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.

Years after raid, Postville, Iowa’s Jewish community is smaller, more self-reliant

On a frigid evening late last month, Aron Schimmel, the Chabad emissary here, sat in a deli at the back of the glatt kosher supermarket sipping from a can of Israeli mango juice. A sign posted next to the entranceway boasted of the presence of Jewish life in this working-class town of 2,220 set amid the rolling cornfields of northeastern Iowa. The state home this week to the nation’s first presidential contest, the Iowa Caucus.

“Postville might be at the edge of the world, but you can still buy tzitzis, yarmulkas, shirts, shells and more!” read the sign, referring to several Jewish ritual garments.

It is testament to the stability the community has recovered since 2008, when a massive federal immigration raid at the former Agriprocessors meatpacking plant — then the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States — sent the town into a tailspin. The crackdown led to the arrest of nearly 400 undocumented Guatemalans and Mexican workers, sent Agriprocessors into bankruptcy, led to the arrest and conviction of the company’s longtime CEO Sholom Rubashkin, and left in doubt the future of Postville’s Jewish community. (The plant employed some 90 percent of Postville’s Jewish adults before the raid.)

“The community was getting smaller, and people were moving away,” said Schimmel, who has lived in Postville since 1988.

For years Rubashkin, a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, had provided regular cash infusions to prop up the local synagogue, Jewish elementary school and yeshiva. When he was convicted on 86 counts of fraud and sentenced in 2010 to 27 years in federal prison, many of the community’s Jewish families picked up and left.

The Canadian billionaire Hershey Friedman, of Montreal, purchased the meatpacking plant in 2009 and rebranded it as Agri Star Meat and Poultry. Agri Star now employs the vast majority of Postville’s remaining Jews, with most of them — including Schimmel — serving as Jewish ritual slaughterers, or shochtim. (Friedman refused to comment for this story, but spoke recently with JTA.)

The months “between Rubashkin and Friedman were shaky, all the time,” said Matti Brandwein, an Israeli who came here 15 years ago to work as a ritual slaughterer at the plant, and two years ago opened the community’s second synagogue, inside a storefront on Postville’s main drag. “It was a big mess. But thank God it’s back to normal.

Or at least it is a new normal.The Jewish community is noticeably smaller — there are about 50 Orthodox Jewish families in Postville, about half as many as there were at times before the raid — and the purse strings are tighter. (Statewide, Iowa is home to some 6,000 Jews, with about half of them living 150 miles west of Postville, in Des Moines.)

Before the raid, Postville  “was Rubashkin’s town,” Schimmel said. “Now it’s a free market. It looked like a rough separation, but things became better.”

Still, the financial climate for the Jewish community has shifted to one of greater self-reliance as it cobbles together its own funds for synagogue upkeep and social events. After Friedman purchased the plant, the community petitioned him to kick -in the same financial support for the Jewish school as had Rubashkin, whose annual contribution had rendered it tuition-free. Friedman initially refused to bankroll the school, but he eventually agreed to cover its annual shortfall of about $100,000. Families now pay tuition on a case-by-case basis.

In 2013, Friedman funded the construction of a new dormitory for Postville’s yeshiva, and Leigh Rekow, Postville’s mayor for the past eight years, said Agri Star also makes regular donations to the local fire department.

Life post-Agriprocessors hasn’t always been easy, though: Schimmel had to close the Judaic library he had opened, with Rubashkin’s support, in 2005. Meanwhile, the Chabad emissary has been trying for years to raise money to revive the 7,000-volume library and build a community center.

Even with Rubashkin serving out his sentence at a medium-security prison in Otisville, New York, his presence still lingers in Postville. Rekow said Rubashkin’s brother and brother-in-law continue to live in town and work at the plant. On the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, the Lubavitch congregation recites a blessing for its former patron — a plea that he receives early release.

“Everybody knows he did something wrong,” Schimmel said, “but the punishment is disproportionate to this type of crime.”

Meanwhile, relations between the plant and the wider Postville community have been similarly positive — if a bit distant — in recent years. Rekow said he hasn’t seen Friedman in Postville in at least a year, but noted that Agri Star hired a local (non-Jewish) man, David Van Kampen, to serve as the plant’s chief operating officer.

These days, Agri Star employs 700 people — just over 30 percent of Postville’s total population — Rekow said, down from around 900 employees at the time of the raid. About 100 of the current employees are Somali immigrants who migrated from nearby Minnesota and Wisconsin to help mitigate the labor shortage that followed the Agriprocessors raid.

Abraham Sharif, who owns a Somali grocery across from Brandwein’s synagogue and moonlights as a beef cutter at Agri Star for $12 an hour, said he has little interaction with his Jewish neighbors, even the shochtim who work alongside him on the plant floor. Five other Somali plant workers talking together at the local grocery store counter echoed those sentiments.

Gary Catterson, the pastor at Community Presbyterian Church — his maternal grandmother was Jewish, and on several occasions he has worn tefillin provided by yeshiva students — said he wished the Agri Star owners had made more of an effort to get to know the community in which they operate.

“Since the new ownership has taken over, there’s been so little news from the plant,” Catterson said.

Then again, he added, perhaps no news is good news.

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

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.

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.

Agriprocessors raid fallout continues: Jewish liberals plan rally in Postville

NEW YORK (JTA)—An interfaith coalition is planning to demonstrate next week in Postville, Iowa, in support of justice for workers and comprehensive immigration reform.

Spearheaded by Jewish Community Action, a Minnesota social justice group, the rally comes in response to allegations of worker mistreatment at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat producer in the United States.

The rally, scheduled for July 27, will follow by one day a visit to Postville by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The group, led by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), will meet with the families of plant workers, as well as community organizers and local religious leaders.

“An immigration system that is predicated on fear tactics and piecemeal, deportation-only policies profoundly worsens our immigration crisis by creating broken homes and tearing the fabric of our society,” Gutierrez said. “It is my sincere hope that in bringing the stories of the parents, children and workers of Postville back to Congress, our lawmakers will see the very real consequences of punitive actions in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.”

Both the congressional visit and the rally promise to keep the spotlight on Agriprocessors, whose Postville facility was the target of a massive immigration raid May 12.

In the wake of the raid, the plant’s workers claimed they were underpaid and made to suffer an atmosphere of rampant sexual harassment, among other allegations. Company officials have denied the charges.

Among the groups supporting the rally are the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish Labor Committee and Workmen’s Circle. Funds for transportation were provided by Mazon, a Jewish hunger relief group.

“There are two targets here,” Jane Ramsey, the executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, told JTA. “One is a message to the government for comprehensive immigration reform on the one hand, and secondly to Agriprocessors for the permanent implementation of livable wages, health-care benefits and worker safety.”

The plant’s purchase in 1987 by the Brooklyn butcher Aaron Rubashkin injected a much-needed dose of economic vitality into Postville, which was a struggling farm community. With a workforce of approximately 1,000, Agriprocessors was said to be the largest employer in northern Iowa.

The arrest of nearly half its employees in the raid has significantly cut the plant’s production.

Agriprocessors is hardly alone. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, 4,940 workplace arrests were made in the 2007 fiscal year, up from 510 in 2002. As of May, the agency has made 3,750 arrests this year.

Critics say such arrests are devastating to workers and their families and can have crippling effects on communities. Jewish Community Action raised $10,000 for Postville familes, according to its executive director, Vic Rosenthal. Jewish Council on Urban Affairs has delivered another $5,000.

“We think that this was a very poorly conceived action by ICE that hurt people and didn’t bring any further safety to you and me,” Ramsey said. “Who did this help? They swept into a little town of 2,500 that has now been devastated, that has a just-opened playground and now there are no children for that playground.”

Steven Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Study and a leading critic of the mainstream Jewish position on immigration, says such stories are sad on a human level but are not a basis for making policy.

“I can’t get bleary-eyed about these people,” Steinlight said. “They’re here in violation of federal immigration law. You don’t know if these people are from Mexico or from al-Qaida. They have engaged in identity theft. They have engaged in felonies. These are not minor issues. I don’t consider the violation of America’s sovereignty to be a minor issue.”

While Steinlight defends the raid as a legitimate exercise in law enforcement, he shares the sense of outrage over allegations of worker mistreatment even as he opposes the call for a path to legalization for Postville workers.

“The reason they’re hired is because they are exploitable,” Steinlight said. “And if they were legalized, they wouldn’t be any better off.”

Chaim Abrahams, an Agriprocessors representative, said the company is commited to abiding by all state and federal laws.

“Mr. Steinlight has apparently joined the chorus of those who accept the allegations and several newspaper accounts as fact,” Abrahams said. “Agriprocessors will have no further comment on those allegations, as they are part of an ongoing investigation. It merely urges all fair-minded people to reserve judgment until this investigation process has run its course.”

The demonstration is scheduled to begin with an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s, the Catholic church that has taken the lead in providing relief to immigrant families. It will be followed by a march through town to the plant and then back to the church for a rally. Organizers expect about 1,000 people to attend.

“We think that Jews as consumers of kosher food need to understand the importance of who is producing the food and how they get treated, how they get paid,” Rosenthal said. “We really want to energize the Jewish community to think much more clearly about the role they play as consumers.”

Agriprocessors takes aim at government, gets boost as group drops boycott

NEW YORK (JTA)—An Orthodox social justice group dropped its boycott of the embattled kosher meat producer Agriprocessors, saying the company is “beginning to take significant steps” to address claims of worker mistreatment at its plant in Postville, Iowa.

Uri L’tzedek launched the action in mid-June to protest reports that Agriprocessors had employed underage workers, tolerated an atmosphere of sexual harassment and paid workers below the minimum wage.

In calling off the boycott, the New York-based group said it was encouraged by reforms instituted by a former federal prosecutor hired recently as the company’s compliance officer.

“In light of these early signs of reform, Uri L’Tzedek is no longer calling for the community to abstain from purchasing Agriprocessors’ products,” the group said in a letter Tuesday. “Time will show what kind of results these reforms will yield for the workers at Agriprocessors.”

The move by Uri L’tzedek represents the first bit of good news in a while for Agriprocessors, which has been reeling since federal authorities carried out the largest workplace immigration raid in American history in Postville on May 12.

More than one-third of the company’s workforce was detained in the raid, including 18 juveniles. Some 300 employees have pleaded guilty to various forms of identity fraud and are facing deportation.

Since the raid, workers have unleashed a flood of allegations against their former employer, saying they were mistreated, sexually harassed and made to work lengthy overnight shifts. The raid also severely impaired the company’s production capacity, sparking fears of a kosher meat shortage in the United States.

In response, Agriprocessors announced it would replace Sholom Rubashkin—the son of the company’s founder and owner—as head of the Postville plant and hired James Martin, the former federal prosecutor, as its compliance officer.

According to the Uri L’tzedek letter, Martin’s reforms include the creation of an anonymous tip line for employees, establishing a safety department and developing new safety training initiatives.

The Uri L’tzedek announcement comes just days after the arrest of two plant supervisors on charges of aiding and abetting the use of fraudulent identification. Juan Carlos Guerrero Espinoza and Martin De la Rosa Loera are the first supervisory workers to be charged.

A third warrant was issued for another supervisor, Hosam Amara, a 43-year-old said to be of Palestinian origin who was rumored to have fled Postville the week after the raid.

To date, no charges have been brought against Agriprocessors’ owner, a Chabad-Lubavitcher from Brooklyn, or any other members of the company’s upper management.

But Nathan Lewin, a prominent attorney representing the company, is accusing the U.S. government of “selective prosecution” in its targeting of the company.

“The government should be asked why it picked on Agri, a relatively small meat-packing plant, to make its point about illegal immigrants working at such plants,” Lewin wrote in a statement to JTA. “This is a great injustice in light of the fact that Agri has made a major contribution to Jewish religious life in the U.S. by providing high-quality packaged kosher meats now available in supermarkets across the country.

“The Orthodox Jewish community should call the government to account for the damage it is doing by this selective prosecution of Agri.”

Under the Bush administration, federal authorities have escalated their crackdown on illegal workers.

According to the Houston Chronicle, 1,755 individuals were detained in May alone by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including 389 Agriprocessors employees. Slightly more than 3,700 illegal immigrants have been arrested in dozens of sweeps since last October, according to the federal government.

In a rare example of company owners facing charges related to illegal workers, federal authorities last week charged two owners and three supervisors at a rag-exporting company in Houston with conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants, inducing them to come into the country and engage in illegal hiring practices.

Those arrests follow the June 25 roundup of 166 illegal workers at the company, Action Rags USA.

The Houston case bears other striking resemblances to what unfolded in Postville: Both featured months-long undercover investigations involving government informants posing as illegal workers in an effort to gain employment.

Like Agriprocessors, Action Rags is facing claims that it employed underage workers and that working conditions were substandard. Representatives of the Houston company have denied all wrongdoing.

Agriprocessors also has denied the charges leveled against the firm while struggling to repair its damaged public image. The company has hired the high-profile public relations firm 5WPR, and last week ran advertisements in major Jewish newspapers.

The ad states that “Agriprocessors was never faced with a government imposed recall” for food contamination. But according to a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, there is no such thing as a government-imposed recall. All recalls are voluntary; Agriprocessors had two last year.

In July 2007, the company recalled about 35,000 pounds of frozen beef and chicken products because the label failed to indicate the foods may contain a known allergen. In January that year, the company recalled about 2,700 pounds of hot dogs due to possible underprocessing.

The ad further claims that rabbinical supervisors are present “in all parts of the plant, with no exception.” That claim contradicts an account by Rabbi Seth Mandel, the head of meat supervision for the Orthodox Union, one of the supervising agencies certifying Agriprocessors as kosher.

According to a May 26 e-mail obtained by JTA, Mandel wrote, “I go all over the plant when I visit, and the mashgichim that work for the OU also do, but only into areas where meat is processed. We do not visit the water treatment plant, nor the sheds where some materials are stored, nor houses where gentile workers live.”

In an interview with JTA shortly after the raid, Rabbi Menachem Weissmandl, the head kosher supervisor, said his rabbinical staff supervised “every inch of that place,” including non-production areas where non-Jewish workers eat and change their clothes.

An Agriprocessors spokesman, Juda Engelmayer, said he believed Mandel was mistaken.

Tolerance Reigns in Iowa Town

Aaron Goldsmith is back where he started — on a city council in a seat that at first was given to him, then challenged by some of his neighbors, and finally supported by voters.

The embattled councilman, a Lubavitch Chassid, endured months of gossip and a flurry of anti-Semitic hate mail while trying to hold on to his seat in the small town of Postville, Iowa.

But on April 24, the voters came out in force to show their support for Postville’s first Jewish council member. Nearly 52 percent of the town’s 1,047 registered voters cast ballots during the special election, choosing Goldsmith by a comfortable 325-216 margin.

“It’s amazing. Usually we get about 5 percent coming out for a council vote,” Postville Mayor John Hyman said. The political controversy surrounding Goldsmith — the likes of which this small farm town had never seen — evidently accounted for the turnout.

It all started Dec. 26, when the City Council, by a 4-1 vote, appointed Goldsmith to fill a midterm vacancy.

Soon after the appointment, Postville retiree Arlin Schager circulated a petition challenging Goldsmith’s right to the seat. Echoing some townsfolk who said officeholders should be elected rather than appointed, Schager said citizens should “decide for themselves who they wanted for a councilperson.”

The petition forced a special election in which Schager’s daughter, Tracey Schager — who had hoped to be appointed to the seat — ran against Goldsmith. “I never thought it would drag on this long, or be such a big deal to everyone,” she said.

The days after the election, Goldsmith says now, brought a sense of relief. “Neighbors got back to being neighbors again, and there was a bounce in everyone’s step,” he said. “People said the air just felt friendlier.”

Today, Jews and gentiles alike stop Goldsmith on the street to shake his hand and say they’re glad he won. And the support wasn’t limited to Postville. “I got a flood of international calls from some very influential rabbis, who told me that the positive impact of this election is being felt worldwide,” Goldsmith said, pointing to framed articles about him on his wall.

Diversity is a new buzzword for Postville, whose 2001 census showed a 54 percent jump in ethnic populations from 10 years ago, the largest increase in Iowa. The town was primarily white and Christian until 1988.

Then a kosher meatpacking plant opened, bringing Chassidic families to the rural region — along with job-seeking immigrants from Mexico, Eastern Europe, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Hyman welcomed Goldsmith’s addition to the council, saying, “He’s an incredible asset for us, for our diverse population, and it did my heart good to see that the people of Postville agreed.”

The election gained national attention as the town polarized on questions of race and religion. Some saw Postville’s Jews as standoffish, while others considered the townspeople bigoted.

The town already had been the subject of widespread outside attention, including a book by University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom. In “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America,” Bloom contended that the Chassid’s insular ways don’t “work at all in a tiny, cohesive town of 1,500, where people depend on one another to survive.”

As for Goldsmith, he’s glad to be able to get back to city business and his own company, Transfer Master Products, which manufactures adjustable beds.

One of his goals is to help Postville’s immigrants move toward owning their own businesses and homes. “I want to see this town revitalized, by not only welcoming these people to town but helping them to make the next step — taking pride in their part in the community,” he said.

All is calm in Postville now, but the divisiveness could return as the November general election nears. Goldsmith is undecided about whether he’ll seek the full term. “I’m taking it a day at a time right now,” he said. “This whole process took a big toll on me.”

For now, he said, “The only goal I have is to finish what I started — energizing the city and moving it forward.”

One thing is for certain: Regardless of whether Goldsmith sets foot in the political arena again, this election will leave its mark on him and on Postville for years to come.

“We were just this nothing little town, and then all of a sudden it was like struggling for, and then winning, the World Series,” he said. “It’s a victory everyone can be proud of.”