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Heksher Tzedek OK With Esrog Racketeering?

Heksher Tzedek OK With Esrog Racketeering?

Associate Editor

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Are Heksher Tzedek rabbis, are the Uri L’Tzedek ethical preachers, any better than the Rubashkins of Agriprocessors? Not when it come to Sukkot. When it’s Sukkos time, just days after Yom Kippur, ethics be damned.

It’s a funny thing about all those rabbis who talk “social justice” and lame cliches such as Tikkun Olam. When it comes to Agriprocessors or other kosher meat suppliers these rabbis say they care deeply about the workers, their wages, the management’s economic purity, honesty and decency without which, these rabbis insist, kashrut can’t be kosher.

But when it comes to selling esrogim in their own neighborhoods, these same rabbis and preachers turn into uber capitalists. The George Bailey masquerade is over and they turn into Mr. Potter. When it comes to Sukkot, these Pottersville rabbis care about no one but the esrog racketeers, without any concern for the consumer, let alone the foreign workers harvesting the esrog fruits and palm fronds.

For all the concern by Heksher Tzedek rabbis and their fellow-traveling scolds that workers be paid at least 115 percent of the minimum wage, what are to make of the fact that there was not one Heksher Tzedek-type community that I know in which an esrog could have been purchased before Sukkot for less than a several hundred percent mark-up over cost? Where’s the economic decency or ethics in that? When it comes to phony unethical economics, these esrog racketeers have to work their way up to being even half as decent as the Rubashkins. At least the Rubashkins, when they owned Agriprocessors, made kosher meat affordable, which is more than these rabbis do with lulavs and esrogs.

In most of the United States, local esrog sales are tightly controlled by synagogues and their in-house Masters of Ethics, or under the auspices of synagogues, or in places such as Jewish bookstores in which a dubious tax-deductible kick-back is given to synagogues or some other religious address. Therefore, most suburban Jews, or Jews living far from the more economically friendly Orthodox neighborhoods of the inner city, have no option whatsoever but to pay exorbitant, extortionist prices for a lulav-esrog set that is far beyond the few dollars (less than $10) that a citrus fruit and a palm frond actually cost.

Instead of these rabbis making it easier for Jews in these hard times to celebrate Sukkot, they instead make it easier for a cartel to sell these holy requisites of lulav and esrog for the voodoo prices of $36 or $72 or $180 or $360 (as the base price, there might be some variation by a dollar or two for hondlers). You know this is voodoo economics by the cute pricing according to Chai instead of any realistic gradations.

Why do ethical finger-waggers point to Agriprocessors and other kashrut businesses? Because their synagogues don’t get a kick-back from Iowa meat-packers like they do from the local esrog cartel? Because they take esrog extortion for granted? Where is the ethical component in all this, among the clergy who hold themselves up as the Great Ombudsmen of Torah Ethics? If on Rosh Hashanah, these rabbis arranged for a neighborhood squeeze so that shuls get a shady tax-deductible kick-back from $360 cases of honey and apples, or if pre-Passover they enable extortion and kick-backs from matzoh companies, so a family had to pay $36 or $72 or more for a good box of matzoh, would congregants stand for that?

In fact, these rabbis would get fined by the government, which monitors Passover prices but not Sukkos prices. (Maybe the government, and the IRS, or the RICO investogators should be looking into this, as well). And yet a family needs a lulav and esrog for Sukkos as much as we need matzoh on Pesach. These rabbinic-supervised rip-offs show these Heksher Tzedek-types to be cruel in their deliberate stealing from economically-strapped fellow Jews who trust their local rabbis, cruel in rabbinic-endorsed robbery from the old, the weak, and others whose circumstances don’t allow travel to the few and dwindling places where the prices are slightly more fair.

Where’s the ethics and justice here? Where’s the holiness in highway robbery? Where’s Uri L’Tzedek and Heksher Tzedek and Yeshivat Chovivei Torah and JTS and Hebrew Union and all the rabbinic centers that scold Jewish business owners about ethics but then abandon their own ethics through silence, complicity and conspiracy regarding the shameless gouging of Jews trying to observe Sukkot? If the extortion begins not with the rabbis but with the esrog wholesalers, what have the rabbinic organizations done to break that cartel? Anything? Ever? Or is it too lucrative?

Or is it that Agriprocessors was an opportunity to embarass the black-hat Orthodox — can’t pass that up — with that despicable old cheap shot that Orthodox Jews care only about ritual but WE care about ethics instead. Aint we swell. Or do we only care about ethics for the Orthodox?

These are hard times. Many have lost jobs or have suffered cutbacks in salaries. The season of holy days have passed. But let’s see even one of these self-flattering “ethical” rabbis stands up and says that next Sukkot he or she will be fighting on side of the Jewish consumer, on the side of a simple Jew trying to observe the holy days, rather than being on the side of racketeers. Perhaps low-end esrog prices can begin at $15 — still enabling a healthy profit — instead of low-end prices beginning at least double that, or triple that, in some neighborhoods.

A few weeks ago, there was a inflatable “rat” placed by union workers outside one particular synagogue that wasn’t paying union wages. Next Sukkot there ought to be an inflatable “rat” outside every American sukkah where the rabbi is on the side of the bad guys.

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