Most rabbis preach. This one wants you to change your diet, or at least consider what you eat.
Rabbi Akiva Gersh, known online as the Vegan Rabbi, will share his message during an upcoming visit sponsored by Jewish Veg.
Although the April 23 program marks the Israeli rabbi and former New Yorker’s first time in Pittsburgh, his teachings are anything but new. For thousands of years, rabbinic literature, Jewish mysticism and philosophy have promoted the importance of veganism and vegetarianism, Gersh said.
Speaking with the Chronicle from his home in Pardes Hanna, Israel, Gersh, 47, cited the biblical precept of Tza'ar ba'alei chayim (the prohibition of causing unnecessary pain to animals), and said, “Jewish teachings don’t necessarily say to go vegan — obviously Judaism allows eating animals — but there are other laws dealing with animal welfare, the environment and human health that are seriously compromised, seriously sacrificed, through supporting the meat, dairy and egg industries of our world today.”
In a recent Instagram post, Gersh noted Leviticus’ lengthy list of sacrifices and claimed that Judaism neither bans nor endorses massive animal consumption.
Instead, the Torah teaches, “Only in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple, was there any kind of obligation to eat meat,” he said. “The fact that God commanded ancient Jews to offer certain animal sacrifices in one very specific place and very specific ways doesn’t mean that today we are permitted to treat animals with cruelty, subjecting them to lives of pain and suffering in order to satisfy our own lusts and desires.”
Gersh largely relies on social media and a website (akivagersh.com) to disseminate ideas about Judaism, ethical treatment of animals and plant-based diets.
Perhaps surprisingly, Gersh’s page includes a sign-up to join the “first ever Jewish dating site specifically for vegan and vegetarian singles.”
He said his entry into matchmaking began nine months ago after several followers inquired whether the rabbi knew anyone who might be good for them.
“I kept hearing this from more and more people,” Gersh said. “I realized someone needs to help Jewish vegans and vegetarians specifically.”
But with so many dating sites and apps already in existence, what’s the purpose of another?
“Marriage is beautiful, wonderful and a great blessing,” he said. “People recreate a life together, which is challenging enough. If your food choices aren’t aligned that could add another challenge to the relationship.”
The soon-to-launch site is another outgrowth of a COVID-19 world, he explained.
For 25 years, Gersh was involved in Jewish education. After graduating from Brown University with a bachelor’s in religious studies, he received a master’s in Jewish education from Yeshiva University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov in Jerusalem.
“Part of my work was always dedicated to Jewish environmental teachings, Jewish ethics and animal welfare,” he said. “When COVID hit, I left my full-time job and moved online and did freelance Jewish education.”
He created the Vegan Rabbi site and used the platform to share teachings about animal welfare.
“People really took to it. People were supportive and wanted to learn more. They helped Vegan Rabbi grow and allow it to become things I didn’t expect it to become,” he said.
The site includes online courses, consulting and links to related videos and articles.
Now that pandemic-related travel restrictions have waned, Gersh is excited to take his message on the road. For nearly two weeks he’ll speak in synagogues and Hillels in Georgia, Florida, New Jersey, Minnesota, California and Pittsburgh.
There’s a general disparity between demographics, he said: “College students tend to be more open. They are more into exploring who they are and who they want to be.”
That was the case for Gersh. During his freshman year, the former New Yorker realized society’s negative impacts on the modern world. He became an environmental studies major and a vegetarian. One year later, he became vegan. Around the same time that Gersh’s eating habits changed, so did his relationship to Judaism.
He grew up in a “very typical secular suburban Jewish” setting in New City, New York, he said.
An introduction to Jewish environmental teachings in college, “inspired me to look at Judaism again.”
During the next several years, Gersh became observant and studied in a yeshiva in Tzfat, Israel. He returned to the U.S., obtained a master’s and eventually made his way back to Israel, where he lives with his wife and four children.
Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, described Gersh as an experienced and excellent Jewish educator, and “someone very important to learn from.”
Gersh said he was excited to visit Pittsburgh and learn from the community.
“What I love most about this work is the dialogue and the questions,” he said. “Even if people haven’t already gone vegetarian or vegan, it’s a topic that’s interesting to them.”
The conversations, which “come to life,” during discussions about animal welfare and the environment, reflect generations of learning, he explained.
“I feel like I am almost like a real estate agent. These are not my teachings. They’re the Jewish people’s. I’m just showing them off,” he said. “It’s important for me not to convince anyone of anything, but let the teachings speak for themselves.” Coming to Pittsburgh is a chance to introduce these ideas, “let people sit with them, ponder them, contemplate them and think about what changes they should make.”
The free April 23 event, held at Boyce Park in Plum Borough, will begin with kosher vegan hors d’oeuvres and mingling, followed by Gersh’s presentation.
Registration and details are available at jewishveg.org/pittsburgh. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.