JRF Update on Agriprocessors: Background and Action Steps

Reference: The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation

The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation calls on the members of its affiliated communities
to join together in dialogue and action in response to news of the multiple human rights and
social justice infringements at Agriprocessors, Inc, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.
We believe it is our sacred duty as Jews to address the moral and ethical issues touched on by
these infringements, in particular:

  • the relationship between kashrut and worker rights and safety; 
  • the relationship between kashrut and the ethical treatment of animals; 
  • the social welfare of families separated by the immigration raid carried out at Agriprocessors in May; and;
  • a call for reform of the nation’s immigration system.

With the support of the RRA and the RRC, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation encourages
and supports the efforts of individual Reconstructionist congregations and rabbis to fully explore
the issues and to come to their own decisions about which course of action to take.
Based on information available to us, we made the decision at Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist
summer camp in South Sterling, PA, to purchase meat from another Glatt kosher meat provider
for the food service program this summer, rather than buy from Rubashkins (a division of
Agriprocessors), as in the past.

Reconstructionist congregations are engaging in initiatives around Agriprocessors and all its
implications. For example, following a meeting of its religious committee, Oseh Shalom in
Laurel, MD, has decided to focus on Agriprocessors at its annual “Labor on the Bimah” this
Labor Day weekend Erev Shabbat, in lieu of another topic.

Reconstructionist rabbis, cantors, and congregants were in number among the protesters at a June 16 Jewish Labor Committee rally near Agriprocessors’ Postville, IA plant, and individual Reconstructionist rabbis and lay leaders have spoken out, and written letters to the editor for major Jewish papers and in the Jewish blogosphere. A sampling of these includes:

 

On the following pages you will find a brief history of allegations against Agriprocessors, an
overview of activities of various Jewish organizations with pertinent links and contact
information, and some actions you can take to make a difference. We hope this resource will
help you in your local communal and personal decision-making. Thanks to Lisa Tuttle, JRF
Communications Director, and Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Director of Outreach and Tikkun Olam for
helping to compile this resource, and to Rabbis Bruce Elder and Aliza Becker for the valuable
backgrounder they disseminated to the Jewish community, incorporated herein.

BACKGROUND

In 1987, the Rubashkin family, who are Lubavitcher Hasidim, relocated from Brooklyn, NY to the
small town of Postville, Iowa to open an industrial scale, state-of-the-art Glatt Kosher
meatpacking plant. It was initially considered an economic lifeboat to the depressed, Midwest
community. However, stories soon emerged of cultural tensions between the Hasidic
newcomers and the established community. These were followed by accusations of unsafe
working conditions, use of child labor, sexual harassment, failure to pay wages, the active hiring
of undocumented workers, and cruelty to animals. In 2006, Agriprocessors paid a $600,000
settlement to the Environmental Protection Agency to resolve wastewater pollution problems,
and in March it was assessed $182,000 in fines for 39 state health, safety and labor violations.

The situation at the plant became a national news story when the U.S. Immigration and
Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted its largest immigration raid in American history on May
12, 2008, detaining some 390 employees, largely indigenous Guatemalans. The raid not only
gave rise to numerous humanitarian problems by separating families and jailing breadwinners,
but was also used as a laboratory for a new approach by the federal government to prosecute
undocumented workers using false documents to obtain work. Instead of being treated as civil
violators of immigration laws and immediately deported, those detained were shackled and
charged with a felony as criminal offenders. Most were sentenced to five months in jail to be
followed by deportation in a rarely used legal method. If they appealed their case, they faced a
two-year sentence prior to deportation. This re-categorization will enable the government to
significantly bolster its war-on-terror statistics through the deportation of “criminal aliens.” (For
more information on the raid and its aftermath as told by a government interpreter, see:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/11/us/11immig.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.)

A JTA news brief reported that 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.
http://www.jta.org/cgi-bin/iowa/breaking/109804.html

OVERVIEW OF ACTIVITIES AND RESOURCES

  •  Rabbi Menachem Genack, administrator of the Orthodox Union’s (OU) kashrut department and the largest kosher certifier of Agriprocessors, said that if Agriprocessors is found to be criminally liable, that the OU will withdraw its hashgachah (kashrut certification). He claimed that the OU did not have the expertise to develop standards and monitor issues related to safety, employment and environmental concerns. In regards to the immigration issue, Genack stated that the issue of factories hiring workers with illegal documentation was widespread and that a faulty American immigration policy was to blame. http://www.jstandard.com/articles/4355/1/OU-weighs-in-onAgriprocessors-scandal
  • The Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement on June 3 that expressed concern at news reports but also a reminder that “both Jewish Law (Halakha) and civil law require a presumption of innocence by all parties” and “it would be inappropriate to rush to judgment before all relevant facts are clarified.” http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=105319
  • Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization started by students at Yeshivat
    Chovevei Torah, initiated a boycott campaign of Agriprocessors, Inc. (later rescinded
    due to satisfaction with Agriprocessors’ hiring of an oversight official) to give “voice to
    thousands of observant Jews who believe that the standards of kashrut of our food be
    matched by the kashrut of our ethics.” They cite the 1949 essay, “Glatt Kosher -Glatt
    Yosher,” by Rabbi Yossed Breuer as spiritual guidance for their work: “God’s Torah not
    only demands the observance of kashrut and the sanctification of our physical
    enjoyment; it also insists on the sanctification of our social relationships.”
    Uri L’Tedek has stated: “If Agriprocessors does not implement Mr. Martin’s
    recommendations or demonstrates that it is not committed to full compliance with all
    laws regarding worker safety, pay, and rights, then we will once again raise our concerns
    with Agriprocessors and with the community of kosher consumers.” http://uriltzedek.webnode.com

On May 23, Uri L’Tzedek sent an open letter to Aaron Rubashkin, signed by over 1000 Jews on behalf of the “Kosher meat consumers of America,” expressing deep concern at evidence of worker mistreatment and abuse of animals at Agriprocessors and calling for a boycott of their products until systematic changes were instituted. http://uriltzedek.webnode.com/information-on-the-agriprocessor-effort/sign-the-lettertoAgriprocessors/

On June 16, Uri L’Tzedek leadership met with Rubashkin family members and high level corporate representatives to find ways to encourage and support Agriprocessors to make needed changes. At the meeting, Agriprocessors announced their hire of a new Chief Compliance Officer, Attorney Jim Martin, to set in place procedures and personnel to ensure that the compliance effort is “continual, robust, and permanent.” http://jspot.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=1911

On July 8th Uri L’Tzedek rescinded their call for a boycott based on initial progress, but will continue to monitor the situation to assure that problems are addressed appropriately. The statement announcing the rescinding of the boycott included the caveat: “If Agriprocessors does not implement Mr. Martin’s recommendations or demonstrates that it is not committed to full compliance with all laws regarding worker safety, pay, and rights, then we will once again raise our concerns with Agriprocessors and with the community of kosher consumers.”

  • United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the two main arms of the Conservative movement, put out a statement on Agriprocessors, Inc., entitled, “You Shall Not Abuse a Needy and Destitute Laborer: Deuteronomy 24:14.” It requests that individual consumers “evaluate whether it is appropriate to buy and eat meat products” from Agriprocessors, but stops short of endorsing a broad-based boycott. It states: “The allegations … have shocked and appalled members of the Conservative movement as well as all people of conscience. As kashrut seeks to diminish animal suffering and offer a humane method of slaughter, it is bitterly ironic that a plant producing kosher meat be guilty of inflicting any kind of human suffering.” To read the full statement: www.rabbinicalassembly.org/press/docs/hekhsher2008.doc

Hekhsher Tzedek, http://hekhshertzedek.org, is referred to in the statement. The project is a shared effort between the RA and the USCJ to display a seal on already designated kosher foods that reflect production benchmarks consistent with Jewish ethical standards, including how companies treat their employees. Accompanying it is a study, “Hekhsher Tzedek Al Pi Din,” written by Rabbi Avram Reisner. http://rabbinicalassembly.org/law/kashrut.htmlhttp://jta.org/cgibin/iowa/news/article/20061220Conservativemovemen.html

 

ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE

  • Write to Agriprocessors, Inc. directly:
    Agriprocessors, Inc.
    P.O. Box 920, 220 West Street
    Postville, Iowa 52162 USA
    Contact the organization and its subsidiary, Rubashkins, online at:
    www.agriprocessor.com and http://www.csgkc.com/RubashkinsSite/www/index.html
  • Learn about the Reconstructionist view of kashrut in A Guide to Jewish Practice: Kashrut
    by Rabbi David Teutsch. The book includes a list of Jewish values that can guide
    decision making and a section that applies the values to kashrut in general and ecokashrut in particular (pp. 32-33). The Guide to Jewish Practice series may be ordered by
    contacting RRC Press: 215-576-0800, ext. 145 or by ordering online at www.rrc.edu.
  • Whether or not you eat kosher meat, you can call your local kosher restaurants,
    butchers, Hillels, synagogues, supermarkets, and caterers and ask who supplies their
    meat. Do your homework as to the kosher meat suppliers in your area. If the
    organization you contact only sells Agriprocessors’ products (namely, Rubashkins,
    Aaron’s, and Shor Habor), inform the representative politely that you are waiting to see
    that Agriprocessors is committed to treating its workers according to U.S. and Jewish
    law and you would like to see that other choices be made available; then provide the
    names of other kosher meat suppliers.
  • Inform the Jewish establishments you contact that you are concerned about the Torah
    prohibition of oshek, mistreatment of workers (Devarim 24:14, Vayikra 19:13).
  • To advocate on behalf of U.S. immigration reform, we encourage writing letters directly
    to your state senator via www.senate.gov. Active legislation in the area of immigration
    reform includes: H.R.750, H.R.1645, and H.R.1930 (Refer to: Key S. 1639).
  • Learn about immigration reform at the website of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
    (HIAS), “A New Jewish Mobilization for Immigration Reform” at www.hias.org. HIAS is a
    JRF partner organization with a listing on the JRF external affiliations page at
    http://www.jrf.org/sign-ons.
  • Keep up with the Jewish blogosphere, including Reconstructionist rabbis’ blogs at:
    www.jrf.org/links.
  • Attend the 42nd JRF Convention in Boston, November 13-16 and participate in the
    workshop “Kashrut Concerns for the 21st Century.” This session will provide an
    understanding of the traditional process of shechitah (kosher ritual slaughter), and will
    explore some contemporary concerns with the kosher meat industry to help envision a
    method that balances the old and the new for a sustainable and values-driven approach
    for Reconstructionist communities. Get all the details on Convention and register at
    www.jrf.org/convention.