Sholom Rubashkin, the manager of the now-infamous Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, has only completed one of two federal trials, and already — barring a successful appeal — he is looking at a life in prison.
The prospect of such severe punishment — for a man who many credit with making affordable kosher food available in previously underserved markets and for contributing generously to tzedakah, particularly to the Chabad community — has some Orthodox Jews complaining that the kosher meat tycoon is more victim than criminal.
At the same time, liberal Jewish groups that have been critical of the company’s practices — particularly its alleged mistreatment of workers — are hoping the conviction prompts better business practices in the kosher industry and Jewish nonprofit sector.
Rubashkin, was convicted last week on 86 bank fraud charges that could bring a prison sentence of hundreds of years. He hasn’t been sentenced yet, and his second trial — on 72 immigration charges — is scheduled to begin on Dec. 2.
Agriprocessors, then the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States, was the subject of a federal immigration raid in May 2008, in which 389 illegal workers were arrested.
But for years before the raid, the Rubashkin family-owned company was a magnet for criticism. In 2004, the animal rights group PETA released undercover videos taken at Agriprocessors showing seemingly inhumane treatment of cattle and potential violations of kosher slaughter practices, and in 2008, the group released another video, this time showing violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. In 2006, the Forward newspaper ran an exposé on the working conditions, alleging lack of safety training, a slew of workplace injuries and pay as low as $6.25 per hour. The company has also faced criticism for its environmental practices.
Rubashkin’s defenders and sympathizers, however, insist that Agriprocessors was hardly unique among slaughterhouses in its hiring of illegal aliens. They also argue that many allegations against the company have yet to be substantiated, and — while they acknowledge that Rubashkin is guilty of some crimes — they describe him as a good-hearted man who was simply in over his head.
To Nathan Lewin, a prominent lawyer who has defended many high-profile Orthodox clients, including Agriprocessors in previous cases — and who has an op-ed in this newspaper — the main mistake the company made was not responding “to initial allegations as forcefully as they should have, both on questions of kashrut and worker mistreatment. That left him open to what ended up being a criminal process that examined his conduct very meticulously.”
While Rubashkin “did things that were wrong,” Lewin said, “I think in a fair and balanced appraisal of what this man did, considering both the pluses and minuses of his conduct, he did not deserve to be subjected to criminal sanctions or go to jail.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, has been critical of the Rubashkins at different points, calling for Rubashkin to step down as CEO of the plant after the raid. However, he sees the conviction as “very, very sad.”
“I’m very conflicted about it,” Rabbi Genack said. “On one hand, the OU had expressed a lack of confidence in his leadership of the company and asked him to step down. But the truth is, on a human level, the way he’s portrayed [by prosecutors and critics] — there seems to me a certain disconnect. The portrayal like this is [Bernard] Madoff, and he should spend the rest of his life in jail doesn’t make sense to me.
“This was a business that cared about kosher, that famously helped a lot of poor people, but that grew from a mom-and-pop operation to way beyond their capacity and because of that got into significant legal issues.”
“He may deserve to go to jail,” Rabbi Genack added, but the sentences being anticipated “seem much too harsh and unbalanced.”
Menachem Lubinsky, the founder of the Kosherfest trade show and a marketing consultant to many kosher companies, said, “My take is [the Rubashkins] aren’t malicious people,” but added that their business practices were “sloppy.”
The conviction and scores of charges against Rubashkin “doesn’t jive with the character of people who build communities and give to charity,” he said. “It’s almost like a paradox here.”
However, Lubinsky does not anticipate the Rubashkin conviction or the closing of the slaughterhouse (which reopened under new ownership and the name Agri Star earlier this year) will have a larger impact on the kosher industry’s image.
“More stores are opening, more food is available,” he said. “There’s a level of maturity in the industry. I don’t think it will suffer because of one institution or individual. If there would’ve been a backlash [against kosher], it would’ve been when the PETA video came out and it didn’t happen then either.”
On the blogosphere, many fervently Orthodox Jews were rallying to Rubashkin’s defense — and criticizing Jewish organizations for not doing more to help him. Herschel Tzig, a blogger who describes his “Circus Tent” site’s purpose as providing “a counter opinion to the Chabad bashing that is so prevalent in the blogosphere,” posted a critique of the Orthodox Union for not coming to Rubashkin’s aid, although he did not state what the organizations should have done.
“The idea that bank fraud can put a man away for possibly the rest of his life while mass murders — think 9/11 detainees — may walk free and have Government appointed lawyers and advocacy groups, speaks volumes about the situation in these United States today,” he wrote, adding “WHERE WAS THE ORTHODOX UNION IN ALL OF THIS? WHY WERE THEY NOWHERE TO BE FOUND? Why was it OK for them to profit from Rubashkin all this time, despite pressure from the [Modern Orthodox]/Conservadox community to remove the Hekhsher — yet not have one nice word to say about him when he needed it most?!”
Of course not everyone in the Jewish community is rushing to Rubashkin’s defense — or even offering him any sympathy.
Shortly after the conviction was announced last week, the Conservative movement’s Hekhser Tzedek Commission — a group that has been very critical of Agriprocessors and that is attempting to create an ethical/social justice certification to accompany kosher products — issued a statement saying the conviction “delivers both justice and a heavy heart to those of us who champion the cause of ethical kashrut.”
According to the Hekhsher Tzedek statement, “There are tragedies within tragedies in the story of the fall of the house of Rubashkin, the worst of which might be the deaf ear of the Rubashkin family turned towards those who tried to prevent the collapse. We were at the epicenter of those who repeatedly reached out to the family. Yet as the investigation and trial wore on, it became clear that the deafness was a direct result of the Rubashkin family’s flagrant disregard for the law and ethical behavior.”
Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization that launched a boycott against Agriprocessors shortly after the May 2008 raid, said he sees the Rubashkin conviction as “a historical turning point” and criticized Rubashkin’s defenders for caring more about “protecting the leader of the company” than the plight of his workers, many of whom are living in poverty.
The scandal and trials “have created a tremendous divide in how we think about kashrut,” Yanklowitz said.
According to Yanklowitz, whose group has created Tav HaYosher, a system for holding kosher restaurants and grocery stores accountable to certain labor practices, the Agriprocessors saga has spurred many observant Jews to consider “in a significant way the ethical values that come with consumption” of kosher food.