Agriprocessors, Ethics And Kashrut: 10 Years Later


President Trump’s commuting of Sholom Rubashkin’s sentence and his release from jail has stirred up many memories for me. One takes me back to the spring of 2008, when I attended a meeting in Lower Manhattan during which Rabbi Milton Balkany, known as “The Brooklyn Bundler” who served time for attempted blackmail and extortion, pointed a finger at me and said: “You don’t want to know what happened to the last person who went up against my father in law.”

His father-in-law was Aaron Rubashkin, the owner of Agriprocessors, a kosher slaughterhouse and meat-packing factory in Postville, Iowa. Balkany and two representatives from Agriprocessors sat on one side of the table and then-rabbinical student Shmuly Yanklowitz, Rabbi Jason Herman, and I sat on the other.

“Was that a threat?” I asked.

Rabbi Balkany said he would never threaten anyone, but he didn’t think it was good for “you boys” to be involved in this.

The “this” he was referring to was a letter that Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization we were active in that combats suffering and oppression, had sent to the Rubashkin family following the 2008 federal raid on its Agriprocessors plant. By the time of the meeting, thousands of other kosher consumers had signed on.

In our letter and in this meeting, we shared our deep concerns about Agriprocessors; how it had long exhibited a pattern of unethical business practices that had hurt many and created a massive chillul Hashem, or desecration of God’s name. It had been found to pay the lowest slaughterhouse wages in the nation, had rampant health and safety violations that put workers at risk, the presence of children working in the slaughterhouse, documented cruelty to animals, and more. Our ask was simple: convince Agriprocessors to create a compliance department within the company that would ensure it would uphold the law. Until that was done, we  could not, as kosher consumers, consume their products.

We maintained that running a kosher business, one that serves and is supported by the Jewish community, should reflect integrity. We shared the language of their own website: “as a producer of kosher meat products, we approach our business in the context of a deep religious tradition.”

We asked: “does this deep religious tradition not include the mitzvah of veahavtem et hager, loving the stranger, the mitzvah of bal talin, proper payment of workers, the mitzvah of dina demalchuta dina, respecting the law of the land, and the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name?”

The meeting did not end well.

The threats and intimidation for speaking out about Agriprocessors continued. But, to our surprise, a few weeks later, the company announced that it was creating a legal compliance department and granted us access to the former federal prosecutor who was running it.

Within a few months, however, the company was sold. Within another year, Sholom Rubashkin, the son of the founder, was sentenced to jail for 27 years in jail for bank fraud and money laundering. Within the next two years, hundreds of Agriprocessors former workers were jailed and deported. The town of Postville lay in economic ruin. While the government had acted strongly, I argue that it did not act responsibly, and the consequences of the action led to great suffering of many, many people.

We, the activists, felt that while we had raised a voice of moral consciousness and helped make some changes in the company, we didn’t have much to show for our efforts on behalf of exploited workers now that Agriprocessors was gone. We began to think about what could be done proactively to encourage more ethical business practices in the Jewish community, and to support and protect vulnerable workers who make our Jewish lives possible.

This began a ten-year journey that included launching Tav HaYosher, a seal certifying that, in addition to being kosher, businesses under its supervision were yosher, ethical. We ended up certifying over 150 food establishments, including many where we successfully convinced owners to change practices to get or keep our seal.

We helped immigrant works in a pickle factory who had been cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages win their court case. We gave shiurim and wrote articles across the country about our Torah responsibility to treat those who work within our communal gates with dignity, respect, and fairness.

And we had some failures. We were not able to act in other kosher institutions where people were and still are exploited. The Tav HaYosher seal proved to be a difficult to sustain financially. Eight years later, its power and effectiveness are greatly diminished. The overarching goal, getting the whole of the kosher community to demand the clear, high standards of ethics just as it demanded clear, high standards of ritual, has not happened. Yet.

My own feelings about Rubashkin are mixed. His 27-year sentence, though completely legal, was certainly harsh. He has children, including one with special needs, who were separated from their father. For financial fraud, he received a sentence much longer than Enron executives, those who were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, more than many rapists and murderers. I wonder what would be accomplished by his languishing in jail for 27 years?

And at the same time, he never said he was sorry. He never apologized to the court, to the workers in Postville, to the Jewish community for the tremendous harm, the tremendous chillul Hashem, that he caused.

“How do we teach [our children] what is wrong and what is right when we celebrate, defend and downplay those who committed crimes?”

Further, I am deeply troubled that for many in our community, the commuting of his sentence has served as sense of triumph, rather than an opportunity to reflect and recommit to ethics in business, has served as a sense of vindication and a cause for rallies and jubilant celebration.

As my colleague, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, noted: “How do we teach [our children] what is wrong and what is right when we celebrate, defend and downplay those who committed crimes?”

Amidst all the debate in the Jewish community about Sholom Rubashkin and the commutation, and how this topic has become something of a Rosharch test that tells us more about the people arguing than the real issues at hand, I kept thinking about someone else from Postville, Iowa.

Her name was Inez. Shmuly and I met her on the back porch of her house a few weeks after the raid. She was unable to work at the plant because it had been closed, but she was also unable to leave because she was wearing an ankle tracker, awaiting immigration proceedings. She was stuck.

An ad in her Guatemalan newspaper had promised great jobs and a great future with a great company called Agriprocessors in Iowa. She told us that her dream in moving to this country was to buy a house and raise goats. Inez came and worked in the chicken department at the plant for 3 years, making $6.25 when she started and ended at $6.75 when she finished. Her supervisors didn’t allow her to go home until all the orders were complete, meaning she would begin her day at 9:30 a.m. and often stay at the plant until 10:00 or 10:30 p.m., against her will. Never paid for overtime.

She told us she had been forced to purchase a car she could not afford from her supervisor to keep her job, and about her three 16-year old cousins who had been working there. In a quiet, flat voice with her eyes downcast, she told us about the injuries she and her family and friends had endured there, deep cuts, lost fingers, a lost hand, injuries received while producing the meat that would sit on our communal Shabbat tables.

And then she started to cry. She knew she was facing deportation and did not have the money to bring her 14-year old daughter back with her. She never imagined this would happen to her, to be treated this way, by the company, by the government, when all she had wanted to do was come to this country and work hard, and raise kids, and a few animals.

I am ashamed to say I do not know what happened to her. Or Maria, or Juan, or Leo, or many of the other workers that I met.

Or the hundreds of others in a similar position, or what’s happening to the thousands today – human beings created in the image of God, who make it possible through their work for the Jewish community to exist. The Torah demands that we treat them with dignity, respect, and care. In our homes. In our businesses. In our communal businesses. In our society. And guess what. They are more vulnerable to exploitation today than they were ten-years ago. Sholom Rubashin had an army of people and money behind him that protected his family and worked tirelessly for his well-being. Inez, Maria, Juan, Leo and others do not. Whether Sholom Rubashkin is in jail or not has very little importance to them.

What does matter is that they feel safe, respected, and treated fairly, that their children have a brighter future, that they are seen as human beings made in the image of God.

What happened 10 years ago doesn’t matter to a housekeeper or a worker in a kosher restaurant today. What matters is what happens today, when each of us can make a difference.

It starts in the home. Support products and industries that treat people, animals and the planet with dignity and respect. If you hire people to help clean, cook, watch your children or a parent, treat them with the same dignity and respect you would want. Pay them a proper wage, and give them benefits. It extends to our communal institutions; make sure that all workers in synagogues, schools, Hillels, kosher restaurants, and more are paid properly, work in a safe environment, and are treated with respect. Raise your voice, even when it’s uncomfortable. It extends out to when we bring our Torah values into the public sphere; we must not forget about the most oft repeated mitzvah in the Torah – to love the stranger.

Each of us can play a part in creating this reality.

Rabbi Ari Hart is rabbi of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Congregation in Skokie, IL. This piece is excerpted from his Dec. 30 sermon.