Almost a year ago, I lost my beloved uncle, Benjamin Pessah, the last Egyptian Karaite Jew actively practicing shehita in the United States. At that time, I made a personal resolution to continue to promote Karaite shehita whenever possible. Last week, the Karaite Jews of America released a new work on Karaite shehita. The work is Ritual Slaughter: A Guide to Modern Karaite Jewish Practice.
Today, I interview Travis Wheeler, the only shohet in the United States to be trained by the Karaite community of Israel. In fact, he was trained by H’ Moshe Firrouz, the Chief Hakham of the Council of Sages. Travis owns Six Star Meat and Poultry and recently released his Passover pricing list.
Travis Wheeler is a bit of a legend in Daly City. My aunt often asks about him. That’s kind of remarkable given how different the two are. My aunt is an Egyptian born Karaite Jewish grandmother living walking distance from the Karaite Jews of America’s synagogue. Travis Wheeler converted to Judaism through the Karaite movement and lives in Pelham, GA. Despite their different stories, they both love God and love the Karaite Jewish approach to Scripture. Without further ado, my interview:
1. How long have you been slaughtering meat, and want prompted you to become a certified Shohet?
I have slaughtered meat much of my adult life. I started in a poultry processing facility at 18 and worked with a guy who performed yield tests. The yield test was a test to compare finished meat yields from machine processing versus “controlled processing” This controlled processing is taking a live chicken (11 actually) and weighing them through each step of the process. After learning this task, I began looking into the Jewish slaughter methods and shehita. As I became a member of the Karaite community, I felt it vital to have Karaite sourced meat and poultry in the US.
2. What was the process to become a Shohet?
The process included learning the tractate on ritual slaughter (Hilchot Shehita) as well as the practical (i.e. hands-on) portion. The hands-on was quite arduous, especially with birds, when you have to ensure that you sever the 4 signs. This is not difficult in mammals but in birds it can be a process. It takes a lot of practice.
3. You have been open about the fact that you did not pass your test on your first try. What motivated you to continue?
My motivation was not for me personally but for those in the community and beyond. There are various types and stringencies of Kosher slaughter that do not meet the Karaite standards. Completing the process was vital to maintaining and growing the community.
4. What are some of the unique aspects of slaughter according to the Karaite tradition?
One of the most unique aspects of the slaughter process is that all 4 signs (esophagus, windpipe, 2 main arteries) must be severed for the bird or animal to be kosher. In the Rabbinic tradition, at least two signs must be severed. Another main difference is that we are trained to remove the sciatic nerve (or relevant ligament), from both mammals and birds. The removal of this portion from birds (as well as land animals) is attested to in Qirqisani’s Kitab al Anwar. Finally, unlike our Rabbanite brethren, we do not permit the slaughter of pregnant animals.
5. What is the biggest challenge of being a shohet.
The biggest challenge at this point is having a fully sustainable system. We are currently working on having a permanent home for our company. We plan to grow many of the animals ourselves in order to assure quality and to know where the animals are from and have been fed. We also recognize that each customer is different, so as we grow we will need to meet the needs of even the most picky eaters.
6. How do you source your meat? (For example, if we wanted free range chicken or pasture raised meat, can you get that?
I source from other farms or via animal auctions. Animals from auctions are purchased young and raised in a non-commercial setting. We have been able to get some free range chickens and I have a few beef growers who do grass-fed beef. Unfortunately these animals have a significantly higher price tag so we are wanting to breed and raise them ourselves on our company property. Our property will raise and breed lamb and chicken and I have a few people who will raise beef in Alabama.
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Travis recently visited our synagogue for the Karaite Jews of America’s family Shabbat. He visits every chance he can, because that’s the kind of guy he is. I look forward to helping Travis grow awareness and interest in Karaite Shehita.
DISCLAIMER: Each person should investigate for himself/herself whether Travis’s methods meet their own kashrut, ethical and safety requirements. I do not receive any compensation from and I do not have any financial interest Six Star Meat and Poultry.
Here are some pictures of Travis’s knives and products.
And if you would like to order Ritual Slaughter, you may do so at The Karaite Press. It is currently on presale, with orders expected to ship by March 22, 2017. I do not receive any financial compensation from The Karaite Press.