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The backstory of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin

Had his sentence been commensurate to the crime, the Orthodox community would have accepted it
Defense attorney Montgomery Brown, right, and Sholom Rubashkin talk during the trial of Rubashkin, on state child labor charges on May 14, 2010, at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo, Iowa. (Andrea Melendez/AP, Pool)
Defense attorney Montgomery Brown, right, and Sholom Rubashkin talk during the trial of Rubashkin, on state child labor charges on May 14, 2010, at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo, Iowa. (Andrea Melendez/AP, Pool)

It was May, 2008. The call came just a few hours after the infamous federal raid on Agriprocessors, the  kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. On the line was Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, under siege by union organizers, the government, PETA, and the media.

A year earlier, after reading media reports, I had warned him that “storm clouds were brewing.” The crisis started when the Union tried to organize the plant. When Rubashkin resisted, they orchestrated a media onslaught. A student of a classical yeshiva, not formally trained in business, he was ill-equipped to navigate the troubled waters of labor, law, and media. Perhaps out of a innate distrust of authority stemming from his Russian-Hasidic ancestors who had faced down Communist oppression, Rubashkin did not respond when the New York Times and other media outlets reached out for comment. This prompted one-sided news coverage full of wild, unsubstantiated, and mostly untrue rumors of child labor, meth labs, unsafe working conditions, animal abuse and more. Seizing these stories, PETA, whose goal is the eradication of kosher slaughter, entered the fray with its formidable PR resources.

Liberal Jewish groups joined the bandwagon with their agenda of replacing the classical standards of kosher observance with a new-fangled “ethical kosher.” Anointing themselves as the arbiters of what is ethical and what is not, they acted dishonorably, making wild claims of abuses in the factory few had visited.

All of this came to a head that fateful morning. The FBI swooped in, military style. With helicopters hovering, armies of federal agents corralled workers, looking for documentation. Plant employees were hired based on  identification and social security numbers they provided. The federal government had been informed a few months earlier that Agri began using  E-Verify to ensure that new hires had thorough background checks. Employment practices at Agriprocessors were no different than a hundred other meat plants in the US. The only one plant chosen for a military style raid was the one who rebuffed attempts to unionize and happened to be owned by a Hasidic Jew.

Shortly thereafter, I visited Postville. What I had heard for years from friends who worked there, was confirmed in my visit. The plant was modern, clean and subject to government safety inspections. The dire conditions described by the unions and echoed by the social justice rabbis, PETA, and the media, who had not visited the plant, did not exist.

During that visit, I met in a local church hall with leaders of the workers. They raised concerns about issues in the plant and I suggested a mechanism to resolve them. Regular weekly meetings between plant administration and workers to find solutions. With their agreement in hand, I presented the plan to Rubashkin. He had some initial mistrust, but agreed to the terms they wanted. Back I went to the workers and was surprised when they told me they “needed a few days to rethink the matter.” Their final reply was no. Instead of giving up,  I tried again to bring them to the negotiating table. It soon became clear that workers’ rights, and conditions were not the real issue.They  wanted the conflict to continue. They thought that with legal, political and media pressure, their goal of unionizing was reachable.

Then, the legal horror began.The State of Iowa indicted Rubashkin for child labor violations. The union had driven the media into a frenzy and the state prosecutors believed their accusations. At the trial, the facts emerged: it became clear that was no basis for the charges. The case fell apart. Rubashkin was declared innocent.

The failure of the state prosecution prompted the Feds to become more relentless. The immigration charges were nebulous. The workers in Postville, as in hundreds of other plants, had used identification and social security numbers in their employment applications. It would be daunting to prove that Agriprocessors intentionally hired undocumented workers. So the Feds began to examine all aspects of the plant’s operation, and finally found the hook they were searching for. Rubashkin had a line of credit. To secure it, he reported his receivables to the bank on a regular basis. The US Attorney discovered that he had fudged the numbers, exaggerating the amount of outstanding invoices. He had never missed a loan payment and the percentages he exaggerated were not excessive. Still,  the prosecutors demanded that Rubashkin be forced out of the business. They barred anyone connected to him in any way, particularly a relative, to take over. Pressure from the US Attorney was the final blow. The company went belly up; the loan went into default. The prosecutors claimed bank fraud, and arrested Rubashkin.

The prosecutors and the judge refused bail, claiming that he might flee to Israel. There were two kinds of citizens in the eyes of the federal court in Iowa: Hasidic Jews and everyone else. Aside from the Orthodox, other Jewish groups stood silent in the face of this blatant anti-Semitism, other than a last minute letter of concern from the ADL.  Still, the uproar was enough to force the Judge Linda Reade to reverse herself, despite the prosecutor’s opposition, and allow Rubashkin bail.

The die was cast. Rubashkin was found guilty of bank fraud and given the harsh sentence of 27 years imprisonment. The presidents of Bank of America, Countrywide, Chase, and others who perpetuated a mortgage fraud that caused a national recession never saw the inside of a courtroom. A Hasidic Jew who refused to unionize and paid a loan on time, defaulting only when the Federal prosecutors pushed his company into bankruptcy, was handed a virtual life sentence.

With time, many facts emerged making this case even more troubling. There was apparent collusion between Federal Judge Linda Reade and the prosecutors. The judge’s husband was heavily invested in private prisons at the same time she was sending illegal aliens to these institutions. These facts provoked an unprecedented outcry with five former US Attorneys General, dozens of politicians from all stripes, legal experts, and regular citizens, who raised their voices in protest. Finally, on the last day of Hanukkah a miracle occurred: the president issued a commutation to Rubashkin. By nightfall, he was reunited with his family.

The tragic saga of Rubashkin has powerful lessons on many levels. Firstly, the US is not Russia, and there is a rule of law. Yes, Rubashkin did break the law. If his sentence had been commensurate to the crime, the Orthodox community would have accepted it. The presidential commutation restored the people’s trust in the legal system.

Secondly, the Orthodox community united in way that has not occurred in centuries. Hasidim from Crown Heights to Williamsburg and Monsey, Litvaks from Lakewood, Modern Orthodox from Long Island and Manhattan bonded together. All cooperated in an unprecedented fashion, rallying support for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. This newly-found unity must be fostered and cultivated.

When the draconian 27-year sentence was issued, the self-appointed ethical rabbis said nothing. The alphabet soup of Jewish establishment groups, who champion every cause from Syrian immigration to Ferguson were silent. Maybe it was their sense of “embarrassment” over a religious Jew being convicted. Possibly it was their own subconscious hostility to religious observance. Or because Rubashkin is a Hasid, a Jew unlike them. Whatever the motivations, their unwillingness to speak out in the face of this massive injustice, is a badge of shame they all wear.

The commutation issued by President Trump raises a bigger issue that all segments of the Jewish community need to examine. Trump has given one pardon and one commutation in his year in office. America has lost the element of rachmonus, mercy and compassion. Politicians are fearful of exercising the power to grant clemency because of public scrutiny and potential to err. As a society, we need to examine our methods of punishment and seek more compassionate modes of justice. The Lubavitcher Rebbe championed the idea of alternative sentencing and treating prisoners with human dignity. We must protect society from predators and dangerous criminals, but we need to seek balance and help those who have made a mistake a way back to normal life.

Finally, it’s Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin who was the greatest beacon of faith in this ordeal. During his eight years in prison, his record was stellar. Never did he have an infraction. But it was his phenomenal trust in G-d that inspired so many. Visitors to the prison, who arrived with the intention of uplifting Rubashki, invariably left  deeply inspired by his profound emunah, trust and faith in G-d. He used his time in prison to teach others Torah, and connect Jews who had little knowledge of their traditions with their heritage. It is this lesson of faith and commitment to others that we should all emulate.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is the President of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California.

About the Author
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California
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