Jason Herman, a Manhattan Orthodox rabbi and kosher meat consumer, has stopped buying the beef and poultry sold by AgriProcessors. Now, when he shops at the Upper West Side’s Kosher Marketplace, he takes care to choose only products from its competitors.
Rabbi Herman is at the leading edge of what may become a wave of kosher-observing Jews boycotting the country’s single largest producer of kosher meat and poultry. This week, two organizations urged consumers to take that step and the Conservative movement asked its constituents to “evaluate” whether or not to continue eating the controversial kosher meat following recent allegations involving illegal workers and animal cruelty.
“There have been a lot of ethical issues that haven’t been cleared up,” said Rabbi Herman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel – West Side Jewish Center, a synagogue in the shadow of Penn Station, and executive director of the newly formed International Rabbinic Fellowship, a group of about 100 rabbis on the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum.
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire. I believe ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ but they’ve had an obligation to respond and say ‘here’s what we’re going to do differently,’ and they haven’t,” Rabbi Herman said.
In fact, this week Aaron Rubashkin, founder and owner of the company, issued a statement that appeared to announce that he had fired his son, Sholom Rubashkin, as the acting chief executive officer. The statement, titled “AgriProcessors Announces Leadership Change,” said that Aaron Rubashkin “announced today that the company will hire a new chief executive officer” to run the country’s largest kosher meat producer.
Another member of the Rubashkin family, a grandson of the founder also named Sholom Rubashkin, is a nephew of the Sholom Rubashkin in the announcement. In an interview Tuesday with The Jewish Week, he said that his uncle “wasn’t let go. He was the head of accounting and purchasing, and was referred to as the CEO, but to say he was let go is very inappropriate.” The younger Shalom Rubashkin, 26, has worked at the Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse for two years in accounting.
The company earlier issued statements saying that it is cooperating with federal and state authorities. This comes in the wake of an arrest of 389 AgriProcessors employees on May 12, the sentencing of more than 200, and the immediate deportation of others. While AgriProcessors has not been formally charged, federal authorities allege that the company knowingly hired the illegal immigrants, supplied them with false work papers, paid them less than minimum wage and otherwise exploited them.
The company’s brief public statements since the arrests have not directly addressed its role.
Young Sholom Rubashkin said that he had no knowledge of some of the allegations detailed by the federal government in its affidavit for the search warrant that led to the arrests, and that others — including that a methamphetamine lab was operating in the plant and that a supervisor blindfolded and beat an employee — “are ridiculous.”
“Do you think we’re slave drivers over here?” he asked. He finds the boycotting campaigns “hypercritical,” he said, because they are based on allegations rather than fact.
He said that while production at the slaughterhouse has not yet returned to full capacity, “it is growing by the day.”
Rabbi Herman signed on to a boycott pledge organized by the year-old Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek, Hebrew for “To Awaken to Justice.” The group made public a strongly worded letter it sent to Aaron Rubashkin saying, “we feel compelled to refrain from purchasing or consuming meat produced by your company, and will pressure every establishment with which we do business to cease purchasing your meat.” On June 15, the letter continued, petition signers will stop patronizing kosher restaurants selling Rubashkin meat.
Uri L’Tzedek began circulating the letter last Friday and by Monday had nearly 500 signatures, from Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis and leaders of Hillel chapters, Jewish schools and other groups.
“The Orthodox community has to understand how connected the ethical issues are to our commitment to kashruth, and that they can’t be seen exclusive of one another,” said Shmuley Yanklowitz, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and doctoral candidate in epistemology at Columbia University, who founded the group.
The Jewish Labor Committee, which pegs itself as the bridge between organized labor and the Jewish community, also put out a call to boycott AgriProcessors this week.
The Conservative movement’s rabbinic and synagogue arms, which are partnered in its “Heksher Tzedek” (ethical certification) initiative, did not go as far. Instead, it urged ethical treatment of workers and in food production, and asked individual Conservative Jews to evaluate for themselves whether it is appropriate to continue using Rubashkin meat in their homes and at catered events.
Responding to the boycott efforts, AgriProcessors spokesman Menachem Lubinsky said: “Company officials are saying at this point give us our day in court before you do anything. Nobody’s been charged or indicted. They’re hoping not to be charged … Some say with new management they may avoid it.”
Lubinsky also said production of prepared meats, not the fresh meat supply, was interrupted, adding that there have been spot shortages around the country but that supply is getting back to its normal levels. Impact Here And In Iowa
A survey of several Conservative congregations in New York City, and the largest one near the Postville, Iowa, home of AgriProcessors, reflects widespread awareness of the kosher meat mess, but uneven levels of enthusiasm for bringing change by boycotting the company.
The Rubashkin crisis has affected the meat supply in Des Moines, Iowa, said Rabbi Beryl Padorr, leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue there, about 90 miles from AgriProcessors.
“There is one kosher deli in town and previously most of the meat came from there, so there is less kosher meat now,” she said. “It’s hard not to buy Rubashkin meat if you eat meat and keep kosher.
“But it has raised the level of consciousness of what makes a product kosher. There is an ongoing conversation in the synagogue about it. I’m considering addressing it this coming weekend,” she said.
In New York, the issue is getting attention at some Conservative synagogues, but not others.
It hasn’t been publicly discussed at Brooklyn’s East Midwood Jewish Center, said Rabbi Alvin Kass, where, he estimated, about half of his 500 family congregation buys kosher meat.
At the East Side’s Sutton Place Synagogue, the idea of a boycott is “not making an impact,” said Rabbi Allan Schranz. “Some people know about it but I can’t say that it’s made an impact. For my congregation it is not on the top of list of priorities,” he said, of the 750 household congregation.
It seems to be more a concern at Congregation Ansche Chesed, on the Upper West Side. Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky scrutinizes the label on the kosher meat he buys at Fairway because it indicates the product’s distributor. Since the first video made by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was made public in 2004, showing animals in distress as they were being slaughtered, he said, he has been avoiding Rubashkin products.
He said that about half of the 575 households in his synagogue have kosher homes, and that a significant number have expressed concern about Rubashkin meat.
“We go wrong when we think of Judaic practice as only fulfilling technical conditions. It’s about sanctifying life. This to me is a very powerful, clear example of how people can fulfill technical conditions but still be scoundrels with the Torah’s permission, as Nachmanides said,” according to Rabbi Kalmanofsky.
“I’m proud of American Jewish leadership who are standing up and saying this is unacceptable. One needs teeth about these things. Our kahal [community] is very sensitive to the trap of formal observance that loses its ethical vector and are very committed to marrying those two things.”
Rabbi Joanna Samuels, of Congregation Habonim (the Hebrew word meaning “workers”) on the West Side has also refrained from consuming Rubashkin meat for the last couple of years.
A few months ago she devoted a special Shabbat learning session to the Heksher Tzedek initiative, and thought no one would come. Instead, about 40 attended, she said.
“People are bringing a lot of anxiety to food issues these days, around local food movement and organic food. It definitely struck a chord for people. Issues of what we eat and how food comes to us, all of those issues are really alive for people.”
So far, however, the momentum building in some quarters against AgriProcessors shows no signs of becoming the passionate mass movement that was the kosher meat boycott of May 1902, when some 20,000 Jewish women on the Lower East Side took to the streets — “armed with sticks, vocabularies and well-sharpened nails,” according to a press account of the time — to turn back dramatic increases in the price of kosher beef.
In the end, the boycott campaign may reach only those in religious Jewish populations who are inclined toward activism.
Rabbi Avraham Newman, a part time kosher supervisor at the Upper West Side’s Kosher Marketplace, said that “right now I don’t see any drop-off” in sales of Rubashkin meats, “but on the basis of what I’m reading I expect that’s going to occur in the next week or two.”
And at Glatt Mart, a kosher supermarket and butcher in Flatbush, Brooklyn, which sells some 75,000 pounds of meat monthly and claims to be the largest purveyor of kosher meat in the world, owner Dov Bauman said “I have not had one person ask me about which meat is Rubashkin’s.
“A lot of people ask me if I have inside information about what happened” in Postville, he said. But that’s not changing the way his customers shop. “People are aware that something happened at Rubashkin. But no one says they don’t want a product because it’s Rubashkin.”