Aaron Rubashkin, 92, patriarch of troubled kosher meat empire


(JTA) — Aaron Rubashkin knew a thing or two about mistreatment at the hands of governmental authorities.

As a child in the Russian town of Nevel, he saw his Jewish school shut down by the Soviet government in 1938. After the Nazis arrived in the summer of 1941, the Rubashkin family fled on foot, landing in Uzbekistan before finally arriving in the United States in 1953.

So it was perhaps not surprising that in 2008, when hundreds of federal agents descended on the tiny Iowa town where his  family operated what at the time was the largest kosher meat producer in the United States, Rubashkin saw it as another case of government mistreatment.

“Everything is a lie,” Rubashkin said of the many misdeeds alleged against the company, Agriprocessors, chiefly that it was employing hundreds of undocumented workers.

Rubashkin, who died April 2 of COVID-19 at the age of 92, was not the face of the scandal that would eventually lead to the company’s sale to an Orthodox Canadian billionaire. That was his son Sholom, who despite the swirling allegations against the company, would be convicted only of financial fraud and sentenced to 27 years in prison, of which he served eight years before President Donald Trump commuted the sentence in 2017.

But Rubashkin felt the pain of the controversy acutely. It was he who had gotten the family into the meat business in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in 1953. And it was he who had purchased the Iowa plant in 1987, transforming the way kosher meat was produced and distributed in the United States. And it was his name that adorned the Aaron’s Best brand that Agriprocessors produced.

“How can we do something which is wrong,” he told JTA in an angry 2008 interview conducted on the street outside his shop, the first he had given after the raid. “If I want to, God forbid! We are ethical people. We don’t do no injustice to nobody, not to a cat.”

In the Chabad Hasidic community, Rubashkin was known less for his business controversies than his many acts of kindness. A lengthy obituary on the Chabad.org website detailed the stories of Rubashkin’s generosity that have become the stuff of legend. Crown Deli, which the family opened on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn, effectively functioned as a soup kitchen, feeding anyone in need.

Rubashkin is survived by his wife, Rivka, and nine children.

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