In this obscure country corner on the Delmarva peninsula, where chicken farms are everywhere and processing plants are automated, a handful of men take special pains to "make a nice killing."
In their view, the chickens and turkeys they hand-kill at a rate of 1,800 and 360 an hour, respectively, should feel no pain. "God want you don't make . . . pain for any animal," said one of the men. "Kill him nicely."
Their locks and curls protruding from under construction worker-type hard hats, their black garments hidden under blood-stained white coats, they are the six Hasidic "killing rabbis," or shochets, of Jarmco, Maryland's only kosher poultry plant, where birds are processed under rabbinical supervision to ensure that all Jewish dietary laws are observed.
Three more rabbis, known as mashgiachs, supervise the salting and disemboweling of the birds. A chief rabbi oversees the kosher operation and, after work, acts as spiritual leader and Old Testament teacher to the group.
"My understanding is there's levels of kosher kill," said plant manager Jack Nelson, 53, who used to work for Delmarva chicken king Frank Perdue and is not Jewish. "Supposedly, we're a high level of kosher kill."
The rabbis work side by side with 125 local residents, mostly women, who earn up to $4.65 an hour as salters, eviscerators, cutters and deboners. Because of the ritualistic hand-killing, the pace is slower than at nonkosher plants.
"That's why I stay," said one 52-year-old woman who commutes almost 80 miles each day from Pocomoke City, farther down the shore. "It's slow work."
The 10 bearded rabbis commute for four hours by van from Brooklyn's Borough Park, arriving Sunday night and leaving Thursday after work, in time to be home for the Jewish Sabbath, which begins Friday at sundown. Here, they live in a small trailer park.
They sleep in three trailers, worship and cook in one. In the middle of the courtyard is a single picnic table. There is no radio and no television, by design.
"You see things you are not allowed to see," explained Ahrom Herskowitz, 27, who supervises the salting of the birds. "Make the men very wild."
What also makes men "very wild," the rabbi explains, is blood in the bird. That is why the poultry is salted and soaked, to drain the blood. "You eat wild animals, the men get also wild," he said.
The rabbis are demonstrably not wild, although an empty bottle of gin was resting in the kitchen sink on a recent visit. One of the rabbis, a scribe, spends his spare time writing Hebrew letters on cowhide with a turkey quill and ink.
The rabbis seem to like plant boss Nelson, who is originally from South Dakota. "Jack, come, take a sit," one said to him.
Of the 10 rabbis, one is originally from Romania, another recently arrived from Brazil. The chief rabbi was born in Poland. The rest are from Israel. Among themselves, they speak Hebrew and Yiddish. Despite years spent in this country, their knowledge of English is limited.
If their accents seem out of place on the rural Eastern Shore, they say they feel at home here nonetheless. "I don't miss" city life, said Herskowitz. "I like more here the country. It's very quiet. You have here lot of people [who] like quiet to live. Eight o'clock here, you don't see nothing."
As a rule, they don't wander far from Wango, said Mendy Kahan, at 25 the youngest rabbi. Occasionally, they go into Salisbury, the county seat eight miles from here, Kahan said, "to buy something, food-like" or for the city's "little zoo . . . a little fresh air . . . to sit in park . . . make a kosher ring around Salisbury."
On one Salisbury outing, the Hasidic rabbis visited Rabbi Maurice Schwartz, who presides over the city's Beth Israel Congregation of 140 families. And Schwartz has reciprocated, traveling to the plant when they needed a 10th man to make a minyan, the number required to hold a worship service.
The men say it is hard being away from their families. "For money you do a lot of things," said Herskowitz. "We have to bring home at least a dollar, you know?"
The daily routine is simple and unchanging. The men rise around five, then wade into a mikveh, or ritual bath, built inside what was once a garage for trucks belonging to the prior owners, Chesapeake Poultry.
They pray for an hour, begin work at seven and usually continue until four o'clock. After work, Chief Rabbi Samuel Gender, 55, gives a lesson about a forthcoming holiday or the Talmud, a collection of Jewish religious and civil laws. Then the men eat, pray and go to sleep.
The chickens they kill are hatched locally, in nearby Seaford, Del. The turkeys, which are processed on Wednesdays, come from North Carolina. Each day, a tractor-trailer full of processed poultry leaves the plant for New York City, where the birds are distributed under the brand name of Moriah Kosher. With a few exceptions for observant Salisbury Jews, Jarmco does not sell locally.
Kosher birds, the rabbis say, are cleaner, healthier and tastier than their nonkosher counterparts. The process begins in what is called the killing room. Here, the live bird is passed by one local worker to another who places it on a metal slaughtering table. After a rabbi -- while saying a silent prayer -- kills the bird, a third local man places it on an assembly line hook.
The birds are killed with razor-sharp knives that slit their throats, after a nerve has been cut to lessen the pain. Three rabbis work at a time, in individual cubicles. After a while, three other rabbis relieve them on the line.
The dead birds are then denuded of feathers by plucking machines. Still on hooks, they are moved to the eviscerating line, where the organs are removed and the birds inspected for U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors and then by the rabbis for blood and disease.
Any deformity -- such as a hole in the intestines or a tumor -- makes the bird nonkosher. Those that are still edible are silver-tagged by Rabbi Gender for sale.
The birds are then soaked in water, salted under rabbinical supervision and hung out to dry for 60 minutes. Then they are placed in water with ice to lower their temperature before they are packed in wooden crates and trucked to New York, said Nelson.
The company president is Bernie Ackerman, whose office is in lower Manhattan. Nelson and Ackerman communicate often by phone. "Let me get you six tubs of breast," Nelson told him the other day. "I'll work it out."
The normally smooth operation of the kosher processing plant was momentarily put in jeopardy that day when a "killing rabbi" came to the front office to say that he had to go home before the week was over because his father-in-law was sick.
"How you gonna go home? Fly?" Nelson asked. "I don't think so. You have chickens to kill tomorrow."
Nelson said two rabbis could not do the work of three, and he called in the chief rabbi to resolve the problem. "Are we going to kill chickens tomorrow?" Nelson asked. After some discussion between the two rabbis, the younger one agreed to stay.
"All right, yeah," the chief rabbi said. "Killing tomorrow."