100 politicians, justice officials sign letter backing Sholom Rubashkin


More than 100 former judges, attorneys general and prominent politicians have signed a letter supporting Sholom Rubashkin, the Iowa kosher slaughterhouse executive sentenced to 27 years in prison for fraud and money laundering.

The letter supports the claim by Rubashkin’s attorneys that prosecutors used improper tactics in securing the lengthy sentence for Rubashkin, according to the Des Moines Register.

Among the signers are John Ashcroft, Michael Mukasey, Edwin Meese III and Ramsey Clark, who served as attorneys general under Presidents George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson, respectively. Others include the former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The letter was written on April 19 to Kevin Techau, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, who is overseeing the case.

Rubashkin’s lawyers say federal prosecutors interfered illegally with the bankruptcy sale of Agriprocessors, Rubashkin’s kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, by ensuring that no members of the Rubashkin family were among the plant’s buyers. The company sold for $8.5 million despite its  $35 million line of credit.

According to the attorneys, the interference led to the company’s losses being figured at a higher number, exacerbating Rubashkin’s offenses and thus resulting in a longer prison term.

“This conduct resulted in Mr. Rubashkin receiving an effective life-sentence for nonviolent offenses against a financial institution, despite considerable mitigating personal circumstances, including being a 51-year-old, first-time offender and father of 10,” read the letter to Techau, according to the Register. “We respectfully submit that it is your duty to ensure that the miscarriage of justice that Mr. Rubashkin’s extreme prison sentence represents is now remedied, not perpetuated.”

In 2012, more than 80 former federal judges supported an unsuccessful request to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the Rubashkin case.

Iowa Senate passes anti-BDS bill


The Iowa state Senate voted to approve a bill aimed at countering the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, movement against Israel.

The bill approved Wednesday by a vote of 38-9 prevents state funds from being invested in companies that boycott Israel.

The bill was passed in February year by the Iowa state House. The bill applies to funds invested by the state treasurer, Iowa Board of Regents, Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System and some other state pension funds, and does not allow a public entity from entering a contract of more than $1,000 with a company that boycotts Israel, according to the Des Moines Register.

The bill now goes to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, for his signature.

In a voice vote on Wednesday, the Iowa Senate also approved a resolution “in support of the Jewish State of Israel,” as well as a negotiated two-state solution.

Iowa is the eighth state to pass a resolution opposing BDS, behind Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana and South Carolina.

In 2012, Iowa exported more than $48 million in goods to Israel, the Des Moines Register reported, citing the Israel Project. In addition, since 1996, Israel has imported some $482.6 million in Iowa goods.

In total, 21 states have taken up anti-BDS legislation.

Sanders, citing email controversy, questions Clinton’s electability


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Sunday took a jab at rival Hillary Clinton's electability, pointing to the controversy surrounding her use of a private email server as evidence of potential damage to the front-runner's campaign.

“In terms of what people are going to get slapped with, look at the front pages today in terms of what Secretary Clinton is getting slapped with,” Sanders said on ABC's “This Week,” referring to Clinton's use of a private email server while secretary of state.

“There is a legal process underway right now,” he said. “And I'm not going to politicize that issue.”  

Sanders, a senator from Vermont, had previously refrained from invoking the controversy over Clinton's controversial use of a private email account on a private server. In an early Democratic presidential debate, he declared that the American people were “sick and tired” of hearing about it.

But the issue has taken on new urgency in recent days as the two fight in an increasingly tight battle for the party's nomination. On Friday, the U.S. State Department announced they would withhold seven private email chains from Clinton's server, saying they contain top-secret information. 

Throughout the dispute, Clinton has maintained that she did nothing wrong in conducting State Department business outside of an official server, arguing that it was permitted and that there was precedent for the practice. 

When asked on Sunday whether she thought the call to withhold the email exchanges was political, Clinton shied away from outwardly accusing anyone but questioned the timing of the decision, which came just before Monday's first-in-the-nation nominating contest in Iowa.

“I just have to point out that the timing and some of the leaks that have led up to it are concerning,” Clinton said on ABC's “This Week.” 

“The best way to resolve is to do what I asked months ago, release these, let the public see them and let's move on,” she added. 

In Iowa, Sanders and Clinton are locked in a statistical dead heat, with Clinton earning 45 percent support of likely caucus-goers compared with 42 percent for Sanders, according to a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg politics.

Nationwide, Clinton leads Sanders with 51 percent support to 40 percent, according to a Jan. 27 Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Bernie Sanders dominates social media conversation on Iowa


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders dominated overall conversation about the Iowa caucuses on Facebook Inc. on Monday, the social network said. 

From midnight to noon CST, 42.2 percent of conversations about the caucuses was about the senator from Vermont, compared with 21.7 percent for Republican front runner Donald Trump and 13.1 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to Facebook.

The caucuses held on Monday night are where the first votes are cast for the U.S. presidential nominations and where Clinton is locked in a tight race with Sanders to become the Democratic nominee for the November election.

The Facebook data is surprising given Trump's success in using social media as a campaigning tool in his presidential bid. The real estate tycoon has been particularly active on Twitter Inc <TWTR.N>, with more followers and tweets than any other candidate running for president. 

Social media posts do not necessarily translate into votes, but experts in digital strategy say they can indicate levels of enthusiasm among active supporters.

Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, all candidates in the Republican race, respectively accounted for 10.7 percent, 4.7 percent and 2.6 percent of Facebook conversations about the caucuses. 

The top three issues discussed were the economy, same-sex marriage and State Department emails, the social network said. 

The U.S. State Department conceded for the first time on Friday that intelligence officials were correct to say that at least 22 emails sent through Hillary Clinton's private server contain some of the government's most sensitive secrets.

For Jewish campaign staffers, a welcome respite at Iowa Shabbat dinner


Some 50 presidential campaign staffers and volunteers, journalists and local movers and shakers from this capital city’s Jewish community munched on house salads inside a stately ballroom at the downtown World Food Prize building last Friday night as Aliza Kline welcomed them to Shabbat dinner.

Around the room, local prosecutors sat next to Planned Parenthood activists in Iowa to support Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Organizers for Clinton’s main challenger, Bernie Sanders, mingled with board members of the local federation.

It was an indubitably Democratic gathering, although at least one Republican – a 19-year-old Vassar College sophomore named Pieter Block who has been volunteering for the Jeb Bush campaign over winter break – braved attendance.

And yet there was a common denominator in the ballroom that Kline, the executive director of OneTable, a New York-based organization that helps Jews in their 20s and 30s organize Friday night meals, picked up on.

“I’m in a room with people who give a shit,” Kline exclaimed, “and that makes me happy.”

Founded in 2014 with support from a trio of Jewish nonprofits – the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, the Paul E. Singer Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – OneTable has facilitated 880 Shabbat dinners. Most have been in New York, but also in Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Boulder, Colorado.

On the same day OneTable landed in Des Moines, dinners took place at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival.

The initiative exhorts busy professionals to organize dinners not only to foster Jewish community but, more simply, for a much-needed change of pace – a manifesto that has particular resonance in Des Moines this time of year. With 10 days left before Iowans officially launch the presidential nomination process, statewide politicking, already clamorous in the lead-up to the Feb. 1 caucuses, only stands to intensify as campaigning draws to a close.

In a cheeky nod to campaign fatigue, OneTable organizers left gold-and-black sleep masks, inscribed “Sssshhhhabbat,” at each place setting.

Lisa Gerlach, 21, a scheduling and advance assistant for the Sanders campaign, acknowledged that her job is not conducive to drawn-out meals, let alone ones with three courses. So the dinner, she said afterward, was “definitely a good part of my week.”

After Kline finished her address and guests finished their appetizers, they tucked into plates of maple-glazed salmon and sautéed asparagus followed by an assortment of desserts – rugelach, halvah and cookies – supplied by the city’s lone kosher restaurant, Maccabee’s.

Next to the eye masks were cue cards with nonpolitical conversation starters (“French fries or tater tots?”), though discussions inevitably shifted to news of the day: Clinton’s planned address at the Jewish federation here, the merits of a national clean energy strategy, and so on.

The dinner was a success, Gerlach said, because during an election, “you never really get to interact with people on the other side of the aisle in a very human way.” And moreover, it is rare that people from across the political spectrum have the opportunity to sit down for dinner in a non-hostile environment.

On Friday, the discourse was notably civil, which is characteristic of Iowa in general, said Will Rogers, 46, the chairman of the Republican Party of Polk County and vice president of Tifereth Israel, the Conservative synagogue here.

“We don’t attack one another and we don’t beat each other up,” Rogers said. “It’s kind of like a big family rooting for different teams during the Super Bowl.”

Building off momentum from Friday’s dinner, OneTable’s hope is that similar affairs will pop up around the country over the course of election season. A dinner has been scheduled for Feb. 5 in Manchester, New Hampshire, four days before the primary there.

“I’d love to see lots of primary Shabbats,” said Kline, 44. “It’s one more opportunity for people to get involved and to get together on a Friday night. So that feels very win-win for us.”

With Sanders polling well beyond expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, and reports that billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is mulling a late bid as an independent, the field of candidates could take on an unusually Jewish patina in the months ahead.

Would OneTable try to involve the campaigns in future dinners? Probably not, said one of the organizers, Seth Cohen, a senior director at the Schusterman Family Foundation. Better to stay above the fray.

“These dinners,” Cohen added, “are about the people in the politics, not the politics themselves – or the politicians.”

 

The idiocy of the Iowa caucuses


What were we thinking? 

If we’re lucky, the day will come when we look back at the Iowa caucuses and the quadrennial carnival they inaugurate with the same embarrassed horror we now feel for duck-and-cover as a safety drill for nuclear war. 

What a dangerous distraction the Iowa spectacle has been from the dysfunction and unfairness of democracy as we now know it. No, worse, what a cynical celebration of it.  Pitifully few Americans vote, and shockingly few of them are young or poor or people of color, yet we give wildly disproportionate influence to the white rural voters of one small state whose priorities, like subsidies for corn-based ethanol, are nationally marginal, and whose disposable time for caucus-going is unimaginable to parents working multiple shifts at multiple jobs. 

At the same time, what a bonanza it’s been for the state’s TV and radio stations, which have raked in tens of millions of dollars in attack ads, and what a bordello it’s been for the billionaires and special interests who’ve anonymously funded those air wars.

What a misbegotten surrogate for civic seriousness this interminable campaign has become, with news networks getting in bed with parties to co-sponsor debates, selling national ad time for those debates at Super Bowl rates and polluting public discourse with bloviating “strategists” and accountability-free predictions.       

I don’t question the intentions or integrity of Iowa caucus-goers.  They’re just rising to the opportunity our system offers to participate in the nominating process. It's not their fault that a year of meaningless polls has tracked their every evanescent preference. It’s not their choice to be targeted by a fusillade of ads or hunted by battalions of ground gamers.  But the $100 million that campaigns and super PACs are spending in Iowa is terrific for their state’s economy, and if those citizens’ unrepresentative demographic has been arbitrarily elevated by party hacks and media elites to a sacred status, well, who could refuse an offer like that?

It was Jimmy Carter who invented the significance of the Iowa caucuses. In 1975, the Georgia governor had a one percent name recognition outside his state.  But instead of bowing to New Hampshire’s similarly arbitrary first-primary-in-the-nation status, Carter practically lived in Iowa, sleeping on supporters’ couches, carrying his own garment bag and engineering a showing good enough to get him national attention. Even though he came in second in the 1980 caucuses, behind Uncommitted, he still beat nationally known Democrats like senators Birch Bayh, Fred Harris, Mo Udall and Scoop Jackson, which won him a media narrative (“Jimmy who?” won Iowa!) and a launch pad to win New Hampshire a month later.

From then on, the media took it as a given that Iowa mattered. In 1983-84, I was deputy campaign manager to Walter Mondale, who had been Carter’s vice president, in Mondale’s own bid for the presidency. Winning Iowa was a lynchpin of our plan; I think I spent more time in Iowa than any other state.  It paid off, or so we thought: In an eight-candidate field, Mondale nearly won an absolute majority: 48.89 percent.  

But what none of us in the campaign anticipated was the media’s need for a suspenseful narrative.  “Frontrunner’s Iowa win seals Mondale’s inevitability” was the most boring story anyone could write about the caucuses; who would bother paying attention to the race after that? And so, to my naïve astonishment, the big story out of Iowa was about the candidate whom Mondale crushed almost 3-to-1: Colorado senator Gary Hart.  Hart’s weak second-place finish was enough for him to steal the Iowa caucuses narrative.  A month later, Hart beat Mondale in the New Hampshire primary. It wasn’t until the California primary, in June, that Mondale finally scraped together enough delegates to get the nomination.

So it was ironic when, in 1988, I had a bit part in stealing Iowa from that year’s numerical winner.  In 1987, I had done some informal, unpaid work on Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis’ campaign. I contributed to the speech announcing his candidacy, and, every other week, I hung out at his campaign headquarters in Boston. (It was a hell of a commute from Los Angeles, where I had moved from Washington, but that’s another story.) 

On the night of the Iowa caucuses, I was with Dukakis in his Des Moines hotel when the numbers came in. Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt was first, at 31.3 percent.  Illinois senator Paul Simon won 26.7 percent.  Behind him was Dukakis, with 22.2 percent. The problem was that Dukakis was supposed to have come in first. It’s what his political and financial backers expected; it’s why Boston TV (which broadcast to the New Hampshire media market) was going live with his Iowa victory speech.  The only stumbling block: no victory.

But it dawned on me there was a way to ignore that.  Nineteen eighty-eight was an Olympics year, and in the Olympics, there are actually three winners: gold, silver and bronze.  So I wrote some lines for Dukakis to express his excitement and gratitude to the people of Iowa and his supporters in New England. “We won the bronze, folks!” he told a ballroom full of supporters, whose disappointment effortlessly pivoted to triumph. To my knowledge, no one in the press, and none of his opponents, nailed him for that. In 2016, expect the campaigns and the media to confect ways that finishing third, fourth or even fifth in Iowa or New Hampshire somehow constitutes victory. 

We’re suckers for the patriotic mythology and gauzy imagery of town halls and high school gyms where candidates get grilled and caucus-goers speak up and get counted. But the power of Iowa and New Hampshire isn’t a reward for the superior candidate-scrutinizing skills that their citizens inherently possess; it’s a consequence of state party officials flexing their muscles over the calendar. 

Various ways to reform that calendar have been proposed.  I like the

Bernie Sanders’ religion a non-issue for Iowa voters


On a frigid night in what has been an unusually cold winter here, Bernie Sanders packed more than 1,200 people into the resplendent Orpheum Theatre, a nearly 90-year-old venue in this western Iowa outpost across the Missouri River from Nebraska.

After taking the stage late Tuesday night, the independent Vermont senator vying for the Democratic presidential nomination launched into a nearly 30-minute exegesis on the American economy in typically stem-winding fashion, railing against wealth inequality before turning his attention to the noisome effects of money in politics, paid family leave and other frequent themes of his raucous stump speeches.

The Brooklyn-born Sanders’ brash delivery and in-your-face moxie might seem out of place in idyllic, largely rural Iowa, but the style is resonating with Democratic voters here. Indeed in liberal-leaning Des Moines, the state capital, it is mostly Sanders signs that pepper the snowy front lawns in the city’s central neighborhoods. And it is the face of Sanders — actually 15 of them — that adorns a T-shirt sold by Raygun, a popular local clothing store with a wide selection of caucus-themed apparel. Nearly 250 of the $39 novelty shirts have been sold since early October.

“It’s like your grandpa is running for president,” said Lauren Matysik, a Raygun graphic designer. “It’s so cute.”

While concerns have been raised that Sanders’ crotchety zayde image –described recently as “very Jewish” by one political strategist – could ultimately serve as a handicap in a general election, there is agreement here among both Jews and non-Jews that Sanders’ religion is a moot point this early in election season.

“His affect is very Jewish, but I don’t hear a lot of people talking about it,” said Steven Edelman-Blank, the rabbi at Tifereth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Des Moines. “It’s significant how little of an issue his Jewishness is. I don’t hear a lot of people backing Bernie because of that.”

Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist and frequent commentator on Iowa politics, said there is little reason for Iowans to associate Sanders’ persona at the microphone with his Jewish identity. Unlike some other prominent Jewish politicians, Sanders does not wear his religion on his sleeve. And Sanders’ Brooklyn accent does not scream “Jewish” in Iowa the way it might elsewhere.

“His Jewishness is relatively invisible to Iowans at large,” said Goldford, a member of Temple B’nai Jeshurun, a Reform congregation in Des Moines. “In various venues it just doesn’t come up, and he doesn’t mention it.”

Perhaps the only time it has come up in Iowa was after a speech hosted by the Jewish Federation of Des Moines in September. Goldford, who moderated the event, recalled that an audience member asked Sanders “what impact his Jewishness has on his political views.” Goldford sensed that the question caught Sanders off-guard.

“He did not seem to be uncomfortable,” Goldford said. “But he seemed not used to answering a question like that.”

With the Iowa caucuses less than two weeks away, Sanders, backed by an extensive grassroots campaign, is riding a groundswell of Democratic support in the state. Last week, a Des Moines Register poll showed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton leading Sanders by only 2 percentage points. Another poll, by Quinnipiac University, placed Sanders ahead 49–44, a surprising tally considering the senator was suffering a 9-point deficit as recently as December.

Tony Ewing, who owns a bed-and-breakfast near Drake, said Iowa’s Democrats “don’t notice” and “don’t care” about their candidates’ religious identities.

“Especially in Iowa, people tend to stick with the issues and topics of the day,” Ewing said. “[Sanders’s] faith has never come up in any conversations I’ve had, and I’ve talked with a lot of folks.”

At Maccabee’s, a kosher deli in Des Moines, the proprietor and local Chabad rabbi, Yossi Jacobson, riffed on Sanders’s growing appeal. He showered the senator with effusive praise — “Hillary’s ‘been there, done that,’” — and asserted that Sanders’ religion does matter, regardless of what Iowans, or even Sanders himself, might believe.

“Bernie is giving hope to so many that we are all equal,” Jacobson said. “He is bringing a timeless message of what Jews always knew to be true — that we are all equal.”

Bernie Sanders introduces himself to the Jewish community in Iowa


This article was originally posted at jewishinsider.com.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders paid a first-time visit to the Jewish community in Iowa on Sunday.

The meeting took place at The Caspe Terrace as part of the ‘Presidential Speaker Series’ hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, Iowa.

Des Moines has the largest Jewish population in the State of Iowa. About 2,800 affiliated Jews live in the Des Moines area, including neighboring Ames, out of the some 5,000 Jews in about ten cities, according to Mark Finkelstein, Director of Community Relations for the local Jewish Federation.

Sanders started off with his regular stump speech about income inequality, free college education, campaign finance reform, and the danger of climate change caused by human activity. Dr. Dennis Goldford, a media analyst and political science professor at Drake University, moderated the one-hour forum.

Touting his Democratic-socialist values, the Jewish Senator compared himself to the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel. “I believe David Ben Gurion was a Democratic socialist,” he remarked when asked to differentiate between liberalism and his socialist views. He mentioned working at a kibbutz earlier in his life and visiting Israel as an elected official several times.

He also promised, “The security of Israel will be very important to me.” Adding that it goes without saying that Israelis must be guaranteed to live their lives with security without the fear of terror attacks. But he also emphasized, “At the end of the day what we are going to need is a two-state solution.”

Sanders repeated comments he had made in the past that his Judaism in the post-Holocaust era has shaped his policial philosophy in a “very deep way.”

“A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important,” he asserted. 

Adding: “Historically, the Jewish people have been strong advocates fighting discrimination and fighting for social and economic justice.”

Sanders hasn’t made too many public statements about his Jewishness or offered a more detailed Israel policy, as his Dmeocratic rival Hillary CLinton has done. 

This was the third in a series of Presidential Candidate Forums conducted by the Federation during the run-up to the Iowa Presidential Caucuses – and first to be broadcast online via UStream. Prior Forums featured Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum, both Republicans.

A recent Siena Research poll indicated that Jewish voters in New York State are “feeling the bern” for their homeboy. According to the poll, Sanders is seen as favorable by 46 percent, while only 37% see him as unfavorable.

According to the RCP average of polls, Sanders trails Hillary Clinton by five percentage points among Iowa caucus-goers. A new poll released Sunday shows Sanders trailing Hillary Clinton by just seven points (42-35) among Democratic primary voters.

A more detailed report to follow

Bernie Sanders closing gap on Hillary Clinton in Iowa, poll shows


Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is closing the gap in Iowa on front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic race for president, according to a poll.

Clinton leads Sanders, who is Jewish, by a margin of 37 percent to 30 percent among likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, the Register reported. Vice President Joe Biden, who has not announced a run for the top spot, garnered 14 percent.

Clinton has lost a third of her Iowa supporters since May, the Register reported.

The Iowa caucus, the first electoral test in the 2016 presidential campaign, will be held Feb. 1.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, is attracting more first-time caucus goers than Clinton, according to the poll, and caucus goers genuinely like him, the poll found.

Earlier this month, Sanders surpassed Clinton for the top spot among New Hampshire Democratic voters, a Franklin Pierce University/Boston Herald poll found. New Hampshire will hold its primary on Feb. 9.

Sanders led Clinton 44-37 percent among the 442 likely Democratic primary voters who responded to the New Hampshire survey.

After Iowa win, Romney expects rivals to turn up heat


After his razor-thin victory in Iowa, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on Wednesday predicted “fast and furious” attacks from rivals seeking to oust him from his front-runner perch in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney edged out Rick Santorum, a conservative former Pennsylvania senator, by only eight votes in Iowa’s caucuses, the first presidential nominating contest of 2012, as each received about 25 percent of the vote.

Ron Paul, a Texas congressman known for his small-government views, was a close third with just over 21 percent.

The result solidified Romney’s status as the person to beat in the race to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in November’s election. But his eight-vote win over Santorum also underscored his inability to secure the trust of socially and fiscally conservative Republicans ahead of what is likely to be the most expensive presidential election campaign in history.

Newt Gingrich, a former front-runner who finished in fourth place with about 13 percent of the votes, signalled that he would campaign more aggressively against Romney, whom he has linked to a series of bruising TV attack ads.

“I know the attacks are going to come and they’re going to become more fast and furious now,” Romney said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, after eking out his 30,015 to 30,007 win over Santorum.

Gingrich called Romney a liar on Tuesday and Santorum took a stab at him as a “moderate,” a dirty word to many conservative Republicans, as the Iowa results came in.

Santorum, who until recently had been little more than an afterthought in the race, was the latest in a series of candidates to benefit from Romney’s weakness.

Campaigning in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, he emphasized his home-schooled children and opposition to gay marriage in a bid to win the state’s large bloc of Christian conservatives.

Santorum staked his campaign on a strong showing in Iowa, but with little cash and a bare-bones campaign operation he could have difficulty competing in other states.

Romney attributed his 25 percent share of the caucus vote to the large size of the field. “This was a seven-person field, of course, and so you can’t do with seven people in the field what you can do with a smaller field,” he said on ABC on Wednesday.

Romney is a strong front-runner in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Jan. 10. A Suffolk University poll on Wednesday had Romney at 43 percent, to 14 percent for Paul and 9 percent for former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has based his campaign in the small New England State.

The Suffolk poll had Gingrich at just 7 percent and Santorum at 6 percent in New Hampshire.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, who finished fifth in New Hampshire and said he was going home to reassess his campaign, had 1 percent support in the Suffolk survey. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was at 2 percent.

Bachmann who received 5 percent in Iowa, to finish sixth, said she is continuing her campaign.

With deep reserves of cash and a strong campaign infrastructure, Romney has the resources to compete in bigger states like Florida at the end of the month. He has been focusing his attacks on what he terms Obama’s “failed presidency.”

A Republican official said Senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee, would endorse Romney on Wednesday.

Sparsely populated Iowa yields just 25 delegates of the 1,143 needed to lock up the Republican presidential nomination, and those delegates aren’t actually awarded for months after Tuesday’s caucuses.

About 120,000 people participated in Tuesday’s Republican vote, and another 25,000 participated in the Democratic caucus—about 8 percent of the state’s eligible voters.

Additional reporting by David Morgan and Susan Heavey in Washington and Jane Sutton, Eric Johnson and Steve Holland in Iowa, Writing by Patricia Zengerle, Editing by Vicki Allen

Iowa Jewish Federation pulls out of 9/11 event over flag


A Jewish organization in Iowa pulled out of a multifaith prayer service commemorating the 9/11 attacks because the event did not display an American flag.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines withdrew from the Sept. 11 event sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa when representatives arrived at the program at Drake University and discovered that there was no Stars and Stripes on the stage, the Des Moines Register reported.

Federation spokesman Mark Finkelstein told the newspaper that he offered a small flag to the Alliance’s executive director, who declined to display it.

Connie Ryan Terrell told the newspaper that she did not accept the offer because the service was a worship service and not a memorial service, and because she was not willing to make last-minute changes to an event that had been in the planning for three months.

Other Jewish leaders participated in the event.

Rubashkin appeal seeks new trial


Lawyers for convicted former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin have appealed a judge’s decision denying their bid for a new trial.

In a brief filed Monday with the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis, Mo., lawyers for Rubashkin made four arguments on his behalf, chief among them that the presiding judge in his case, Linda Reade, should have recused herself. Reade had rejected that argument in October.

Rubashkin was convicted in 2009 on 86 counts of fraud related to his management of the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, and later was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison.

According to the brief, government documents that surfaced after Rubashkin’s conviction and not made available to the defense showed that Reade was involved in the planning for a major federal immigration raid of the Postville plant in May 2008. Reade’s “excessive coziness” with prosecutors planning the raid raised doubts about her impartiality in the case, the brief claims, and as a result Rubashkin is entitled to a new trial or, at a minimum, an evidentiary hearing.

The 2008 raid at the time was the largest immigration enforcement action in American history and led to a string of accusations against Rubashkin, among them charges of identity theft and child labor violations. The bulk of those charges subsequently were dismissed.

Still, the trial was widely criticized, particularly in the Orthodox community, for the alleged zealousness with which federal prosecutors pursued the case.

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.”

Agriprocessors closed — now where’s the beef?


NEW YORK (JTA)–A supermarket in New Jersey with a large kosher section has shelves nearly empty of kosher beef. In New York, a kosher steakhouse says its customers are canceling reservations because choice cuts aren’t always available. And the nation’s largest kosher meat producer, reportedly besieged by new orders, is turning away new customers.

The kosher meat market is in a tailspin as production at the Agriprocessors’ meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, which had been operating at a fraction of its normal capacity since May, finally ground to a halt this week. The company, whose meat was sold under the labels Rubashkin’s and Aaron’s Best, among others, filed for bankruptcy Nov. 4.

“What I’m hearing all over the country is that one day you can get poultry in some places, one day you can get brisket, the next day you can’t get pastrami,” said Menachem Lubinsky, the publisher of Kosher Today and a former consultant to Agriprocessors. “People are being very innovative in how they’re getting their products.”

Though Agriprocessors officials say they hope to reopen the plant later this week, trouble has long been brewing in Postville and savvy industry folks began looking for alternatives months ago.

In the wake of a federal immigration raid in Postville on May 12, meat buyers began shifting their purchases to other companies, which have struggled to meet the increased demand. Alle Processing, a New York City kosher meat supplier that has become the largest in the United States with the collapse of Agriprocessors, has had to place a moratorium on new customers, according to several industry insiders.

Retailers and restaurants who already had relationships with other suppliers have fared the best, though many report only a portion of their orders are being filled. Those who were more dependent on Agriprocessors are finding themselves in real trouble.

At Heinin’s, a specialty foods supermarket in the greater Cleveland area, the shelves have been without kosher meat for months. A buyer for the company told JTA his efforts to locate an alternative are not going well. An Albertson’s supermarket in the Dallas area also was bereft of beef on Monday.

“I just got back from the supermarket and there was absolutely none,” said kosher consumer Shalom Abrams. “Normally they have an 8-foot section of kosher meat.”

At the ShopRite in Livingston, N.J., on Sunday, the shelves were teeming with glatt kosher beef and lamb from Solomon’s and chicken from Empire Kosher Poultry, which announced this week it would be increasing production by 50 percent beginning Nov. 24. One town over, in West Orange, the situation was vastly different: The most plentiful item in the kosher beef display was the Rubashkin’s signage.

“Overall, it’s a lot less selection,” said Michelle Amin, shopping at the West Orange ShopRite. “For the community who’s here to have this kind of empty shelf, it’s crazy.”

Even large retailers with multiple supply options say their orders are not being fully filled.

Yakov Yarmove, who purchases kosher meat for the Supervalu chain, which operates more than 2,400 stores across the country, estimates he’s getting about 90 percent of what he needs. Several other large supermarket chains with reported supply disruptions did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Schreiber, the owner of East Side Kosher Deli in Denver and a supplier of kosher meat to customers in seven Rocky Mountain states, told JTA he would have been “in deep trouble” if he had relied solely on Agriprocessors. As it is, he is struggling to keep up his stocks.

“I may order 500 pounds of a certain primal cut for my guys to then break and I may only get 300 pounds, but I am getting the product,” Schreiber said. “Are my stocks as deep as normal? No, not hardly. But I can keep customers in product.”

The decline of Agriprocessors placed fish and poultry center stage last week at Kosherfest, the annual kosher food trade show held Nov. 11-12 at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in New Jersey. While purveyors of kosher poultry and fish were abundant, including many first-time exhibitors from North America and abroad, there were only a handful of meat producers, and those few were besieged by buyers desperate for supplies. None of the major kosher meat producers were there: no Agriprocessors, no International Glatt, no Alle.

With their finances in ruins, Agriprocessors has been courting outside investors and rumors were rife at the show as to who might buy the company’s facility in Postville. Names floated most often were Empire and Alle, as well as the non-kosher giant ConAgra. Costco and Sam’s Club have both reportedly expressed interest.

Empire representatives say the company has investigated the possibility of entering the kosher beef market but has made no decisions. But Empire’s announcement that it plans to expand production of chicken is widely hoped to alleviate pressure on the kosher poultry supply at a crucial moment–the week of Thanksgiving.

“Empire is proud to be able to step up to the plate and be sure that consumers throughout the United States have easy access to kosher poultry at their local supermarkets and butcher shops,” Greg Rosenbaum, Empire’s chairman and CEO, said in a news release. “We are extremely grateful for the cooperation of our kosher certifying agencies, the OU, KAJ and Star-K, as well as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, to make this rapid expansion possible.”

On Monday, Agriprocessors executives appeared in bankruptcy court in New York where they met their lender, First Bank Business Capital of St. Louis. First Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings against the company for defaulting on a $35 million loan.

According to a report in the Des Moines Register, First Bank had sought a total freeze on spending until Agriprocessors cleared up its debts. The company responded that a freeze would force it to cease all operations. A judge appointed a trustee to oversee the case, and a company spokesperson told the Register that the details would be worked out this week. The company hopes to resume poultry production on Thursday.

In an unrelated legal setback for Agriprocessors, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear its case against the National Labor Relations Board, according to a report in the industry publication Meatingplace. A lower court had rejected the company’s argument that a union vote at its Brooklyn warehouse was invalid because its workers were illegal immigrants and therefore not entitled to organize.

Agriprocessors did not respond to requests for comment.

For kosher beef, problems are likely to remain–a fact that has sparked interest from companies as far afield as Australia. Ephraim Nagar, the owner of Talia’s Steakhouse on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, told JTA he had received an e-mail from a company gauging interest in kosher meat exports from Down Under.

For Nagar, who used to get all his supply from Agriprocessors, any new product would be an enormous relief. Other suppliers have declined to deal with him because he was not a regular customer. To acquire beef, he has had to send drivers to outer borough warehouses, driving up his costs. Some customers are calling in advance to find out if the restaurant has the specialty items for which it is known.

“Assuming they made a reservation of, let’s say a table of 10,” Nagar said, “two or three people are eager to eat these bison buffalo or the baby lamb rack, and if we do not have that, they cancel the reservation.”

(JTA correspondent Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.)



Troubles at meat plants prompt increased fear of kosher beef shortages


NEW YORK (JTA) — With the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors facing mounting financial problems, and a fire-related shutdown at another major kosher producer, industry insiders say major supply disruptions are inevitable, and kosher consumers should brace themselves for some rough times.

Agriprocessors in the past week or so has endured a cascade of awful news. First, Iowa’s labor commissioner hit the company with nearly $10 million in fines for alleged wage violations. Then, the son of the company’s founder was arrested on charges that he helped purchase false identification for the company’s illegal workers. And on Oct. 31, news broke that a St. Louis bank had initiated foreclosure proceedings after Agriprocessors and its owners defaulted on a $35 million loan.

Kosher industry insiders are predicting that the company will not pull through. Company officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Meanwhile, production at the nation’s third-largest slaughterhouse, North Star Beef in Minnesota, has ground to a halt after a fire, the Forward reported Monday. Also according to the newspaper, a smaller Agriprocessors plant in Gordon, Neb., stopped operating in October.

Short-term disruptions in the supply of kosher meat, particularly kosher and glatt kosher beef, are now virtually guaranteed. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union, said he already has heard from communities that have no supply.

“There is going to be a sharp decline in availability immediately,” said Genack, adding that the company is trying to survive but that the situation is grim.

Some kosher markets have not felt the crunch, among them Daryl Schwarz, owner of Kosher Club on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, a full-service kosher supermarket under RCC supervision. “I’m not having any problems yet,” Schwarz said. “It’s a little early to see what happens. I have plenty of product.”

Farzad Kohanzadeh, co-owner of Livonia Glatt Mart, has so far experienced a steady flow of meat, in part because he deals with a variety of suppliers who meet the approval of their kashrut supervising body, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC). “Eventually it will affect us, but right now it has not.”

Those who have stricter kosher supervision have been more hard hit. Albert Zadeh, one of three owners at Pico Glatt Mart on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, has experienced some shortages, particularly with special cuts of beef. “We’ve been in business for 17 years, but it has never been like this. The cases were always full of meat.

“Because we are under Kehilla [kashrut] supervision, we can’t get a different brand of meat,” he said, adding that Agriprocessors has raised the prices three to four times in the last five months. Last week, to keep up, Pico Glatt raised the price of every meat and chicken item by 29 cents per pound.

Avraham Shamoil, owner of Little Jerusalem on Pico Boulevard and La Peer Drive for 30 years, has also experienced a shortage. His meat falls under Crown Heights kashrut supervision, which he says is even stricter than Kehilla. Quantities don’t reach Los Angeles as they used to.

“Basically we cannot get enough meat, chicken, turkey,” Shamoil told The Journal. “It’s been very difficult for us. We’ve been dealing with [Rubashkin] for years, and now we cannot get.”

Agriprocessors representatives have had virtually nothing to say publicly over the past week as they faced a succession of ominous developments. But Bernard Feldman, the New York tax attorney hired in September as the company’s new chief executive officer, offered one stark prediction to the Des Moines Register.

“I don’t believe we’re going to have substantial production of any kind in the near future,” Feldman said in Monday’s edition.

Agriprocessors has been reeling since May 12, when federal authorities conducted what at the time was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history in Postville, arresting nearly half the company’s workforce. The company’s troubles have only intensified in the last week.

In addition to the foreclosure by First Bank of St. Louis and the arrest of Sholom Rubashkin, the staffing company responsible for approximately half of the labor at the Postville plant suspended its contract. Beef production has been shut down for several days. And reports out of Postville suggest that the company lacks the resources to slaughter and process the chickens in its possession, though some chicken slaughtering reportedly is taking place.

A federal judge placed the company in temporary receivership after First Bank filed a lawsuit alleging that Agriprocessors and its owners defaulted on a $35 million loan. The lawsuit demands the return of the bank’s collateral — a category that includes “virtually all” of the owners’ personal property as well as the company’s accounts receivable, inventory and proceeds.

Agriprocessors also has received a power disconnect notice, the Des Moines Register reported. The company’s electric utility, Alliant Energy, reportedly is working with the company to work out a payment plan. Meanwhile, a relative of the company’s owners has issued a call for the Jewish community to donate funds to help save the company.

Kosher industry insiders, including Agriprocessors’ competitors, uniformly believe that the company’s collapse would be a disaster for the country’s kosher meat supply. Agriprocessors has been a pioneer in the industrial-scale production of kosher beef, and in many smaller Jewish communities its products are the only kosher ones available.

“For the kosher marketplace, there’s no question there’s going to be short-term shortages of kosher and glatt kosher meat and poultry,” said Elie Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Empire Kosher, a poultry producer. “The industry overnight cannot pick up the decreased level of volume that Agriprocessors has been doing over the last couple of months.”

Rosenfeld said his client continues to see growing demand for its product, but he would not comment on reports that Empire has been exploring opportunities to begin producing kosher beef.

Harris reported from New York for Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Jewish Journal contributor Orit Arfa contributed to this article.

Rubashkin son arrested, Agriprocessors fined $10 million in kosher slaughterhouse probe


POSTVILLE, IOWA (JTA) — The former manager of Agriprocessors was arrested today on charges related to the hiring of illegal workers.

Sholom Rubashkin, 49, was arrested by immigration officials and was due to appear in federal court later today.

Documents filed with the court allege that Rubashkin conspired to harbor illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. They further charge that he aided and abetted in the use of fake identification documents and identity theft.

Rubashkin is the highest-ranking Agriprocessors official to face criminal charges stemming from the May 12 federal immigration raid at the company’s Postville meatpacking plant. More than one-third of the company’s workforce was arrested.

According to the criminal complaint filed Thursday, Rubashkin provided funds that were used to purchase new identification for workers at Agriprocessors who were found to have bad papers. The complaint further alleges that Rubashkin asked a human resources officer to come in on a Sunday to process the new employment applications of several such workers.

Company representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Nathan Lewin, an attorney who represents Rubashkin’s father and the company owner Aaron Rubashkin, dismissed the arrest as unnecessary and motivated by federal law enforcement’s desire for good publicity.

“The arrest of Mr. Sholom Rubashkin today was a wholly unnecessary and gratuitous act by federal prosecutors apparently engaged in an unseemly competition with State of Iowa officials to capture headlines in a vendetta against Agriprocessors,” Lewin said.

Rubashkin’s arrest comes a day after Iowa Workforce Development announced it would levy nearly $10 million in fines against the company for alleged labor infractions.

In response to the action by the state labor agency, Agriprocessors CEO Bernard Feldman told The New York Times that he had “grave doubts as to the appropriateness of the claimed violations, and we also take issue with the intended sanction imposed per claim.”

Iowa Workforce Development, the state’s labor regulation agency, levied $9,988,200 in civil penalties against the kosher meat producer in Postville for four categories of infraction. The largest is for charging employees for frocks — the regulation agency claims the company is guilty of more than 90,000 such incidents, assessed at $100 per infraction.

“Once again, Agriprocessors has demonstrated a complete disregard for Iowa law,” said Dave Neil, the state’s labor commissioner. “This continued course of violations is a black mark on Iowa’s business community.”

According to Iowa Workforce Development, the company has 30 days to contest the penalties in writing before they become finalized. The department has an additional wage investigation under way that could lead to further penalties.
The fines are the latest challenge to Agriprocessors, once the nation’s largest producer of kosher meat before a massive federal immigration raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of more than one-third of its workforce.

With its reputation taking a drubbing and concerns mounting that the company could lose its kosher certification, Agriprocessors hired a compliance officer and installed a new chief executive.

Company representatives did not immediately respond to JTA’s request for comment.

Agriprocessors names new CEO


NEW YORK (JTA) — Agriprocessors has named a New York attorney as its new chief executive officer.

The hiring of Bernard Feldman of Long Island as the kosher meat producer’s new chief executive keeps the company in the good graces of the Orthodox Union, which said last week it would withdraw its kosher supervision if new management wasn’t hired within two weeks.

During an interview on Sept. 18 with JTA, Feldman said he had no experience in the meat industry, but was qualified for the position due to his “extensive experience in reorganizations and assisting companies who are experiencing financial difficulties.”

Feldman said he would spend “a major part” of his time at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, which was the site of a massive federal immigration raid on May 12, but would retain his New York residency.

“I believe that Agriprocessors serves a vital function to the Orthodox community and others who are in need of acquiring glatt kosher food,” Feldman said, explaining why he had decided to take the position.

The threat by the Orthodox Union (OU), the best known of the agencies providing kosher certification to Agriprocessors, came after a criminal complaint was filed against five company officials on more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations. Among those named was owner Aaron Rubashkin and his son Sholom, the former manager of the Postville plant.

On Thursday, two of the five individuals named in the complaint — both employees in the company’s human resources department — were indicted in U.S. District Court. Both face jail time if convicted.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s head of kosher supervision, said he had met with Feldman and was pleased with the decision, calling it “credible and wise.”

“We will continue to monitor the situation,” Genack said, “but we’re pleased by the turn of events.”

Feldman enumerated several goals he intends to pursue, including restoring Agriprocessors to “prominence,” ensuring good record keeping, complying with government regulations and resupplying the company with “qualified productive employees.” Feldman said he would stay “on board” as long as it takes to achieve those goals.

PETA hidden camera expose costs Agriprocessors support of key expert [VIDEO]


An undercover video shot last month at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant has raised new questions about the company’s slaughtering practices and cost it the support of one of the country’s leading experts on animal welfare.

Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who has served as consultant to scores of slaughterhouses across the country, said the practice shown in the video — in which two workers make “gouging,” saw-like cuts into the necks of animals immediately after the ritual cut performed by a rabbi — is inhumane.

Grandin said she hasn’t seen that type of second cut at any of the approximately 30 kosher slaughterhouses she has visited, nor did she see it when she toured the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2006, at which time she declared it satisfactory.

The practice also was not in evidence in a video released by a Long Island Jewish newspaper of a visit to Postville by 25 Orthodox rabbis on July 31. After visiting, the clergymen said the plant adhered to the highest standards of kosher practice.

The new video, shot Aug. 13 by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has led Grandin to conclude that slaughterhouse visits are useless in determining whether animals are being treated properly. She has called for Agriprocessors to install round-the-clock video cameras on the kill floor that can be independently audited by a third party over the Internet.

“There’s no point,” Grandin said of the visits. “I’ve been in business 35 years, and I’m getting sick and tired of [it]. They act good when you’re there, and they don’t act good when your back is turned. They did the same thing for the rabbis they would do for me — put on a show.”

Agriprocessors did not respond to Grandin’s comments, but the company released a statement Sept. 5 after the PETA video was first reported by The New York Times.

“Agriprocessors fully complies with federal humane slaughter laws and is monitored by inspectors of the United States Department of Agriculture,” the statement said. “All kosher slaughter procedures are under the exclusive direction of the supervising agencies and rabbis who certify the kosher status of the animals, as is provided by law.”

Grandin’s criticism comes as Agriprocessors is working hard to revive its image, following a massive federal immigration raid in Postville on May 12 that led to the arrests of nearly 400 illegal workers.

Unlike other critics of Agriprocessors, which the company has sought to dismiss as “radical” or “fringe” groups pursuing narrow agendas, Grandin is a nationally renowned figure, whose judgments were previously touted when they were favorable to the company.

After PETA released a similar undercover video made in 2004, pressure mounted on Agriprocessors to have Grandin inspect its procedures, which she did two years later. Grandin concluded that the company had improved its procedures since the first video was shot, a fact publicized in news releases by both Agriprocessors and one of its supervising agencies, the Orthodox Union (OU).

“Temple is really important,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s head of kosher supervision. “She’s universally accepted. I think she’s a very honest person. Generally, Temple is someone who is accepted as an arbiter in terms of these issues of animal welfare. She doesn’t have an agenda against shechita [ritual slaughter] in any way.”

Grandin’s latest remarks strike at one of the central public relations vehicles the company has employed in its struggle to restore its flagging reputation: tours of the plant. The largest of these was the rabbinic visit on July 31, paid for by Agriprocessors and organized by the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue group. After a three-hour tour, the rabbis concluded that the company’s image as a chronic rule-breaker was inconsistent with reality.

“The current situation at the Agriprocessors plant is diametrically opposed to the rumors and innuendos that we had heard before we got here,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the council’s executive vice president, said following the visit. “We saw a state-of-the-art plant, a tremendous emphasis on safety and excellent standards of kashrut. While we have no personal knowledge of what may or may not have happened in the past, the Agriprocessors plant that we saw today is far different than what has been reported.”

Lerner declined to respond to Grandin’s comments. However, Genack said that the Orthodox Union had opted not to participate in the July trip for fear of being used as Grandin had — as a tool to buttress the company’s image.

“It was meant to give confidence on the public relations side,” Genack said of the rabbinic visit. “We didn’t want the OU to be either critic or apologist…. With all these issues remaining still unresolved, we didn’t attend because [we] wanted to be objective and separate from the story itself.”

Two OU rabbis accompanied the rabbis on their tour, but Genack said they were there solely to illustrate the plant’s kosher supervision, and he had specifically requested that they not be identified as members of the delegation.

After filming the controversial method on Aug. 13, PETA, which makes no secret of its opposition to all forms of animal slaughter, turned the footage over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and pressed for an investigation. According to the department, a so-called “second cut” is permissible only under direct rabbinic supervision.

USDA spokesperson Amanda Eamich said the department cited the company for a second-cut violation subsequent to Aug. 13 but added that the violation was “not egregious” and that the company was currently in compliance.

Agriprocessors has accused PETA of illegal conduct in producing the video, including breaking and entering, trespassing, industrial espionage and misrepresentation as an employee. PETA said the company is trying to deflect attention from its own misconduct.

“Our investigations are entirely lawful,” said Hannah Schein, a PETA investigations specialist. “Agriprocessors’ conduct is not.”

Iowa files 9000 charges against Agriprocessors, OU threatens to remove Kosher cert


NEW YORK (JTA)—Following the filing of criminal charges against owners of the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors, the Orthodox Union says it will withdraw its kosher certification of the company within two weeks unless new management is hired.

“Within the coming days, or lets say a week or two, we will suspend our supervision unless there’s new management in place,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.‘s head of kosher supervision.

Genack’s comments came just hours after Iowa’s attorney general filed criminal charges against Agriprocessors and its owner, Aaron Rubashkin, for child-labor violations.

On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office charged Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three human resources employees with more than 9,000 violations of Iowa’s Child Labor law, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

Former workers had alleged child labor violations at Agriprocessors almost immediately after a massive immigration raid at the plant in Postville, Iowa, the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The company has denied having knowingly hired underage workers.

“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” said the affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors. The company’s hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.”

The alleged violations, which date back to September 2007, are each punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of between $65 and $625, the attorney general’s office said. An initial court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Agriprocessors has been under the gun since a raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 employees on illegal immigration charges. Following the raid, employees alleged they were shorted on pay, forced to work long hours and were the targets of sustained sexual harassment.

In May, the company announced that the Postville plant’s manager, Sholom Rubashkin, would be replaced. Months later, Rubashkin is still a regular presence at the plant and no replacement has been named.

The attorney general’s complaint represents the first criminal charges to be brought against the company’s owner and senior management.

PETA says Agriprocessors misled rabbis about slaughter procedures [VIDEO]


Agriprocessors rebukes Obama, Israel sends flood aid to Ukraine


Agri Rebukes Obama Over Criticism

Nathan Lewin, who is representing the largest kosher meat producer in the United States, in a statement released early Tuesday wondered whether Barack Obama had weighed the evidence in the case or considered the company’s repeated denials.

On Monday, Obama said the company had hired underage workers to avoid paying decent wages and benefits.

“This is a shocking statement from a former president of the Harvard Law Review and former constitutional law professor who has sworn, as a United States Senator, to uphold the Constitution which prescribes a presumption of innocence until guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” Lewin’s statement said.

Campaigning Monday in Davenport, Iowa, Obama fielded a question about the company, which was recently the target of a massive federal immigration raid at its plant in Postville.

“We’ve got to crack down on employers who are taking advantage of undocumented workers,” Obama said. “When you read about a meatpacking plant hiring 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds — that is some of the most dangerous, difficult work there is.”

Obama, who did not mention Agriprocessors by name, said the children were “wielding buzz saws and cleavers.”

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “And the only reason they’re hiring these folks is because they want to avoid paying decent wages and providing decent benefits.”

Obama’s criticism followed the publication Sunday of an Op-Ed by Iowa governor and fellow Democrat Chet Culver in which he said Agriprocessors had “taken the low road” in its business practices.

Israel Sends Flood Aid to Ukraine

The Israeli government airlifted humanitarian aid to Ukraine for its flood-hit western regions. Antibiotics, bandages and other materials required for medical care were sent to the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry, said Shahar Arieli, a leader of the Israeli Mission to Ukraine, at a news conference Friday.

According to the Ministry, storms and floods last month in six western regions of Ukraine killed at least 32 people. Hundreds of towns and villages were flooded, 40,000 houses were damaged and thousands of residents were evacuated, officials said. The Ukrainian government called the flooding the worst the country has seen in years.

Aussie Jews Seek to Block Hezbollah TV

A Hezbollah-run TV satellite channel that promotes terrorism is being beamed into Australia via Indonesia. Jewish community leaders this week urged the government and the national broadcasting authority to block the transmission of Al-Manar, which twice has been stopped from broadcasting into Australia. The new broadcasts come from a satellite company that is partly owned by the Indonesian government.

The station broadcasts vehemently anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-American vitriol, as well as messages from suicide bombers.

John Searle, the chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, said in a statement that he was “distressed” at the anti-Semitic content that is being broadcast in Australia.

“Al-Manar is renowned for inciting violence and hatred,” he said. “It broadcasts disgraceful anti-Semitic propaganda, including the infamous blood libel allegations, and it seeks to legitimize terrorism.”

But the Australian Arabic Council said Al-Manar should not be restricted and that Hezbollah, while anti-Zionist, was not anti-Semitic. Donald Robertson, a spokesman for the Australian Communications and Media Authority, said ACMA has “strong concerns about the broadcast of Al-Manar programs in Australia.”

Jewish Funds for Justice Launches Gulf Coast Microloans

Jewish Funds for Justice will launch the “8th Degree” on Aug. 29, on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the first person-to-person microloan program in the United States. It will partner contributors nationwide with small business owners on the Gulf Coast.

The “8th Degree” is named for what medieval philosopher Maimonides “termed the highest form of charity — when a giver makes a loan or helps someone in need become self-sufficient,” according to a press release on Friday.

U.S., Canada Assist Israeli, Palestinian Archivists

U.S. and Canadian archivists launched a project to help Israel and the Palestinians preserve their archives. Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, and Ian Wilson, his Canadian counterpart, traveled to Israel and the West Bank earlier this year to meet with officials of the Israel State Archives and the Palestine National Archives.

“The purpose of these meetings was to discuss projects that would assist in the digitization of paper records of both Israel and Palestine that would ultimately document the joint heritage of people in the region,” said a statement released Thursday. “They are also working with both institutions to develop archival training programs for their staff, and have received enthusiastic support from [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] and the State Department for these projects.”

The announcement was made in conjunction with the launch of a joint U.S.-Canada exhibit on the Treaty of Paris, the 1783 agreement that ended the Revolutionary War and divided North America into the United States and the British-held colonies that would become Canada.

Ex-Beatle McCartney Will Perform in Israel

Former Beatle Paul McCartney will perform in Israel 43 years after government officials banned the Fab Four.

His Sept. 25 concert in Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Park is expected to be one of the largest in Israeli history.

The show is part of a world tour by McCartney comprised of more than 100 shows.

Earlier this year, Israeli Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor invited McCartney and Ringo Starr to perform in Israel for the country’s 60th birthday.

In 1965, Israeli government officials denied the Beatles a permit to perform out of fear their music would corrupt the morals of the nation’s youth.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


Eating Bambi (recipe included)


Most of the anti-Semitic mail I get these days doesn’t concern Israel, Hollywood or even the threat of a nuclear war in the Middle East it’s about meat.

The largest supplier of kosher meat in America, Agriprocessors Inc., has been the subject of ongoing public investigation and criticism for two years now.

An undercover investigation in the Forward newspaper first revealed inhumane treatment of cows at the company, located in Postville, Iowa.

A further investigation brought charges of exploitative labor practices.

Then, on the morning of May 12, 2008, in what officials called, “the largest single-site operation of its kind in American history,” 900 agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement executed a raid of Agriprocessors.

They rounded up hundreds of illegal immigrants, who comprised some 75 percent of the company’s workforce.

A subsequent story by New York Times reporter Julia Preston found that 20 of the employees were underage, some as young as 13.

The article reported on several sickening incidences, including one, documented by an company report, in which a worker holding a knife was kicked by a rabbi, cut himself, was sent for stitches, then ordered back on the line.

Agriprocessors has refuted, fought or attempted to make right on these charges. The company brought in animal expert Dr. Temple Grandin to advise on raising the company’s animal treatment standards.

Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin denied he has engaged in unethical labor practices and blamed the failure of U.S. immigration policy.

“Everything is a lie,” Rubashkin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The company has taken out full-page ads in the Jewish press, including this paper, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges.

Last week, it hosted a group of 25 Orthodox rabbis from the United States and Canada on a one-day visit to the plant.

“It’s a different picture than what’s been portrayed,” Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie of Chabad of Yorba Linda told me. “We roamed the plant for hours, talked to anybody we wanted to. The working conditions, the safety benefits, I found them above par. It’s not the reality the unions are telling.”

The trip may have served to calm concerns among some kosher consumers, but judging by my mail, the damage is far more widespread.




Bambi trailer (1942)


What will The JEWS Think of Next?!?!?” read a letter I received this week. Inside, the author had considerately attached a folded copy of Preston’s New York Times article.

Of course, the image of bearded, black-hatted rabbis abusing farm animals and poor Guatemalan workers is red meat to the scattered anti-Semites out there, but this isn’t a problem of anti-Semitism.

Kashrut is a legal system rooted in morality, and the problems at Agriprocessors occurred because we chose to look away from the messy business of killing animals for food.

Now, like the rest of America, we are looking. There is great unease with our food supply and our factory farm system, a system created by market forces that places profit and efficiency above sustainability, kindness and flavor. The Jews, to our discredit, have simply followed the market’s lead it’s called Agriprocessors, after all, not Moishe’s Kindly Kosher Cow Farm.

But just as Americans in general are taking control of their food supply “locavore” was the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 Word of the Year there is a broad consensus that the kosher “brand” should stand for something more than the most narrow and utilitarian interpretation of kosher practice. We can’t blame the system without changing our personal behavior.

That’s why another common e-mail I get these days is also about meat about whether there is a source in Los Angeles for kosher, organic, humanely raised and slaughtered meat.

My search led me to Musicon Farms, a mail-order source for venison.

That’s right, deer. Kosher Bambi.

Norman Schlaff runs Musicon Farms, the only kosher venison farm in the United States.

Situated on 100 acres in Goshen, in upstate New York, the farm slaughters about 25 deer every six weeks. Customers include high-end restaurants in New York, such as Le Marais and Levana; mail-order customers nationwide, and Tierra Sur, the exceptional Oxnard restaurant headed by chef Todd Aarons.

If you Google Musicon, you’ll find some nasty comments from the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They sent undercover investigators there who took footage of the slaughter, and I gasped watching Bambi’s throat cut but I didn’t look away.

Schlaff, in a phone interview with me, maintained that his animals are treated with care they roam freely, and there is music playing to reduce noise level and stress in the loafing barns. They’re raised without steroids and chemical additives and are fed an organic diet of hay, grains and fruit.

Schlaff, a New York native, made his money in sound engineering his technology is installed in Shea Stadium, at the U.S. Open and on either side of movie house ticket booths around the country. He’s not getting rich selling a few dozen deer for between $5.50 and $30 per pound, plus pricey, specialized shipping.

And he understands slaughtering kosher or not isn’t pleasant.

“It takes a day to get it out of your system,” he said.

And so, putting my money where my mouth is, I ordered.

The package arrived overnight from UPS. Inside, beneath several high-tech layers of insulation and packing ice, were 10 pounds of individually wrapped and freshly butchered venison steaks, chops and stew meat.

The next day, I turned the cute deer I’d seen on Musicon’s Web site into cholent.

It was delicious, and morally challenging, and discomfiting but I didn’t look away.



Summer Venison Cholent

This makes a lighter, more broth-y cholent that is perfect for warm summer days. If you don’t have any dead deer handy, you can substitute beef, or for a vegetarian version add 1 cup pearl barley.

2 medium onions, peeled and cut in quarters
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 bay leaves
1 cup dried  white beans, rinsed very well
8 sundried tomatoes
1 large carrot, peeled and cut in 1 inch chunks
1 stalk celery and leaves, cut in1 inch slices
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in1 inch chunks
1/4 cup olive oil
6 eggs, washed very well
1 1/2 pounds venison stew meat
1/4 cup brandy or cognac (optional)
1 t. sweet paprika
venison bones
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.

Choose a large  dutch oven or casserole pan with a tight fitting lid, the kind you can use on the stove and in the oven.

Heat the olive oil until hot, add the stew meat and bones and quickly brown on all sides.

Remove the meat and bones. Add the onion,  garlic and paprika and brown for 5 minutes.  Deglaze the pot with brandy or cognac (or, if you prefer, skip this step).

Add all the other ingredients, including the meat and bones, placing the eggs on top carefully.

Add water  3/4 of the way to the top.  Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Cover the pot with the lid and place in the oven for 6 hours or overnight.

To serve, carefully remove the lid, give each person a whole egg, some meat and vegetables and plenty of broth.  And say a little blessing for the deer.

— Rob Eshman

Orthodox rabbis: Agriprocessors Iowa kosher plant passes muster


NEW YORK (JTA)—Organizers of a delegation of Orthodox rabbis say the Iowa meat-packing plant raided by federal immigration authorities in May bears no resemblance to its image as a place where safety lapses are routine and workers allegedly are abused and underpaid.

Some 25 rabbis went to Postville, Iowa, last week on a visit paid for by Agriprocessors, the slaughterhouse’s owner, and coordinated through the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox synagogue association.

In the course of their one-day visit, the rabbis toured the plant and met with its recently hired compliance officer, the mayor of Postville and a Presbyterian minister.

Some of the rabbis also met with representatives of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which has taken the lead in ministering to families affected by the raid.

“At this point I don’t see any reason why someone should not buy things from Agriprocessors,” Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, the regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Illinois and the president of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, told JTA.

“They run a very impressive operation. They’re very dedicated to making sure that everything is being done in the most appropriate way possible.”

The visit is the latest effort by Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States, to reassure kosher consumers and revive its public image. Its image has taken a drubbing since authorities arrested some 400 illegal workers May 12 in what the government describes as the single largest immigration raid in American history.

In the raid’s aftermath, employees have unleashed a flood of allegations against their former employer, charging that they were subjected to harsh working conditions and sexual abuse, among other complaints. The company has denied the charges.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Labor Commissioner announced that he was turning over the results of a months-long investigation of child labor allegations at Agriprocessors to the Iowa attorney general for prosecution. The commissioner, Dave Neil, described the alleged violations as “egregious” and urged the state to prosecute the violations “to the fullest extent of the law.”

Agriprocessors responded by saying it was “at a loss to understand” the labor commissioner’s referral. It noted that the company cooperated with the investigation and claimed the government denied requests to identify underage workers so they could be terminated.

“The government’s press release does not state that the company knowingly hired underage workers,” the statement said. “The company asks the public to keep an open mind and wait for the evidence before making any judgments about these, or any other, allegations.”

To date, no senior managers have been charged with a crime, though a grand jury investigation is ongoing. Two supervisors have pleaded guilty to assisting illegal immigrants in the procurement of false employment documents and a warrant is outstanding for a third.

While the visiting rabbis were careful to point out that they have no personal knowledge of what transpired before their arrival, they expressed confidence that current conditions at the plant contrast with its checkered reputation.

Participants told JTA there were no restrictions placed on where they could go in the plant and with whom they could speak. Several conducted their own interviews with employees, who reported that they were treated well and were provided with ample safety training.

“I was shocked when I walked into that plant because I was expecting a lot worse,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the executive vice president of National Council, told JTA. In a statement, Lerner referred to the plant as a “Cadillac.”

In the eyes of the company’s critics, and even some Orthodox rabbis, the fact that Agriprocessors paid for the trip renders the whole enterprise more than a little suspect. Lerner was outraged by the suggestion that the rabbis’ impartiality might be compromised.

“Give me a break,” Lerner said. “To impugn the integrity of 25 people is out of line.”

But Maury Kelman, a lawyer and Orthodox rabbi who has led congregations in Israel and New York, said that Jewish law insists that rabbis involved in such matters do everything to avoid even the perception that their judgment could be compromised.

Neither of the council’s two news releases regarding the trip disclosed that Agriprocessors had footed the bill for the rabbis, though it was reported in the media.

“If they’re going and being paid by Rubashkin, then that should be forthrightly disclosed—not that if somebody asks them, they should only acknowledge it then,” Kelman said.

“It’s very important if rabbis are going that things look totally above board, and that it’s 100 percent clear that the desire is to do the right thing and not just the expedient thing. If somebody’s being paid, you’re beholden to them. Halacha is very clear about this.”

The rabbis were criticized as well for not meeting directly with former workers, who have lodged the harshest complaints against the company, though they did meet with one of their advocates, Paul Rael, the director of Hispanic Ministries at St. Bridget’s.

Lerner said his group was expecting to speak with the workers and was surprised to see that none were present for the meeting.

The rabbinic delegation, which dwindled to four for the late-afternoon meeting with Rael, sought to establish itself as a conduit between the church and Agriprocessors to discuss outstanding issues.

Rael told JTA he was “absolutely” ready to open a dialogue with the company, while Chaim Abrahams, an Agriprocessors representative, said the company was “considering” the suggestion “in a positive light.”

Regarding past allegations, Lerner said he had asked that a file be prepared of worker complaints and that he would take up the issue with Agriprocessors. But Lerner stressed that the main issue now should be how to move forward.

Rael said he won’t be ready for that until various issues, like employee back pay, are worked out.

“The minute that I got through giving my little dialogue, they said, ‘That’s the past,’ ” Rael recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, but the past is what created the problem.’ If their intent is to move forward, I can’t move forward until this issue is totally, totally done.”

Agriprocessors tries to clean up its act


POSTVILLE, Iowa (JTA)—It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Monday and about 60 people are milling around outside Jacobson Staffing, the national employment firm contracted by Agriprocessors to replace hundreds of workers lost in a May 12 federal immigration raid.

They are hoping for jobs at the nation’s largest kosher meat-packing plant.

One woman chats in Russian on her cell phone. Thirty Somalis, the women in traditional dress, huddle under a shady tree. A group of young white men, most of them locals, sit apart from half a dozen African Americans who arrived the day before on a temp agency bus from Indianapolis.

Agriprocessors is hurting. According to Chaim Abrahams, an executive acting as company spokesman, the plant lost the majority of its workers after the raid. Nearly half of the plant’s 800 employees were arrested for working without documentation, and many others “disappeared in fear,” he said.

The company, which until May supplied the bulk of the nation’s kosher beef and 40 percent of its kosher poultry, has been trying desperately to replace those lost workers, offering higher wages and working through employment agencies across the United States in an attempt to return badly damaged production levels to normal.

The tour revealed many empty workstations inside the plant, and more than a few beards and side curls on the assembly line, belonging to rabbis pressed into emergency service.

“To the media, this looks like a for-profit company on one side, and on the other side, individuals who are hurting and suffering,” said Abrahams, as he conducted a two-hour tour of the plant for a reporter. “But the company is also hurting and suffering. We are not able to keep up production levels and reach out to our customers.”

Nearly three months after the raid and six weeks before the busy High Holidays season, kosher butchers and restaurant owners in the United States still report higher prices and irregular supplies of meat and poultry. Some critics charge that these reports are being exaggerated to increase sympathy for the company among kosher consumers worried about their dinner tables.

Agriprocessors is under fire for a litany of complaints ranging from labor violations, including underage employees, to workers’ claims of physical and financial abuse. The plant had been cited for state and federal labor violations before the raid, including inadequate safety precautions.

Although two supervisors have been indicted, the plant’s owners and top management have not been charged.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Labor Commissioner announced that he was turning over the results of a months-long investigation of child labor allegations at Agriprocessors to the Iowa attorney general for prosecution. The commissioner, Dave Neil, described the alleged violations as “egregious” and urged the state to prosecute the violations “to the fullest extent of the law.”

The company maintains its innocence. The owners—the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn, N.Y.—have been instructed not to speak about the case.

The tour makes it clear the company is trying to clean up its act. New workers are vetted through E-Verification, a federal system that checks work eligibility and legal status. Signs to that effect are displayed prominently throughout the plant, and those showing up for work are quick to tell reporters they have all their documents in order.

The plant is immaculate, with no discernible smell other than chlorine. Health and safety measures, including yellow chains separating raw food from ready-to-eat products, are conspicuously in place.

Agriprocessors is pouring money into new equipment, including an automatically timed salting and soaking process that went online a couple of months ago. New workers say they are receiving their overtime pay, in contrast to workers before the raid who say their pay stubs were doctored.

Some new workers, however, tell reporters their paychecks show unexpected deductions; several of those workers have since quit.

“Did you see a dilapidated, old plant?” asked Agriprocessors founder Aaron Rubashkin, who called to follow up after the tour.

“Did you see rabbis abusing anyone with a meat hook?” he continued, referring to one of the more egregious allegations of worker abuse from before the raid.

The employment campaign is bearing fruit. Hopeful workers are pouring into town, from Somalia and Krygystan, from Chicago and elsewhere in Iowa, all lured by the $10-an-hour wages, plus time and a half after 40 hours and raises for experienced workers. That’s significantly more than the $7 to $7.50 hourly wages paid before the raid and more than these workers say they can make at home.

“My buddy started last week, and he’s already making 16 bucks an hour,” said one young man from a neighboring town.

A Chicago man, who answered an online ad placed by a temp agency in Indianapolis, signed up for a 60-hour workweek and is looking forward to the overtime.

“I just had my interview, and I told them I’ll chase ‘em, I’ll cut ‘em up, whatever they want,” he said.

Like some other new workers this man, who declined to give his name after Jacobson representatives told employees not to speak to the media, said the temp agency made certain promises that have not panned out.

“They told me I’d pay $100 the first week for housing, and $60 a week after that, but the company told me today I have to pay $100 every week,” he said.

His pay is deposited directly into a bank account, and he is charged $5 for each withdrawal, according to a withdrawal slip he presented for inspection. He says he was told he must withdraw that $100 every week and pay it back to his temp agency in cash.

Rubashkin dismissed the man’s complaint, suggesting that he “is free to take a bus home, no one is forcing him.”

But the man is eager to work and has no intention of leaving. Although he “feels bad” about the Mexicans and Guatemalans he has displaced, the man said, “business is business”—a comment with which Rubashkin himself might agree.

Some locals say the arrival of this new group of outsiders has disturbed the delicate social balance finally negotiated in this small town of 2,500 residents, which before the raid included about 1,000 Hispanics, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, and 500 Chasidic Jews from Israel and New York. The plant is by far the town’s largest employer.

That fragile modus vivendi “was blown apart” by the May 12 raid, said Jeff Abbas of KPVL-FM, the town’s feisty independent radio station. And locals are holding their breath at the sight of so many new foreigners in town, hoping early reports of increased crime will settle down.

The organized Jewish community mostly has stayed away from Postville. The only Jewish aid that has come to the hundreds of former employees and their families was a truckload of food and about $20,000 raised by a handful of Jewish social justice groups. Agriprocessors itself handed out boxes of meat and poultry to some of the affected families.

Many of the arrested workers, who never met a Jew before coming to Postville, blame all Jews for what has happened to them.

“They abused me, I didn’t like them,” said one Mexican woman, a former worker at the plant who was arrested in the raid and now wears a GPS monitoring bracelet on her right ankle, unable to work or leave town as she awaits her Oct. 14 court date.

But she and others interviewed were happy to see more than 400 Jews come to town from Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul for a July 27 interfaith service, march and rally on their behalf. She listened to the pledges of support rabbis and leaders of the sponsoring Jewish groups made that day, and she takes their words seriously.

“I believe they will help us,” she said.

Iowa Labor Commissioner prosecutes Agriprocessors on 57 counts


The Iowa Labor Commissioner’s Office has sent dozens of alleged violations against Agriprocessors to the state attorney general for prosecution.

In its months-long investigation, the labor commissioner’s office found 57 cases of alleged child labor violations by the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, according to a news release from the Iowa Workforce Development. Each case includes multiple violations.

“The investigation brings to light egregious violations of virtually every aspect of Iowa’s child labor laws,” said Dave Neil, the state’s labor commissioner. “It is my recommendation that the Attorney General’s Office prosecute these violations to the fullest extent of the law.”

Allegations against the Agriprocessors’ plant in Postville, Iowa, include minors working in prohibited occupations, failing to obtain work permits, exceeding the allowable hours, exposing employees to hazardous chemicals and working with prohibited tools, according to Neil.

Under Iowa law, each day a violation continues constitutes a separate offense.

Agriprocessors released a statement Tuesday saying it was “at a loss to understand” the labor commissioner’s referral. It noted that the company cooperated with the investigation and claimed the government denied requests to identify underage workers so they could be terminated.

“The government’s press release does not state that the company knowingly hired underage workers,” the statement said. “The company asks the public to keep an open mind and wait for the evidence before making any judgments about these, or any other, allegations.”

Agriprocessors has been struggling to restore its production capacity and revive its public image since May 12, when a federal immigration raid on the plant netted 389 illegal workers. Claims that underage workers were employed at the plant were among a host of allegations that emerged in the raid’s aftermath.

Conservatives release guidelines for ethical kashrut certification


NEW YORK (JTA)—The Conservative movement released a

Agriprocessors raid slammed at Congressional hearings


WASHINGTON (JTA)—Witnesses at recent congressional hearings described the federal immigration raid on the country’s largest kosher plant as a travesty of justice, a national disgrace and an ambush.

But comparing the government detention facilities where 300 illegal workers arrested in the May 12 raid were detained to concentration camps was too much for one of the officials involved.

“Personally and professionally, I find that quite offensive,” said Marcy Forman, the director of the Office of Investigations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the lead agency in the raid. “Being of the Jewish faith, I equate concentration camps to the murder of over 6 million individuals.”

Forman told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on July 24 that the arrested workers had food, beds and televisions, as well as access to competent legal counsel.

“Most concentration camps that I’ve become aware of don’t possess those items,” she said.

The hearing, convened by the chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), shifted the focus from Agriprocessors, the kosher meat producer that has been under intense scrutiny since the raid at its packing plant in Postville, Iowa, to the conduct of various federal agencies.

In a hearing room packed with onlookers, it was Forman and a senior Department of Justice official, Deborah Rhodes, in the dock as the government faced the first sustained examination of its policy of bringing criminal charges against illegal immigrants. In the past, the immigrants typically were held on administrative grounds and deported.

According to Forman and Rhodes, a near-heroic feat of law enforcement was performed in Postville. The government arrested and processed more than 300 non-English-speaking illegal immigrants in a matter of days, all while protecting their constitutional rights and making allowances for humanitarian concerns.

But a broad range of critics—from elected officials to legal experts to those with firsthand knowledge of the legal proceedings and the raid’s aftermath—painted a much different picture.

In their view, the government employed heavy-handed tactics, destroyed the economy and social fabric of a tiny town, and left a small Catholic church to care for hundreds of people robbed of their primary breadwinner.

Critics blasted the government’s so-called “fast tracking” of detainees, alleging that defendants were provided inadequate access to lawyers, some of whom were assigned to represent more than a dozen workers.

Perhaps most significant, the government is accused of presenting detainees with a near-impossible choice. Most could either plead guilty to aggravated identity theft or Social Security fraud, which under the agreement offered by prosecutors would send them to jail for five months before they were deported, or refuse the plea and go to trial.

With the latter option, the detainees could wait up to six months in jail without bail and face the possibility of a two-year mandatory sentence. Ultimately they still faced deportation, whether they were found guilty or not.

“Needless to say the scheme left little room for the fundamental protections offered by the Constitution,” David Leopold, the national vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told the committee. “The spectacle was a national disgrace.”

Perhaps the most anticipated testimony was that of Erik Camayd-Freixas, a federally certified translator who had a front-row seat to the legal proceedings in Iowa.

Camayd-Freixas wrote a damning essay last month about the proceedings, earning him a news story in The New York Times and an accompanying editorial headlined “The Shame of Postville.” It was Camayd-Freixas who compared the detention facilities to a concentration camp.

He testified that the detainees, many of them illiterate, poor and with a spotty understanding of Spanish—many of them speak native tongues—had only a tenuous grasp of the charges pending against them. Guilty pleas were obtained under duress, Camayd-Freixas said, from defendants who didn’t know what a Social Security number was, let alone that they had stolen one.

“I saw the Bill of Rights denied,” Camayd-Freixas said. “And it all appeared to be within the framework of the law.”

While the committee dealt mainly with issues related to the Postville raid, the larger and thornier debate over national immigration policy hovered over the hearing. Democratic and Republican members traded barbs over the issue during the nearly six-hour inquiry, which was interrupted twice for floor votes.

“We have a schizophrenic country,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), noting that calls for a temporary worker program would fail unless enforcement was taken seriously.

Lungren said the hearings seemed to focus on the supposed failures of a government agency, but in fact further investigation might find that Immigration and Customs Enforcement did things properly.

“We’ll keep looking,” Lofgren interjected.

While Republican members tended to focus on the need for stepped-up enforcement and Democrats more on the supposed violations of individual rights, all seemed to agree on one thing: The nation’s immigration system is badly in need of repair.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who represents part of Postville, reiterated his concern that the government is focusing its enforcement on the wrong people. It is the employers, Braley told the committee, who need to be prosecuted.

“There is no doubt that workers who violate the law need to be held accountable,” Braley said. “However, while ICE has been effective in finding and detaining undocumented employees who may have broken the law, I’m equally concerned that the employer, Agriprocessors, be fully investigated and prosecuted for any violations of the law.”

Two supervisors at Agriprocessors have pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting the use of illegal documents. A warrant is out for the arrest of a third supervisor.

The owners of the company have denied any knowledge of wrongdoing.

Demonstrators march in Iowa to support Agriprocessors workers


An interfaith group rallied Sunday in support of undocumented workers arrested in a raid on a kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa.

More than 900 people, mainly Jews and Catholics, called for national immigration reform and support for the nearly 400 undocumented workers arrested in the massive immigration raid two months ago at Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher meat plant.

Spearheaded by Jewish Community Action, a Jewish social action group headquartered in Minneapolis, Sunday’s event was co-sponsored by the local Catholic church along with the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Jewish Labor Committee.

Seven busloads of Jewish activists from Chicago and the Twin Cities arrived in Postville to take part, including two busloads of teenagers from the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

“We’re here because we care,” Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis said at an interfaith service that preceded the rally. Biblical heroes Abraham and Sarah were invoked as “the first immigrants” to an overflow crowd that included women arrested in the federal immigration raid for working without proper documents.

“The immigration system is broken, the way we enforce working standards is broken,” said Vic Rosenthal, the director of Jewish Community Action, which brought the largest contingent of out-of-state Jewish supporters.

Funds are being raised to help the families of detained and unemployed plant workers, most of them from Guatemala and Mexico. Leaders of the Catholic and Jewish groups met with a representative from Agriprocessors before the rally, the first of several such discussions.

Kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa dumps CEO


Mounting pressure from Jewish groups and members of Congress has led the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States to start searching for a new CEO less than two weeks after federal agents arrested nearly 400 of its employees in a massive immigration raid.

Aaron Rubashkin, the founder of Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, announced May 23 that he intends to find a replacement for his son, Sholom, as company CEO.

The announcement follows statements from three Jewish organizations raising the specter of a boycott, the launch of a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and a call from Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) for an investigation of the company.

“The best course of action for the company, its employees, the local community and our customers is to bring new leadership to Agriprocessors,” the senior Rubashkin said in a statement.

The Brooklyn butcher and Chabad-Lubavitcher, who founded the company in 1987, added, “The company has begun the search for a new permanent chief executive officer. We have engaged a team of industry experts to help us identify and secure a new leader who can help us meet the needs of Agriprocessors today and in the future. We will make more information on the search process available by the end of next week.”

The statement reiterated that “due to pending legal issues,” the company would not respond to specific allegations. They include charges of hiring underage workers, sexual harassment and withholding of overtime pay.

Rubashkin’s move to replace his son comes as Agriprocessors is facing mounting legal problems and boycott threats following the recent raid. The company’s problems have raised fears about a possible shortage of kosher meat and fired up the debate over whether Jewish religious bodies should take a more active role in monitoring the working conditions at kosher factories.

In response to the raid and related allegations about the situation at the plant in Postville, Iowa, the Jewish Labor Committee issued a statement May 23 calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors.

The company sells its kosher meat under various labels, including Aaron’s Best, Aaron’s Choice, Rubashkin’s, European Glatt, Supreme Kosher, David’s and Shor Habor.

In its statement, the Jewish Labor Committee asserted that the company had displayed “a clear pattern of employer negligence and even lawlessness,” including the violation of child labor laws and toleration of various forms of worker abuse.

The committee’s statement was followed by a “request” from the Conservative movement’s top bodies that kosher consumers “evaluate whether it is appropriate to buy and eat meat products” from Agriprocessors.

That same day, Uri L’tzedek, a project started by students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan, began circulating a petition asking Agriprocessors to pay its workers at least the federal minimum wage, abide by laws pertaining to workers’ rights and treat employees according to Torah standards.

Organizers say that about 450 people from across the denominational spectrum had signed as of Monday.

“Until these changes are made, 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 purchase of your meat,” the petition reads. “Effective June 15, 2008 we will stop patronizing any restaurant that sells your meat.”

Meanwhile, the food workers union has taken out advertisements in major Jewish newspapers detailing the allegations against Agriprocessors. The union, which has waged a legal battle over its still unsuccessful efforts to organize plant workers, also has launched a Web site, EyeOnAgriprocessors.org, to publicize claims against the company.

Last week, in a sign of the controversy’s impact, a supermarket in a heavily Jewish suburb of Philadelphia posted a sign stating that its kosher chicken was produced by Empire, a major poultry competitor.

The store director said that the market was unable to procure chicken from Aaron’s, which it had been selling for three years, and wanted to inform customers of the change.

The May 12 federal raid is said to be the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Of the 389 illegal immigrants apprehended, 297 pleaded guilty within days and were sentenced to short prison terms or probation, to be followed by deportation to their native countries.

Speculation is rife over whether prosecutors are investigating the company itself, especially after one Postville resident with ties to Agriprocessors confirmed last week that he had been summoned to appear before a grand jury.

A spokesman for the local U.S. Attorney’s Office would not comment on the matter.

In Washington, the House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing May 20 on the raid, focusing mainly on its impact on the children of detained workers. But members of Congress also have expressed concern that the raids targeted illegal workers while letting their employers off the hook.

Braley, who represents the northeast Iowa area where the plant is located, has called for an investigation of the company.

Within the Jewish world, the loudest reactions have come from the Conservative movement and the liberal edge of Orthodoxy. Interviews with some of Postville’s Chabad residents and other observers suggest that the ultra-Orthodox, or Charedi community, is taking the flood of accusations against Agriprocessors with more than a grain of salt.

“The problem is, there’s a mind-set that you have to give the person the benefit of the doubt,” said Binyomin Jolkovsky, the editor of Jewish World Review and a longtime observer of Charedi Jewry. “But when 12 government agencies come in and do a sting operation, and after something that was so detailed, you got to wonder.”

In the Charedi community, Jolkovsky said, the sentiment tends to be much more focused on the bottom line for the consumer.

“They’re paying people $5 an hour labor, how come I’m paying $7 a pound for steak?’ That’s what they were saying,” he said.

Some Jewish Postville residents refused to even consider some of the government’s allegations, such as that methamphetamine was being produced at the plant or that the company was shorting its workers. In the days after the raid, several said that the affair was the product of an anti-Orthodox, if not anti-Semitic, agenda.


Undressed up


One day last month, Barack Obama was having dinner with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Hillary Clinton was on the floor of the Senate. And Tom Vilsack? He was at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Burbank, with me.

That's when I knew his campaign was in trouble.

Vilsack entered alone, schlepping a carry-on. He ordered his lunch — coffee with milk and a lemon poppy-seed muffin — and sat down at a small corner table with me, after 17 cities in 14 days, too tired even for small talk. Vilsack, a popular former two-term governor of Iowa, is tall, solid, a character out of “Our Town.” Our meeting was yet another reminder that while incumbency is wholesale, speaking to millions, campaigning can be depressingly retail, one on one on one.

I could quickly see why Vilsack thought he had a chance. His centrist politics, his mature demeanor, his life story were all compelling. Abandoned by his birth parents, he was raised by loving but troubled parents — an alcoholic and abusive mother, for starters. Vilsack went on to earn a law degree and reach the statehouse. He won every race he ever entered, as he liked to remind supporters.

He was a two-term Democratic governor in a solidly red state. He opposed the Iraq War from the start, and he left office with a solid surplus after inheriting a severe deficit. Though not flashy or overly charismatic, he is amiable and straightforward. Maybe not the guy you'd want to have a beer with, but definitely good for a muffin and coffee.

I sought out Vilsack because, of all the candidates so far, he had a detailed plan for achieving energy security — he had made it the cornerstone of his campaign.

In fact, that was another clue that Vilsack's days were numbered: When the media crowns you the winner of “the idea primary,” as the Washington Post did, that's like being named “Greatest Maimonides Scholar” at the Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest. Nice skill, wrong contest.

Vilsack was unafraid to get specific on energy independence, in part because he had a track record, in Iowa, of achieving it.

Under his leadership, Iowa built six new state-of-the-art coal and natural gas power plants (the first in 20 years); became the leading state per capita in wind generation; and became the No. 1 producer of ethanol and soy diesel. Leading from the center, involving powerful industry and farm interests, he turned Iowa's energy economy around using clean technologies and creating a record level of employment.

Vilsack's campaign was built on doing the same for America.

Energy was Vilsack's key platform, because, he told me, energy is key to America's economic, environmental and national security. Solve the energy problem, he said, and you've made America safer, cleaner and more secure.

His platform detailed a range of federal incentives to increase the production and consumption of renewable fuel and energy; to sharply raise vehicle emission standards; to research alternative energy sources and increase conservation; to address the true costs of nuclear and coal-powered generations.

None of this was just bumper sticker slogans to Vilsack.

While governing a state basically known for growing corn and MFA's in creative writing, Vilsack correctly realized that corn is not the most efficient way of producing ethanol. He called for switching to other crops and in the meantime removing the tariff on Brazilian ethanol, which is made from sugarcane and whose importation corn growers have long opposed.

I asked Vilsack how that idea played among Iowa farmers.

“This campaign lacks a lot of things,” he said, “but guts isn't one of them.

“Look,” he said. “There's nothing easy about what I'm proposing about energy security. This is a significant commitment to changing our economy and changing our approach to the rest of the world. It has to be done.”

The line from Iowa wind to Brazilian sugarcane to Israel was clear to him.

“A substantial reduction in our reliance on Middle Eastern oil puts us in a position where we have greater independence from that part of the world,” he said, “because we aren't as beholden to Saudi Arabia, for example. Nor are we directly funding countries like Iran that wish to do us harm, and wish to do Israel harm. It's extremely important from a national security standpoint and from a global security standpoint that we become ultimately independent from that foreign source of oil.”

Anyway, never mind. Vilsack's name might get floated for vice president or, more likely, for secretary of energy. But as far as Campaign 2008 is concerned, he's through. Last week, Vilsack pulled out of the race, citing his inability to compete with high profile money-raisers like Clinton and Obama.

How appropriate that the presidential race is gearing up now, just as we mark the Purim holiday. To get even close to winning, the candidates must simplify their personas, or adopt different ones.

Either way, we end up voting for the mask, not the man or woman.

But Vilsack came out early, without the mask. It may be that some other candidate, Republican or Democratic, will pick up on Vilsack's plan and run with it. I hope so. But for that candidate such a policy may end up being part of the mask, not the core, as it clearly was for Vilsack.

“There's only one person in this race who actually created a renewable energy economy,” Vilsack reminded me, “and that's me.”

We spoke for an hour. His cell phone rang once or twice, then a very young aide came to take him away. The candidate's biggest media close-up was to occur in an hour, when he would appear on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno had made so much fun of Vilsack's last name, he invited him on for a couple of minutes in the name of good sportsmanship.

A couple of gags and a week later, and Vilsack was out of the race.

Tommy, we hardly knew ye.

Happy Purim.