International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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Interviews with Vegetarian/Vegan Activists
April 2008

IVU Presents: Interview with President, Jewish Vegetarians of N. America
Previously in this space, IVU regional coordinators from various parts of the world were interviewed. Now, we begin a series of interviews with leaders of various veg organisation. The first person to volunteer was Professor Richard Schwartz, president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America.

1. What made you decide to become a vegetarian? When did that happen? How old were you at the time?

In 1975, I began teaching a course, "Mathematics and the Environment" at the College of Staten Island, which relates basic mathematical concepts to current environmental issues. While reviewing material related to world hunger, I became aware of the tremendous waste of grain associated with the production of beef. 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 raised on factory farms. I was increasingly attracted to vegetarianism, and on January 1, 1978, at the age of 44, I decided to join the International Jewish Vegetarian Society as a vegetarian.

2. You are a leader of a member society of IVU. How long have you been a leader of this organisation?

I have been president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA) since 2003, but I edited the JVNA newsletter and played a leadership role for many years before that.

3. What made you decide to become active in promoting vegetarianism?

I decided to become active in promoting vegetarianism after recognizing that:

  • animal-based diets violate basic Jewish mandates to treat animals with compassion, preserve our health, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people and pursue peace;
  • a shift toward vegetarianism is a societal imperative because of the many negative health and environmental effects of animal-centered diets and agriculture.
  • most people are oblivious of dietary-related realities and have many misconceptions.

4. What obstacles do you face in remaining active in promoting vegetarianism? How do you overcome them?

The main obstacles are apathy, ignorance and denial. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to overcome them generally. Some approaches I use are talks, letters to editors, articles and personal conversations. I try to stress that vegetarianism is not just a personal decision, but also a societal imperative because the production of meat and other animal products has so many negative environmental effects.

Also, our highly acclaimed documentary “A SACRED DUTY” (about Judaism and the environment) has the possibility of breaking through barriers.

5. What is one of your organisation's accomplishments that makes you especially proud?

The production of “A SACRED DUTY.” I am very proud to be the associate producer and to have arranged all the interviews for the movie and to have been involved in important decisions re the final script. We were extremely fortunate to have Lionel Friedberg, a multi-award winning producer/director/writer/cinematographer, who produced the movie as a labor of love and dedication, while accepting no professional fee. Thankfully, the movie has been receiving a very favorable response from both Jews and non-Jews. There is more information about the movie and it can be seen in its entirety at ASacredDuty.com

6. How do you try to maintain good relations and enthusiasm amongst your organisation's members?

I have a JVNA advisory committee of over 50 people, with a wide variety of backgrounds, interests and experiences, and I seek suggestions from them before taking any actions. I also send out JVNA newsletters to members generally once a week to keep them up to date. I always seek suggestions from members, and I try to respond quickly to all email messages that I receive.

7. What is one way that your organisation cooperates with other veg organisations?

In addition to being president of JVNA, I am also president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) and a Councilor for the Vegetarian Union of North America (VUNA). I share articles, ideas and initiatives among these groups, so there is cross fertilization.

8. How does your organisation reach out to people who are trying to become veg or who are newly veg?

  • We have a web site (JewishVeg.com) which has much background material on connections between Judaism and vegetarianism and much more, including recipes.
  • We send out a generally weekly newsletter to keep people informed and interested.
  • We have leaflets, booklets and CDs, besides the DVD and book mentioned above, that we use to reach out to and inform people.