June 06, 2008
Tsaar Baalei Chayim (the suffering of living creatures)
Anyone reading the Jewish press (or even the New York Times) for the past month or so, could not avoid the wrenching stories coming out of Postville, a small town in Iowa which was catapulted to national attention with the early morning raid by immigration officials at the Agriprocessors plant. Agriprocessors is the largest kosher meat slaughterhouse in the country, and the May 12 raid was not the first time the company was cited for serious violations including inhumane treatment of both the animals slaughtered at the plant, and the workers providing the labor necessary to carry out the processing.
Irregardless of one’s feelings about illegal immigration in this country or one’s feelings about kashrut (the observance of Jewish dietary laws), the story coming out of Postville is one of human tragedy. The workers at this plant are human beings, many with families, working long hours to make a better life. Over the past few weeks we read about the efforts of some of the local churches to help these workers but until this afternoon could not successfully make that important personal connection that would insure that any funds we contributed would go to help the families affected by this human disaster in the most direct way possible.
Early this afternoon, I received an email from Rabbi Mark Greenspan of Oceanside, NY. Rabbi Greenspan’s weekly emails include sermons and other relevant study for the upcoming Shabbat, but this week he included the following letter from Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Minnetonka, MN. Rabbi Kravitz made a personal visit to Postville and describes that visit in the letter that follows. Please read it…it is a disturbing first-hand account of what took place in that plant and what has happened to the workers who were arrested. We were able to contact Rabbi Morris Allen who accompanied Rabbi Kravitz to Postville and through Rabbi Morris’ connections we know that funds that we send will go to the welfare of the families impacted by this tragedy. If you would like to be part of our effort, please either send a check payable to the Good People Fund (384 Wyoming Avenue, Millburn, NJ 07041) and mark it for "Postville needs" or click on the Donate Now button to the right of your screen and make a credit card donation. Please be sure to indicate that your donation is designated for "Postville needs".
May 31, 2008 – 26 Iyar, 5768
I had a heart-rending experience this past Wednesday. My wife, Cindy, and college age daughter, Talia, drove down to Postville, Iowa (3½ hours from the Twin Cities) with Rabbi Morris Allen and his daughter, Leora, and with Peter Glick, co-chair of Beth Jacob’s Social Justice Committee. We went to see first hand what has been happening in Postville with Agriprocessors, in the aftermath of the largest federal immigration raids in US history.
We were met there by Avi Lyon. Avi is an experienced labor organizer from New Jersey, who served two years ago on the Conservative movement’s initial Commission of Inquiry investigating Agriprocessors that lead up to the establishment of Heksher Tzedek. Heksher Tzedek is the initiative of the Conservative movement spearheaded by Rabbi Morris Allen, and assisted by Jewish Community Action (MN), working for a respectable standard of ethical conduct in the Kosher food industry.
While in Postville we visited with several representatives of the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers International Union) who are there assisting workers stunned by what has happened (see http://www.eyeonagriprocessors.org/). We met with former Rubashkin employees who are awaiting deportation. Most of them are women whose husbands and brothers have already been jailed and whose sentences are delayed so they can care for their minor children, some of whom are US citizens. We talked to local religious leaders of other faiths who are overwhelmed trying to support these people. St. Bridget’s, the Catholic Church in Postville, is a gathering point for those is need. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has appropriately declared Postville a human disaster area and is providing assistance.
We distributed contributions that our congregants had entrusted to us for this purpose. We spent hours hearing about appalling working conditions and the abuses that have taken place at Agriprocessors. We heard allegations of all kinds of abuses: underage workers; the poorest pay of any slaughterhouse in Iowa; supervisors who demanded payments and sexual favors in exchange for jobs or particular assignments. Workers consistently described being cursed at and screamed at to work faster and harder. We heard of people working in demanding and dangerous jobs with no training. We heard two stories of workers being struck. We repeatedly heard workers describe how a lead supervisor would demand that they buy a used car from him for more than its value in order to get a job at the plant, even though they were not eligible for a driver’s license. The people we talked to are in the process of being deported. They had nothing to gain or lose from what they now say about their experiences. They are simple folk who answered questions directly without apparent embellishment (some of us know enough Spanish to attest that we were getting fair translations).
It was heartbreaking to see young women with electric shackles around their legs worrying about how they would now provide for their families. They were upset about losing their freedom and their opportunity to continue to work in this country. It is a shanda to hear first hand the ways this business has been run and the unethical ways people have been treated. Additionally, it was also a powerful encounter with the absurdity of what is happening with immigrant workers in this country upon whom we have all come to rely. For the first time illegal immigrants are being charged as criminals. This will prevent them from ever returning to the US. …
Hebrew National used to advertise, "We answer to a Higher Authority." From what I can see the Rubashkins have badly damaged this claim of Kashrut. What has been happening in Postville in the very definition of Hillul HaShem. We heard that 16 Federal and State agencies are now investigating Agriprocessors. In response to my sermon this past Shabbat about our movement’s press release, I had numerous congregants say to me, "Where there’s smoke there’s fire." Having been to Postville I will tell you that this is more than smoke. This is fire!
As Jews we have an obligation to care about that which is holy and that which is good. Properly observed, the institution of Kashrut embodies both of these values. It was reassuring to hear from Avi Lyon during our visit that there are numerous Kosher meat providers who do live up to these standards…
We have stood by enjoying our kosher meat and chicken from Agriprocessors which dominates the market locally and nationally. It has become increasingly clear that this has been at the expense of simple folks who have been severely mistreated and whose lives are now in utter disarray. We have a responsibility to speak out, We must speak to the providers and distributors of Kosher food about our concerns. We must urge all quarters of the Jewish community to respond to this travesty.