- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

NEW YORK

Two decades ago, the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn opened up a kosher slaughterhouse amid the cornfields of Iowa - not exactly a center of Jewish culture.

The bearded, fedora-wearing strangers from Brooklyn quickly transformed Postville into its own small-town melting pot. Immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico began arriving in great numbers to work at the slaughterhouse.

Soon, the town was home to churches and temples, and the shelves of the grocery stores were stocked with tortillas and bagels.

Lately, though, the Rubash kins’ grand cultural experiment seems to have lost any chance at a feel-good ending.

The family’s Iowa business, Agriprocessors, the nation’s biggest supplier of kosher meat, was raided by U.S. immigration agents in May. Nearly 400 workers, mostly Guat emalans, were swept up and jailed and are likely to be deported as illegal immigrants.

Labor organizers and workers also have accused the company of exploiting its employees, tolerating abusive behavior by managers and illegally hiring teenagers to work on the factory floor.

A few Jewish groups have questioned whether the plant, given its problems, should keep its kosher certification.

It all adds up to a mess for a family that has never sought attention, and now feels it is being attacked unfairly, especially by the media.

“The press? Terrible!” the family’s patriarch, Aaron Rubashkin, told a reporter with the Jewish news service JTA during a rare interview in June.

He said accusations that the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants and children and tolerated abusive conditions were all lies.

“I wish everybody would be treated like we treat people,” he said.

Attempts to arrange an interview with Mr. Rubashkin were not successful. His representatives told the Associated Press that the 80-year-old butcher had traveled to Iowa from Brooklyn, where he still runs the family’s half-century-old butcher shop.

The family’s history, though, is well-documented.

Mr. Rubashkin and his wife, Rivka, fled the Soviet Union after World War II and settled in Brooklyn, a world center of Hasidic Judaism. Rivka’s uncles, the family has said, had been imprisoned in Siberia because of their religious beliefs.

In the 1950s, Aaron founded a kosher meat market in the city’s Borough Park section. The family prospered in America.

Then, in 1987, the Rubashkins made an incredible leap: Looking for a way to bolster an unreliable supply of kosher beef, the family bought an abandoned non-kosher meatpacking plant in tiny Postville, Iowa.

Two of Aaron’s sons moved to Postville to oversee the plant, and a steady stream of Hasidic families followed. Soon, Postville, then a town of around 1,500 people, found itself drawing immigrant laborers, too.

Suddenly, the town was infused with rabbis and other Jews, Guatemalans and Mexicans, expatriates from former Soviet republics - and a host of new ethnic tensions.

The town became a regular stop for out-of-town reporters looking for a story about America’s diversity. A documentary crew visited. National Geographic did a pictorial. Journalism professor Stephen Bloom wrote a book, “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.”

Amid it all, the company was a huge success, with popular brands such as Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s. By 2006, Agriprocessors had a second plant in Nebraska, run in partnership with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and annual revenue of $250 million.

In 2004, however, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) recorded a gruesome video of the company’s operation that showed cattle staggering about in apparent pain after their throats had been slit and their tracheas partly removed.

Agriprocessors, while defending its techniques as a religious ritual, agreed to change some practices.

One of Aaron’s sons, the influential Brooklyn rabbi Moshe Rubashkin, pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2002 after writing $325,000 in bad checks related to a family textile business. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

A son-in-law, Menachim Balkany, a political fundraiser who hobnobbed with mayors and congressmen, was charged in 2003 with misusing a $700,000 federal grant. The prosecution was dropped when he agreed to make restitution.

Agriprocessors also found itself battling a lawsuit filed by a bankruptcy trustee overseeing the remnants of a New York health and beauty supply company whose owner had pleaded guilty to a multimillion-dollar bank fraud.

The trustee said the company, Allou Distributors, had a host of suspicious transactions on its books, including $2.9 million in unexplained payments to Agriprocessors. The lawsuit demanded Agriprocessors return the payments, which it claimed were part of the scheme to hide Allou’s assets.

Agriprocessors insisted it did nothing wrong and had been supplying Allou with surplus meat, but it agreed last summer to pay $1.4 million to settle the case.

More trouble may lie on the horizon.

Moshe Rubashkin pleaded guilty this year to storing hazardous waste without a permit at a defunct, family-owned textile plant in Allentown, Pa. His son pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents during the investigation. They have yet to be sentenced.

Supporters say the Rub ashkins are no scofflaws, just unsophisticated businessmen who made some mistakes as their company grew.

“These are simple people. They are a family of butchers,” said Dovid Eliezrie, a California rabbi who has been assisting the family with the media.

Scott Frotman, a spokesman for the Food and Commercial Workers union, had a different take, calling the company’s treatment of its immigrant work force “morally reprehensible.”

“They blame the media. They blame us. They refuse to accept responsibility for anything that is going on in that plant,” he said.

State and federal investigators are looking into various purported violations at the company, such as employing underage employees, not paying workers, improperly using hazardous chemicals and not having alarms that could be heard by employees. The Rubashkins have not been charged.

“We are God-fearing people, and we believe in the American system, and we believe it will ultimately turn out OK,” Getzel Rubashkin, 24, a grandson of the family’s patriarch and an employee at Agriprocessors, told the AP in a recent interview.

He also said the family hasn’t given up on Postville, which he has called home since age 10.

“There are people who would like to see us leave, but on the whole, we have very warm relations,” he said.

  • AP writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.
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