Postville Jewish community struggles to survive after raid

POSTVILLE, Iowa (JTA) — After former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin was arrested earlier this month, Rashi Raices joined several dozen members of this town’s Jewish community in volunteering the equity on their homes to guarantee his return to face trial.

All told, they were willing to put up the equivalent of about $2 million, according to the judge in the case. The court also received 275 letters from around the world testifying to Rubashkin’s character.

Rubashkin stands accused of a host of crimes stemming from his stewardship of the Agriprocessors meat packing plant in Postville. To much of the outside world he is the public face of a rapacious company that has demonstrated deep contempt for the law.

But to the several hundred Jews of Postville — home of the company’s main plant and once the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States — Rubashkin is a figure of reverence, a man who built a successful business and thriving Jewish community while performing countless unsung acts of kindness.

“The community cares very much for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin,” Raices told JTA on Sunday, three days after a federal magistrate rejected the appeals and ordered Rubashkin detained until trial.

“If they didn’t trust him, and if they didn’t care for him, they would not put up their homes,” Raices said. “Do you think if we really thought he was going to run away that we would put up our homes?”

The public offering on Rubashkin’s behalf is all the more noteworthy because it comes at a time of tremendous uncertainty for Postville’s Jews. The shutdown of Agriprocessors, which filed for bankruptcy Nov. 4 and hasn’t operated the plant in more than a week, has had deep consequences.

“People for the first time are going on to food stamps and Medicaid and unemployment,” Raices said.

Agriprocessors was the economic engine for the entire region of northeast Iowa, but the Jewish community was particularly dependent. Some 90 percent of Postville’s Jews were employed directly by the company, many of them as ritual slaughterers, or shochtim. Even those who didn’t often were employed by organizations established to service the community and therefore are dependent indirectly on Agriprocessors.

Teachers in the Jewish community school haven’t been paid since Oct. 3. Jewish Agriprocessors employees are, by one estimate, 12 weeks behind in their pay. A nonprofit effort has been established to raise money for the Jews of Postville and state assistance is on the way, but in the meantime some families are struggling to heat their homes and keep food on the table.

Their situation has gone relatively unnoticed, even though a massive federal immigration raid in May made this sleepy northeast Iowa town a focus of national interest. Instead, the bulk of news reports have focused on the plight of the largely immigrant work force detained by the federal government and the unsupported families they left behind. Much of the plant’s former non-Jewish work force is now stuck in Postville with dwindling resources, living off the generosity of area churches and dependent on the good will of the city’s residents.

On Nov. 21, Mayor Robert Penrod initiated the process of having Postville declared a disaster area — a move that is expected to result in nearly $700,000 in state assistance. Later in the day, a notice was posted in the Postville synagogue announcing that help is on the way for those struggling to pay for food and utilities.

“It’s a man-made disaster,” said Aaron Goldsmith, a former Postville city councilman and frequent spokesman for the community. “It’s as if we were hit by the Katrina flood. It doesn’t discriminate. The economic impact of the shutdown has hurt Jew and gentile alike, suppliers, sub-suppliers, the city’s infrastructure and the general morale of the broader community.”

Morale in the Jewish community has been especially hard hit because of a widespread sense among Postville Jews that they have been given a raw deal. Not by the Rubashkins, whose business practices some outside critics blame for the current crisis, but by the media, which many Jews in Postville see as unduly biased against the company, and by the federal government, which is seen as having moved more aggressively against Agriprocessors than against other companies accused of hiring undocumented workers.

That sense of grievance was compounded Nov. 20 when U.S. Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles refused to release Rubashkin on bail, concluding that he posed a “serious risk of flight.” Rubashkin faces substantial jail time for his alleged role in a scheme to defraud the company’s bank, as well as a host of charges related to his role in helping procure false documentation for the plant’s illegal work force.

In his ruling, Scoles cited a number of factors that made Rubashkin a flight risk, including the fact that Jews are granted automatic citizenship in Israel and that two former Agriprocessors supervisors already are believed to have fled there. He also noted that a travel bag filled with cash, silver coins, Rubashkin’s birth certificate and his childrens’ passports were found in his home.

His attorneys countered that Rubashkin’s financial situation was deteriorating and that he was saving the money to meet his family’s needs. They also argued that Rubashkin was tied deeply to the community and his 10 children, eight of whom still reside in Postville, including a mentally challenged son who is said to be particularly reliant on his father.

“Any judge can now say that they will not allow a Jew out just because he is a Jew, because a Jew has the right to run to Israel,” Raices said. “So you know what? Everyone’s hurting themselves out there by not bringing an outcry about that. That is blatant anti-Semitism. And he’s just the first one that’s suffering from that.”

“This past Wednesday was a very black day for Judaism, not just for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin,” she added. “It was a black day for Jews in America.”

Goldsmith declined to go as far, but he did offer that Rubashkin was the victim of “over-prosecution” and that the judge’s decision was “perplexing.”

While the community anguishes over Rubashkin’s fate, it also has more pressing concerns. At the Kosher Community Grocery on Nov. 21, the shelves were noticeably less than fully stocked. In the kitchen, Mordy Brown was slicing onions for cholent, part of the meal he was preparing for the approximately 40 yeshiva students in Postville.

Brown said the store is extending credit to some families short on funds and that cash flow is “very low.” Some meat remains in stock, but last week’s order, Brown said, is going to be the last for a while. He predicted the shelves would be empty in three days.

“It’s getting really tough,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, at the packing plant, all was quiet. Handwritten signs posted in the window announced more bad news: No work on Sunday and Monday. A court-appointed trustee was due Monday in Postville; the town is hopeful that checks will be issued soon thereafter.

But there are few illusions that Agriprocessors can recover as a going concern. Virtually the only hope for the future of the Postville Jewish community rests with the plant’s purchase by another company.

“I don’t know that the name Agriprocessors can be resurrected,” Goldsmith said, “but I think the plant can be resurrected. There just might be too much baggage with the old name.”

Talks with investors have been under way for months but no deal has been announced. Bernard Feldman, the company’s recently appointed chief executive, submitted an affidavit to the court claiming that he expected “such negotiations will be fruitful [and] completed in the very near future.”

In the meantime, the community languishes in uncertainty. And while the worst of the humanitarian crisis will likely be avoided through state assistance and outside donations, the intensity of the anger remains.

“It’s a 20th century pogrom,” said a customer at the kosher grocery who declined to give his name, “just without the horses and the houses haven’t been burned down yet.”

Career Opportunities

Even though Elizabeth Arkin joined Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in September, she’s still writing resumes and looking for work — though not for herself.

That’s because, as vocational counselor of the rehabilitation program for Los Angeles proper — the Westside, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, etc., it is Arkin’s occupation to help those with disadvantages land career opportunities in today’s competitive job market. At JVS, an affiliate of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, with the help of the Department of Rehabilitation, Arkin individually assists those with severe disabilities — such as blindness, mental and psychiatric illness, orthopedic problems — on the finer points of seizing employment. Part of that process involves coaching the people she works with through job preparation, resume writing and interview skills.

“My goal is to build a bridge for my client to that job,” says Arkin.

Goal is the operative word at JVS, as Arkin’s work will also include a new program getting off the ground called GOALS, an acronym for Gaining Opportunities and Life Skills, aimed at assisting people with disabilities. JVS job assistance for the disabled is absolutely free.

One such client that Arkin works for is Judy Stearn, 49, who is blind.

“We’re in contact every day,” says Stearn. “We brainstorm together about ideas. She has gone into different employers.” Stearn adds that Arkin paves the way for her before she meets with employers and gives them an idea about her personality and abilities, so that they are comfortable by the time they meet Stearn.

In Stearn’s case, Arkin explains, “She had a lot of skills to begin with. We’ve worked on her resume.”

Arkin’s collaborative relationship with Stearn began when she made a trip out to Stearn’s home.

“I was able to observe her computer which has assistive technology or adaptive equipment,” says Arkin. “I was able to see how people who were blind use a computer.”

After that initial visit, Arkin helped Stearn prepare for her desired job in customer service.

“I would go in, I would visit the employers… look at the job, see how many tasks were involved,” says Arkin of her approach. She set about finding an employer willing to accommodate Stearn’s adaptive equipment. As the JVS administrator describes it, Stearn uses voice-activated technology: “Software that speaks to you and you feel it with a Braille display.”

So far, the road to finding Stearn a job has been kind of bumpy. Among the challenges Arkin and Stearn are tackling together: finding the right hours, the right proximity from Stearn’s home, and, of course, willing employers.

“It’s very difficult for blind people to get jobs because of people’s attitude toward us,” says Stearn. “So it’s not an easy thing to break down the barriers and get jobs. Sometimes the employers flipped out. They’d ask, ‘How are they going to do this? How are they going to do that? Who’s gong to take care of them?’ Well, I can take care of myself, thank you very much.”

In fact, Stearn had worked for many years doing medical transcription, but took a break to raise her child, now nine. So her present challenge is re-entering the job market.

“She’s very positive. She’s also thorough,” says Stearn of Arkin. She says that her counselor is “interested in what she does, so that makes it even better for employers to work with her, and vice versa.”

Nevertheless, there are no guarantees of a happy ending — despite all of the efforts of Arkin and Stearn. Four months into the JVS program, Stearn has yet to find a job. Stearn remains optimistic, and she does have an interview scheduled in January. Above all, Stearn appreciates the individual attention she gets from Arkin, who also works with seven other clients on an ongoing, one-to-one basis.

“I think we work well together,” says Stearn. “My personality plus [Arkin’s] clicks. We both have a lot of vitality that allows us to be cohesive.”

Still, a helping hand from the outside would be more than appreciated, and anyone in the community with a job lead, or those interested in learning more about JVS programming, can contact Elizabeth Arkin at Jewish Vocational Service. Call (323) 761-888, ext. 163.

A Good Deal?

German companies may benefit from a proposed settlement that could shut out future restitution

By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

The $5.2 billion settlement in the works to compensate wartime slave and forced laborers is a good deal for German companies, banks and insurers, but not for a wide range of claimants who suffered under the Nazi regime, warns Barry Fisher.

Fisher is a Los Angeles human rights lawyer, who is co-counsel in numerous Holocaust restitution lawsuits and represents not only Jewish interests, but also those of the Romani people (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the disabled and others.

The hundreds of German companies which profited from the exploitation of up to 1.5 million slave laborers, mostly Jews, and forced laborers, mostly non-Jews from central and eastern Europe, are to put up at least half of the $5.2 billion, according to the not yet finalized agreement.

But that figure is less impressive than it seems, because the companies are likely to reap a tax break making up to 50 percent of their contributions to the “humanitarian fund” deductible, says Fisher.

What upsets the attorney more is that with the final adoption of the pact, German industry, banks and insurers will be shielded from any and all future claims — with the assistance of the U.S. government.

With the “legal peace” or “legal closure” foreseen under the agreement, German banks, which profited hugely from the forced “Aryanization” of mostly Jewish businesses and property, would no longer have to worry about future claims.

German insurance companies would be similarly shielded for all time.

While the humanitarian fund is supposed to also cover outstanding Aryanization and insurance claims, Fisher is skeptical that the fund is large enough to do the job. And he is unhappy that the U.S. government would be bound to oppose any future claims, once the settlement is signed.

Always, in the background, is the ticking of the biological clock, as the supposed beneficiaries of the fund, now mostly in their 70s and 80s, die off.

Fisher notes that even the $1.25 billion Swiss banking settlement, signed well over a year ago, has not yet been legally approved.

He and other attorneys fear that any payouts by the current slave labor fund are still one year off, if all goes well.