Until about 1977, I was a "meat and potatoes"person. My mother was sure to prepare my favorite dish, pot roast,whenever I came to visit with my wife and children. It was a family tradition that I would be served a turkey drumstick every thanksgiving. Yet, I have not only become a vegetarian, but I now devote a major part of my time to writing, speaking, and teaching about the benefits of vegetarianism. What caused this drastic change?
In 1975, I began teaching a course, "Mathematics and the Environment" at the College of Staten Island. The course uses basic mathematical concepts and problems to explore current critical issues, such as pollution, resource scarcities, hunger, energy, and the arms race. While reviewing material related to world hunger, ibecame aware of the tremendous waste of grain associated with the production of beef. (Over 70% of the grain produced in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million of the world's people die annually due to hunger and its effects.) In spite of my own eating habits, I often led class discussions on the possibility of reducing meat consumption as a way of helping hungry people. After several semesters of this, I took my own advice and gave up eating red meat, while continuing to eat chicken and fish.
I then began to read about the many health benefits of vegetarianism and about the horrible conditions for animals raise don factory farms. I was increasingly attracted to vegetarianism, and on January 1, 1978, I decided to join the International jewish Vegetarian Society. I had two choices for membership: (1) practicing vegetarian (one who refrains from eating any flesh); (2) non-vegetarian (one who is in sympathy with the movement, while not yet a vegetarian). I decided to become a full practicing vegetarian, and since then have avoided eating any meat, fowl, or fish.
Since that decision, I have learned much about vegetarianism's connections to health, nutrition, ecology, resource usage, hunger, and the treatment of animals. I also started investigating connections between vegetarianism and Judaism. I learned that the first Biblical dietary law (Genesis 1:29) was strictly vegetarian, and I became convinced that important jewish mandates to preserve our health, be kind to animals, protect the environment, conserve resources, share with hungry people, and seek and pursue peace all pointed to vegetarianism as the best diet for Jews (and everyone else) today. To get this message to a wider audience I wrote a book, Judaism and Vegetarianism, which was published in 1982. (A second expanded edition was published in 1988.)
Increasingly, I have come to see vegetarianism as not only a personal choice, but a societal imperative, an essential component in the solution of many national and global problems. The U. S. Surgeon General has indicated that 68% of diseases in the United States are related to poor diets, and this is a major factor behind soaring medical expenditures, which are projected to reach 20%of the U. S. GNP shortly after the end of the century, a key reason for the tremendous debt the U. S. faces. Also, livestock agriculture is a major contributor to many current environmental and public health threats, such as the destruction of tropical rainforests and other habitats, global warming, soil erosion and depletion, water shortages, air and water pollution, and the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria.
I have recently been spending more and more time trying to make others aware of the importance of switching toward vegetarian diets, for them and for the world. I have: appeared on over 60 radio and cable television programs; had many letters and several op-ed articles in the Staten Island Advance and other publications; spoken frequently at the College of Staten Island and to community groups; given many talks and met with three chief rabbis and other religious and political leaders in Israel, while visiting my two daughters and their families in the last few years. I recently started a "Campaign for a Vegetarian-Conscious Israel by 2000". In 1987, I was selected as "Jewish Vegetarian of the Year" by the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. Recently, I have been using email and the internet, especially my connection with the Virtual Yeshiva, to continue my efforts to help increase awareness of vegetarianism.
I have always felt good about my decision to become a vegetarian. Putting principles and values into practice is far more valuable and rewarding than hours of preaching. When people ask me why I gave up meat, I welcome the opportunity to explain the many benefits of vegetarianism.
While my family was initially skeptical about my change of diet, they have become increasingly understanding and supportive. In 1993, my younger daughter was married in Jerusalem at a completely vegetarian wedding.
Recently, I have noted some signs of increased interest in vegetarianism, and many people are concerned about dietary connections to health, nutrition, animal rights, and ecology. One person who became a vegetarian after reading my book in Israelis now in the United States studying nutrition and exercise, hoping"to become the Richard Simmons of Israel."
Yet, McDonald's is rapidly expanding in many countries, including Israel, China, and Russia. So there is much that still needs to be done. My hope is to be able to keep learning, writing, and speaking about vegetarianism, to help bring closer that day when, in the words of the motto of the international Jewish Vegetarian Society, ". . . no one shall hurt nor destroy in all of God's holy mountain." (Isaiah 11.9)
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