History of Jewish Vegetarians of North America

The following are responses to questions about JVNA submitted to us by a student at a yeshiva high school.

How and when was this organization founded?

JVNA was founded in 1975 shortly after a World Vegetarian Conference was held at the University of Maine in Orono, Maine.

Who were the founders of this organization? What motivated them?

Jonathan Wolf founded JVNA and became its first president, after he attended that international vegetarian conference in Orono, Maine. Initial leaders included Charles Stahler, Debra Wasserman, Isaac Luchinsky, the late Florence Mitrani, Richard Schwartz, and Rabbi Noach Valley. They were motivated by a desire to show that Jewish teachings are most consistent with plant-based diets. 

How has the organization changed/evolved over the course of its history?

A key person in the formation of JVNA was  Isaac Luchinsky, He was responsible for the first formalization of the structure of the organization, getting tax exempt status for the group, and setting up an initial planning meeting of JVNA leaders at the home of Richard Schwartz.
Charles Stahler and Debra Wasserman were instrumental in the early years of the JVNA. They ran the group and edited the newsletter for many years. Charles and Debra were extremely active in planning Jewish vegetarian
conferences and in distributing literature at street fairs in various communities. Their diligent efforts provided the glue that kept the society functioning vibrantly and creatively for many years.

After Charles and Debra founded and ran the Vegetarian Resource Group, an important and influential national vegetarian information organization, they turned over their responsibilities to Israel and Eva Mossman. For many years, Israel Mossman was coordinator of The Jewish Vegetarians of North America and handled the membership in the USA and Canada. The JVNA newsletter was edited by Eva Mossman, assisted by her husband Israel and their daughter Ziona. The periodic JVNA newsletter kept members informed about Jewish vegetarian activities in various communities and also included articles, book reviews, recipes, and information about Jewish vegetarian contacts

Another person who was extremely important in the formation and early years of the JVNA is Jonathan Wolf. The group was founded in his living room in 1975, shortly after Jonathan and several other Jewish vegetarians attended the World Vegetarian Congress at the University of Maine. Jonathan wrote articles and flyers for the JVNA beginning in 1976 advocating Jewish vegetarianism based on compassion for animals, concern for the environment, feeding the hungry, and preserving health.  He has held many Jewish vegetarian events in his apartment and at synagogues in Manhattan, and he has periodically taught a unique course, “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York. In this course, he examined connections between vegetarian and Jewish values, utilizing material from the Torah and Talmud, modern responsa, Jewish legal codes, the writings of Rav Kook, Joseph Albo, and other Jewish scholars, and fiction by vegetarian authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer . For many years Jonathan hosted up to sixty guests for annual vegetarian Passover seders. Especially interesting is the vegetarian Tu B’Shvot seder which he conducted for many years starting in 1975 in his home, following and expanding the tradition of the 16th-century kabbalists of Safed (who loved trees and tasted a variety of fruits, but were not vegetarians). The Tu B’Shvot seders include a tasting of the seven species of grains and fruits of the land of Israel mentioned in the Torah, Prophets, Talmud, Midrash, and other holy writings, with four special cupsof wine. The seders involved much singing, merriment, good feeling, warmth, community, games, and blessings of thanks. Jonathan has also often hosted vegetarian Sabbath and holiday meals, as well as discussions on vegetarian and environmental issues in his home.

Richard Schwartz attended Jonathan’s “Judaism and Vegetarianism” course in 1979 and used it and much additional research to write Judaism and Vegetarianism, which was published in 1982, with later, expanded editions published in 1988 and 2001. The book argued that animal-based diets and agriculture violates basic Jewish teachings on treating animals compassionately, preserving human health, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people, and seeking and pursuing peace.

There were also summer conferences held at the “Vegetarian Hotel” in Woodridgre, New York, in the Catskill Mountains at which activists gathered to socialize, share information, and discuss strategy ideas. One year a conference was held at a synagogue in Manhattan and about 400 people attended.

From its start  JVNA has been affiliated with the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, which has been centered in London and has published a quarterly Jewish Vegetarian magazine since 1965.

Over the years, JVNA activists started local chapters and carried out Jewish vegetarian activities in several parts of the U.S.

In recent years, the main activities of JVNA include an electronic newsletter sent to members, the issuing of press releases from time to time, the creation and updating of a website (JewishVeg.com), and a Facebook page (facebook.com/JewishVeg).

What is the size/scope of the organization?

There are about 1,200 people who receive the newsletters. There are no dues or membership requirements.

How is it structured? How has this changed over time? 

As indicated, JVNA’s founding president was Jonathan Wolf. For many years, Rabbi Noach Valley was president. He contributed many articles to the JVNA newsletter and spoke at JVNA conferences. From about 2002 until the present time, Richard Schwartz has been president.

The current vice president is Noam Mohr, who also manages the JVNA website and facebook page. Maida Genser helps with the website. The current Secretary/Treasurer is John Diamond.

JVNA also has an advisory committee  of about 60 people, with a wide variety of backgrounds, experiences, and abilities.

What work has the organization done?

One of the most important recent JVNA achievements was the production of a one-hour documentary “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.” It was produced as a labor of love and dedication by multiple-award winning producer, director, writer, and cinematographer Lionel Friedberg who, along with his wife Diana, a professional director, produced the documentary while not receiving any professional fees. JVNA has given away over 35,000 complimentary DVDs of “A Sacred Duty, and has made it freely available on You Tube. It can also be seen at aSacredDuty.com. It has won several awards and has been acclaimed by many Jews and non-Jews.

In 1998, JVNA sent to over 3,500 North American congregational rabbis a special issue of its newsletter, which included a letter to the rabbis, urging them to put vegetarianism on their synagogues’ agendas. The letter was signed by over twenty rabbis, and many doctors, nutritionists, other professionals, and vegetarian activists. Included with the letter were fact sheets showing contradictions between the realities of animal-based diets and basic Jewish mandates and Richard Schwartz’s article, “What Diet Does God Prefer for People.”

Recently, Richard Schwartz’s third edition of his book Judaism and Vegetarianism has been made available at JewishVeg.com/Schwarz, where there are also about 150 of his articles and 25 podcasts of his talks and interviews, which discuss all aspects of Jewish teachings on vegetarianism. Also, included at that site are a self-paced course on “Judaism and Vegetarianism” and articles relating all the Jewish holidays and Shabbat to vegetarianism. 

 How effective has the organization been so far?

JVNA has helped increase awareness among Jews and some others about Jewish teachings on vegetarianism and related issues We have also helped make many vegetarian and animal rights activists recognize that religious teachings can be an ally in their efforts. We sometimes get messages from people indicating how delighted they are to have discovered our website. But, the vast majority of Jews still eat meat, so there is far more work to do to increase awareness and change attitudes and eating habits.