me, I'd want it to be really, really fast and painless."

The Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood where Saunders grew up was a kosher world. "All food was specially taken care of," he says. "It was blessed and (handled and processed) according to the laws, imprecations and warnings in the Torah." For observant Jews, keeping kosher makes eating into a religious act.

There are different theories about the intent behind kosher law's technical prescriptions. But like most Jews, Saunders, who continued keeping kosher as an adult, assumed kosher certification meant that food was produced with high ethical standards. So several years ago, he and his wife, Rabbi Elisheva Brenner, were among the legions of Jews who were horrified to learn of cattle being flayed alive, and of undocumented and underage employees working in dangerous conditions at large kosher meatpacking plants.  The biblical injunctions weren't written to address industrialized meat production; no one could have anticipated that animals would be trucked from crowded feedlots to huge slaughterhouses where they might be shackled, dragged and hoisted into the air before being killed.

"Our response to that was we're not going to eat meat at all," Saunders says. "And we didn't until we were sure that the animals were treated correctly and that they are handled right at slaughter." The couple couldn't find local kosher meat from humanely raised animals that weren't pumped full of hormones. So Saunders decided to start producing it himself.

He spent two years training to be a shochet, and studied with renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin to learn her techniques for humane slaughter. Saunders and Brenner then started their own herd of Barbados blackbelly sheep, a resilient heirloom breed suitable for raising on grass, without antibiotics and hormones.

When his blade is ready, Saunders enters a lamb's stall and speaks to it quietly. Keeping the animal calm is critical, he says,  as is keeping himself focused. "We are going to move from a sensate creature to dinner," he says. "We want to do that in a way that preserves the honor and the energetics of the entire system. Otherwise, it's just some kind of lust."

He hugs the animal between his knees, recites a Hebrew prayer and slits its throat, spilling the blood into a black rubber pan.  The lamb dies quickly, but Saunders doesn't hurry. He holds the animal for a few minutes -- enough time, he believes, for its soul to leave its body.

He immediately skins and prepares the lamb for kosher inspection and butchering. It's meticulous work, but Saunders proved a quick study: His knowledge of human anatomy and surgical training transferred easily to performing the required examination of the animal's internal organs to ensure they are free of blemishes and disease, and to removing the nerves, veins and fats that are forbidden by kosher law. Finally, he rinses and salts the meat to remove blood, and sprinkles salt on the hide, which will be shipped out and made into parchment for holy Jewish scrolls.

Earlier this year, Saunders and Brenner started processing and selling their meat. And they refitted a slaughterhouse in Fort Collins to allow expanded production. It will handle their own animals, and others raised according to their standards. Thanks to online sales, they already have customers as far away as Michigan and Alaska. And it turns out that it's not just Jews -- they've heard from Christians and Muslims, too. "I love that because it bridges things and brings people closer together," Saunders says.

On a personal level, he says, ranching has deepened his understanding of Judaism. He even tends his herd on Shabbos, the Sabbath, when Jews are forbidden to work. "(I've) discovered a connection to my ancestors, who cared for their animals on Shabbos. They even named their children Leah, (which means) cow, and Rachel, ewe."

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....