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Treyf in Iowa

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Postville, a quiet town of 1500 in rural Iowa was the scene of an interesting experiment in Jewish-American life. Agriprocessors, the largest of America’s glatt kosher meat packers established their biggest slaughterhouse there. Imagine the black hat managers and shochets (kosher slaughterers) rubbing shoulders with the farmers and small town folks and bringing in immigrant laborers to do the dirtier jobs. It was a new type of inter-cultural experiment in a rather unlikely setting. Indeed it provided the subject matter for Prof. Stephen Bloom’s book: Postville: A Clash of Culture in Heartland America. But this tale of culture clash between Lubavitchers and rural Iowans has been superseded by a far more important conflict.

Sholem Rubashkin, a son of the founder, and the former CEO of Agriprocesssors was arrested in October and charged with abetting aggravated identity theft, in which he allegedly participated in a fraudulent operation to provide fake documents to his illegal workers. Three of his employees have already entered guilty pleas in related charges. Rubashkin, if convicted could be sentenced to at least two and up to 22 years in prison.
However this is only the federal charge. Iowa has fined Agriprocessors nearly $10million dollars for violation of state labor laws including: illegal deduction of sales tax, illegally deducting money from employees for protective clothing, and failing to issue final paychecks to 42 employees. The state attorney general has charged the company with 9,311 misdemeanors, many involving child labor violations.

In a series of articles in The Forward, Nathaniel Popper exposed the working conditions, anti-union environment, living conditions of the workers, lack of safety training, and general exploitation of labor in Agriprocessor’s Brooklyn warehouse as well as in the Postville operation. He contrasted them with the unionized operations of Eastern Meats and International Glatt Kosher Meats which provided health care benefits, paid sick time and starting salaries above minimum wage to their workers. A picture emerges that rivals Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle but that book was set in Chicago’s infamous packing houses of a century ago.

I will not comment on all the outstanding charges against the Rubashkins. The courts will rule. However, this much is clear. They hired illegal, largely Latino immigrants from Central America and Mexico, knowing that their precarious positions would discourage unionization, makes them accept the lowest wages, and not complain against sub-standard working conditions.

That brings us to the interesting question of what constitutes the kosher slaughter of animals. By and large the orthodox movement in the United States has exhibited little concern with the labor conditions at Agriprocessors. Indeed, one delegation of orthodox rabbis accepted the company’s invitation to take a tour of the facilities at company expense and found, not surprisingly a clean, modern factory with contented workers. It reminds me of nothing so much as those well organized tours that the Chinese government used to arrange for the gullible. However, there have been organized protests in Iowa and both conservative and reform rabbis have commendably participated.

Beyond that the Rabinnical Assembly of the Conservative movement has endorsed the “Heckscher Tzedek or Justice Certification” to add to the traditional certification of kashruth. Rabbi Morris Allen, speaking for the committee that brought in this recommendation argued that: “There shouldn’t be any Jew that isn’t concerned about this. There has, until now, been a greater stringency in kashruth on the smoothness of a cow’s lung, and people have forgotten that the Torah also speaks about the safety of the worker.” Black hats and external manifestations of religiosity are no substitute for Jewish observance of social justice in Iowa or anywhere else.

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