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A beef with Rubashkin and Agriprocessors

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 7, 2008 | 9:56 am

In just about every issue, Portfolio magazine has a large feature with a heavy religious angle. A few issues ago, Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote a revealing profile of Joel Osteen and the Gospel of Wealth he preaches. Before that, the inestimable Claire Hoffman (for evidence of that adjective, read her profile of “Girls Gone Wild” founder Joe Francis) wrote about the lawyer for the polygamist Mormons busted in that Texas raid.

Despite having a subscription and generally enjoying the magazine, I for some reason never get around to blogging about these stories. The same seemed bound to happen for cover story for the November issue: a profile, by Hoffman, of Jewish bad boy Dov Charney. I’ve written about the American Apparel founder and perennial sexual harassment defendant before, and considering the financial crisis, Charney is really an odd choice for cover boy. So I’ll pass on that. But this issue also includes an article on the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse scandal. And that’s worth discussing.

To recap: Federal authorities raided Agriprocessors’ slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, in May. It was the largest immigration bust in U.S. history, and on its heels came accusations of child-labor exploitation. The kosher mega-butcher was slapped with $10 million in fines, and last week news leaked of a possible default on a $35 million loan. The cancer, it appears, had metastasized to the point JTA reported yesterday that Agriprocessors probably wouldn’t survive.

Photo
Kosher King Aaron Rubashkin

“With the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors facing mounting financial problems, including the possibility of foreclosure, industry insiders say the company is finished and that kosher consumers should brace themselves for some rough times,” JTA’s Ben Harris wrote.

Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy Tuesday. To make matters worse for Jews who keep kashrut, a third major kosher slaughterhouse closed this week following a fire.

Which brings us to the article in Portfolio, a lengthy feature that opens in the small Brooklyn butcher shop of “Kosher King” Aaron Rubashkin. Much of the story is after the jump:

Rubashkin, a Russian immigrant who fled Soviet totalitarianism in the early years of the cold war, is a pioneer, having done for American kosher meat and poultry in recent times what two German immigrants named Anheuser and Busch did for beer in the 19th century.

More than 20 years ago, Rubashkin began toying with the notion of taking the kosher butcher shop from the neighborhood to the nation by applying the strict rules of kosher slaughter to the methods of modern mass production. Kosher hot dogs and chicken had already found their way to the mass market, but nobody was producing steaks, lamb, or poultry in one place on a national scale. Outside of major urban centers, a Jew trying to keep kosher was pretty much out of luck. Thus Rubashkin, say his admirers, saw not only a lucrative business opportunity but also a chance to help all Jews be more observant. The word Hasid, from the Hebrew hasidh, translates as pious, and to those in Rubashkin’s religious circle, his business instincts had rendered him both a successful and a pious man.

It’s a nice story line, as far as it goes. To accomplish his dream, Rubashkin, himself a rabbi, in 1987 ventured far from Brooklyn to a shuttered meatpacking plant in a postcard-perfect Midwestern town called Postville, in the northeastern corner of Iowa. He retooled and refurbished the plant and, lacking sufficient local labor in those first years, recruited a large workforce, including Lubavitch Jews from Brooklyn and other urban centers. He helped save Postville from the big-box retail invasion that has killed off the Main Streets of so many American small towns. Rubashkin also provided jobs for immigrants of many stripes and gave his company a grand corporate name: Agriprocessors.

But when, on a day in early August, I head upstairs from the Brooklyn butcher shop and into the office that Rubashkin has occupied for more than 50 years, I catch the patriarch in an agitated mood. He has not talked much to the press recently, and especially not since the events of three months before, when Agriprocessors’ story took a dark and troubling turn. Physically, Rubashkin is imposing: heavyset, with a wizard’s white beard; dark, piercing eyes; and an imperious voice. We haven’t been talking long before he is pounding his desk, inveighing in a rising tone against those who have leveled all manner of allegations against Agriprocessors and criminal charges against some of its workers and managers. “It’s a shanda, a shame…what happened in Postville,” he says, leaning forward and mixing Yiddish with English, as he does throughout our conversation. “A hurricane came and destroyed everything.”

Rubashkin is, of course, talking about the federal raid and the allegations of child labor exploitation and the ensuing financial problems.

Talking to Rubashkin and those in his inner circle, an explanation of the recent unpleasant events slowly emerges: that Agriprocessors has grown exponentially while its management has remained rooted in a kind of naive, family-butcher-shop mentality, and that furthermore, the company never knowingly hired underage workers and had no interest in doing so. Rubashkin tells me that he is hardly the monster his critics make him out to be. He says his business life is inseparable from his religious one. “Divine providence wanted me to be a butcher,” he says. Founding Agriprocessors, he goes on, was as much a religious calling as a business one: “This is the belief of my Rebbe…the belief of my fellow Hasidim, that we are supposed to help any Jew be an observant Jew, in an honest and truthful way.”

Perhaps. But Agriprocessors, as it turns out, has a less than pristine record of regulatory compliance. And in early September, less than three weeks after I spoke with Rubashkin, Iowa’s attorney general filed charges alleging 9,311 violations of child-labor law against Rubashkin and his 48-year-old son Sholom—who, until the raid, oversaw the day-to-day operation of the Postville plant—as well as identical charges against three managers in Agriprocessors’ Postville human resources office. (All have entered pleas of not guilty.) On the same day, I.C.E. agents arrested two of those human-resources managers on felony charges: one for allegedly faking H.R. documents to cover up the hiring of undocumented workers and abetting identity theft, the other for harboring and aiding undocumented aliens, some of them minors. (The managers have pleaded not guilty to these charges also.)

Meanwhile, Agriprocessors faces an ongoing I.C.E. investigation, while the Orthodox Union, a Jewish group that is the country’s largest kosher-meat certifier, threatened to revoke the company’s kosher certification. And everywhere I went in Postville, former employees and their advocates described a corporate culture that they said seemed guided less by religion than by greed, deception, and hostility.

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