When Jeff Cohan approached Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation about hosting a program on veganism at the synagogue, Bisno not only agreed, but took the suggestion one step further.
Instead of a single session exploring the benefits of a vegan diet and its basis in Jewish law, Bisno encouraged Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg, to arrange a whole series on plant-based eating.
“I think of the congregation as a center of human flourishing, and bringing a thoughtful approach to what we eat and how we eat and how we maintain our bodies and move in the world is an important part of it,” Bisno said. “It may not be the right diet for everyone, but everyone could benefit from what our tradition has to say and what science has to teach about vegetarianism and veganism.”
It is “remarkable — probably unprecedented nationally — for a synagogue to be hosting and promoting a series like this,” said Cohan, who in his position at Jewish Veg is well-acquainted with efforts to promote veganism at Jewish institutions.
Jewish Veg is a national nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace plant-based diets as an expression of Jewish values, to improve health outcomes and to care for the environment.
The pediatrician, who has been eating primarily vegan for the past few years, launched One World Eating, an online community promoting plant-based eating, along with friends from Singapore and Israel, he told the 30 people in attendance. The website encourages a 3-6-5 eating plan: three meals a day, eaten with friends or family; meals constructed from the “six whole foods” group, which includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and beans; and intensifying the food experience by enhancing the experiences of the five senses.
“The most important part of plant-based eating is lifestyle,” Somers explained. “We’re not talking about a diet as a weight lost plan.”
There is some evidence, Somers said, that plant-based eating contributes to fewer incidents of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. And, he added, a plant-based diet can provide most of the nutrients necessary for good health, including carbohydrates, fats, protein, fiber, minerals and antioxidants.
The only supplements Somers would recommend, he said, would be vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
The physician suggested strategies for encouraging children to eat healthy food, including preparing such crowd-pleasers as ants-on-a-log (celery spread with peanut butter and dotted with raisins) and having bowls of pre-cut fruits and vegetables readily available. He also suggested getting kids involved with meal preparation and planning and planting a spice or vegetable garden.
Somers acknowledged that a vegan diet “is not right for everyone.”
“I’m a realist; the world is not becoming vegan,” he admitted. He does, however, work with families to encourage healthy eating and more plant-based eating.
“As a doctor, I want to help families get a jump start to raise kids more healthfully” and to avoid chronic diseases that could be attributed to or exacerbated by bad food choices, he said.
The program drew many attendees from outside the Rodef Shalom community.
“I came because I am always looking to learn more about healthy eating and how to encourage my family to eat healthfully,” said attendee Ronna Blumenfeld, adding that she was struck by studies cited by Somers showing that those who “live close to the land,” like migrant workers and farmers, are “among the healthiest people in the world.”
The next session in the vegan series at Rodef Shalom will be held on Feb. 21 and will feature Cohan speaking on the connection between animal-free diets and Judaism. The remaining two sessions will be held on March 10 and April 15 and will cover eating in local vegan restaurants and how to begin eating vegan, respectively. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at