On July 31, a group of 25 Orthodox rabbis and community leaders visited the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, at the company’s expense. The visit was the first publicized tour of the plant by Jewish leaders since May 12, when federal immigration agents raided the slaughterhouse and arrested nearly 400 workers on charges related to their immigration status. Several rabbis who were on the tour told the Forward that the plant seemed clean and modern and that the workers they spoke to seemed satisfied.
“The responses were the responses of people there who were working hard, willing to work and satisfied with what was happening in the plant,” said Chaim Goldberg, a pulpit rabbi from Minneapolis. Goldberg added that out of convenience, he had driven to Postville at his own expense.
After the Forward published an investigation on working conditions at the Postville plant two years ago, rabbis from the Conservative movement visited the plant and criticized the company’s treatment of its workers. The government warrant that paved the way for the raid in May detailed numerous abuses inside the plant. Since the raid, press reports have given voice to workers complaining about the way the company has dealt with its employees.
These investigations have produced a long list of allegations against the company, including that it employed underage workers, that insufficient safety training led to workers being injured and maimed, and that workers were underpaid. Amid all this, a number of Orthodox rabbis and organizations have defended Agriprocessors from afar, saying that the allegations leveled against the company are unproved.
One of the trip’s lead organizers, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, said that the visit’s purpose was to provide participants with a firsthand look at conditions at the plant.
A statement released afterward by the group said that “the Rabbis marveled at how the media reports, which have traditionally placed a strong emphasis on statements from union officials and others who do not necessarily have personal knowledge of the situation, actually differ from the situation that they observed during their mission.”
The Orthodox leaders who visited Postville, including officers of several major Orthodox organizations, were given a plant tour, roughly three hours long, by Agriprocessors management. Several rabbis who went on the tour said that they were permitted to roam freely through the plant and to talk to workers without supervision by management.
“Everybody spoke to all kinds of people on line, in the lunchroom,” said Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi from Orange County, Calif. “What I saw there was not what I read Friday morning in O’Hare Airport, that it’s a kosher jungle. I saw a state-of-the-art plant.”
Agriprocessors is the largest producer of kosher meat in the United States, and the Postville plant is the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the country.
In addition to a tour of the plant and of Postville, four rabbis on the trip met with a local religious leader and a social worker who have worked with many of the plant’s employees. At the meeting, the rabbis offered to help look into complaints of worker mistreatment and to set up a regular meeting with Agriprocessors management.
“I told these people I’m here to listen and to help,” Young Israel’s Lerner said. Paul Rael, director of the Hispanic ministry at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, attended the meeting. Rael said he was open to a dialogue but that he was troubled by his sense that the rabbis believed the stories of worker abuse to be fabrications.
“I was telling them that I sat at my desk on many occasions and heard this for many years. When you hear the same thing over and over again, you know it can’t be fabricated and there has to be some substance to it,” said Rael, who has worked at St. Bridget’s since 2003.
The statement from the rabbis said that, “as of this moment, the Rabbis are awaiting documentation of the alleged abuses to workers of the Agriprocessors plant.” Rael said that he had not visited the plant himself and that the plant might have been changed recently, but the descriptions from the rabbis didn’t jibe with what he had been hearing from his congregants for years.
“The plant they’re describing to me, and the plant I’ve had workers describe to me, is not same facility,” Rael said.
Some in the Orthodox community are calling for a more rigorous investigation. On July 30, one day before the Orthodox leaders visited the plant, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington’s Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, sent a letter to Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which is the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis. Herzfeld demanded that the RCA commission “a transparent, independent investigation” into the charges against Agriprocessors.
“We need a commission with incredible stature and with rabbis of great merit who can spend a few weeks or a month [in Postville] and can make recommendations,” Herzfeld told the Forward. Herzfeld, who is a member of the RCA, said that the recent trip to Postville was too short and that Agriprocessors’ sponsorship of the trip compromised the findings.
Herring declined to comment on the letter specifically, saying that it was a private communication. He said that the RCA lacked the resources, expertise and powers to conduct an appropriate investigation into the allegations and that it made more sense to wait for federal investigations to run their course.
Kosher slaughterhouse owners surrounded by scandal
US’ biggest supplier of kosher meat accused of exploiting employees, tolerating illegally hiring teenagers. ‘They refuse to accept responsibility for anything that is going on in that plant,’ spokesman for Food and Commercial Workers union says
Two decades ago, the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn opened up a kosher slaughterhouse amid the cornfields of Iowa — not exactly a center of Jewish culture.
The bearded, fedora-wearing strangers from Brooklyn quickly transformed Postville into its own small-town melting pot. Immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico began arriving in great numbers to work at the slaughterhouse. Soon, the town was home to churches and temples, and the shelves of the grocery stores were stocked with tortillas and bagels.
Lately, though, the Rubashkins’ grand cultural experiment seems to have lost any chance at a feel-good ending.
The family’s Iowa business, Agriprocessors, the nation’s biggest supplier of kosher meat, was raided by US immigration agents in May. Nearly 400 workers, mostly Guatemalans, were swept up and jailed and are likely to be deported as illegal immigrants.
Labor organizers and workers have also accused the company of exploiting its employees, tolerating abusive behavior by managers and illegally hiring teenagers to work on the factory floor.
A few Jewish groups have questioned whether the plant, given its problems, should keep its kosher certification.
It all adds up to a mess for a family that has never sought attention, and now feels it is being attacked unfairly, especially by the media.
“The press? Terrible!” the family’s patriarch, Aaron Rubashkin, told a reporter with the Jewish news service JTA during a rare interview in June. He said allegations that the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants and children and tolerated abusive conditions were all lies.
“I wish everybody would be treated like we treat people,” he said.
Attempts to arrange an interview with Rubashkin this week were not successful. His representatives told The Associated Press that the 80-year-old butcher had traveled to Iowa from Brooklyn, where he still runs the family’s half-century-old butcher shop.
The family’s history, though, is well documented.
Aaron Rubashkin and his wife, Rivka, fled the Soviet Union after World War II and settled in Brooklyn, a world center of Hasidic Judaism. Rivka’s uncles, the family has said, had been imprisoned in Siberia because of their religious beliefs.
In the 1950s, Aaron founded a kosher meat market in the city’s Borough Park section. The family prospered in America.
‘These are simple people’
Then, in 1987, the Rubashkins made an incredible leap: Looking for a way to bolster an unreliable supply of kosher beef, the family bought an abandoned non-kosher meatpacking plant in tiny Postville, Iowa.
Two of Aaron’s sons moved to Postville to oversee the plant, and a steady stream of Hasidic families followed. Soon, Postville, then a town of around 1,500 people, found itself drawing immigrant laborers, too.
Suddenly, the town was infused with rabbis and other Jews, Guatemalans and Mexicans, expatriates from former Soviet Republics — and a host of new ethnic tensions.
The town became a regular stop for out-of-town reporters looking for a story about America’s diversity. A documentary crew visited. National Geographic did a pictorial. Journalism professor Stephen Bloom wrote a book, “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.”
Amid it all, the company was a huge success, with popular brands such as Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s. By 2006, Agriprocessors had a second plant in Nebraska, run in partnership with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and annual revenue of $250 million.
In 2004, however, the animal rights group PETA recorded a gruesome video of the company’s operation that showed cattle staggering about in apparent pain after their throats had been slit and their tracheas partly removed. Agriprocessors, while defending its techniques as a religious ritual, agreed to change some practices.
One of Aaron’s sons, the influential Brooklyn rabbi Moshe Rubashkin, pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2002 after writing $325,000 in bad checks related to a family textile business. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
A son-in-law, Menachim Balkany, a political fundraiser who hobnobbed with mayors and congressmen, was charged in 2003 with misusing a $700,000 federal grant. The prosecution was dropped when he agreed to make restitution.
Agriprocessors also found itself battling a lawsuit filed by a bankruptcy trustee overseeing the remnants of a New York health and beauty supply company whose owner had pleaded guilty to a multimillion-dollar bank fraud.
The trustee said the company, Allou Distributors, had a host of suspicious transactions on its books, including $2.9 million in unexplained payments to Agriprocessors. The lawsuit demanded Agriprocessors return the payments, which it claimed were part of the scheme to hide Allou’s assets.
Agriprocessors insisted it did nothing wrong and had been supplying Allou with surplus meat, but it agreed last summer to pay $1.4 million to settle the case.
More trouble may lie on the horizon.
Moshe Rubashkin pleaded guilty this year to storing hazardous waste without a permit at a defunct, family-owned textile plant in Allentown, Pa. His son pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents during the investigation. They have yet to be sentenced.
‘Very warm relations’
Supporters say the Rubashkins are no scofflaws, just unsophisticated businessmen who made some mistakes as their company grew.
“These are simple people. They are a family of butchers,” said Dovid Eliezrie, a California rabbi who has been assisting the family with the media.
Scott Frotman, a spokesman for the Food and Commercial Workers union, had a different take, calling the company’s treatment of its immigrant work force “morally reprehensible.”
“They blame the media. They blame us. They refuse to accept responsibility for anything that is going on in that plant,” he said.
State and federal investigators are looking into various alleged violations at the company, such as employing underage employees, not paying workers, improperly using hazardous chemicals and not having alarms that could be heard by employees. The Rubashkins have not been charged.
“We are God-fearing people and we believe in the American system and we believe it will ultimately turn out OK,” Getzel Rubashkin, 24, a grandson of the family’s patriarch and an employee at Agriprocessors, told The AP in a recent interview.
He also said the family hasn’t given up on Postville, which he has called home since age 10.
“There are people who would like to see us leave, but on the whole we have very warm relations,” he said.