Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Agriprocessors

I have been following the story of Agriprocessors, the largest supplier of kosher meat in the US for a few years now. I have been appalled at their treatment of their workers and animals and I would have boycotted them, had I been a meat eater.

I have not been able to understand why the wider Jewish community has not taken a stand against this highly visible Jewish company's very "unJewish" business practices. (the Conservative movement has been actively working to try to change their practices for a while). I don't think it matters whether you are a religious, secular or humanist Jew, the community is judged as a whole. It behooves us, as a community, to live up to the code of conduct we teach.

I was pleased to receive the following appeals in my email inbox this morning. The Jewish community has benefited from the illegal immigration, poor working conditions and animal cruelty that has been perpetrated by Agriprocessors and now, finally, the community is stepping up to the plate to help the workers who have been left with no means of financial support, or any means to be able to provide that support, following the I.C.E. raid .

If you are a Jew who has ever eaten any Agriprocessor's meat and thus have helped perpetrate these abuses, here is your chance to help right the wrong you were part of. Your donations will help prevent a family from starving while the parents are unable to work or even move back to Guatemala or Mexico.

A Message from Rabbi Dobrusin


To the Congregation:

Those of you who were at services last Shabbat morning heard two
presentations on an issue of great importance. Bob Savit, a member of
the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan and Michael Appel, a BIC congregant and
co-chair of our Social Action Committee both spoke about the
situation in Postville, Iowa regarding the serious financial crisis
being faced by the families of former workers of the Agriprocessors
plant. That plant which produces kosher meat under the Rubashkin
label was the subject of a raid by representatives of the Federal
government and many workers were arrested for having false papers.
You can read both of the presentations below. They will both be added
out our website soon.

Bob Savit spoke to the Congregation about the great financial need
and I agree wholeheartedly with him that it is our responsibility as
a Jewish community to respond to the plight of these families. The
Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan has established a fund for the families in
crisis. 100% of the funds collected will be sent, in the name of the
Jewish Community of Ann Arbor, to St. Bridget's Church in Postville
which is organizing efforts to help the families in crisis.
Contributions can be made through the shul. Michael
Appel raised the important concern about the alleged labor practices,
an issue which I had addressed in a sermon a few weeks ago, and our
support of Hescher Tzedek, the Conservative Movement's organization
which is committed to including workers' rights and other ethical
issues into the process of Kashrut supervision.

As you will see in the presentation below, both the allegations
against Agriprocessors and the humanitarian crisis are serious issues
indeed. .We will continue to keep you updated and thank the Ann Arbor
Orthodox Minyan for organizing this fund.

Rabbi Dobrusin




Address by Robert Savit
Dear Friends,

I am writing to follow up on my presentation to the congregation at
last week's Shabbat services about the plight of former workers of
the kosher meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa run by
Agriprocessors. While Agriprocessors is a private business not
officially representing any Jewish organization or denomination, it
is a high profile Jewish business, owned and operated by orthodox
Jews. As explained below, some of the recent actions and policies of
Agriprocessors have contributed to the suffering of former workers at
the plant.

With the wide support and cooperation of congregations in Ann Arbor,
the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan has organized a relief fund to help the
former workers at this plant, largely undocumented Guatemalan
immigrants, who were subjected to arrest by an investigative arm of
the Department of Homeland Security several weeks ago. Because of
the nature of the arrests and the role played by Agriprocessors in
the workers' plight, we feel it is of great importance that Jewish
organizations respond generously and visibly to help alleviate a
serious humanitarian crisis in northeast Iowa. What follows is some
background about the situation in Postville and a more detailed
description of the current situation. If you are already familiar
with this material, you may want to skip to the final section, "What
our Jewish community can do", which includes information about how to
contribute to the relief fund. If you have any doubts about the
importance of a strong Jewish communal response to this crisis,
please be sure to read the section below entitled "The role of
Agriprocessors". The needs of approximately 200 immigrant families
are serious and pressing. Timely contributions would be most useful.

Thanks very much for your generous support of this important project.


THE POSTVILLE SITUATION

Background
In 1987 Aaron Rubashkin and his family, orthodox Lubovitch (Chabad)
Jews, purchased a defunct meatpacking plant in the small northeastern
Iowa town of Postville and turned it into a kosher meat packing plant
operating under the name Agriprocessors. Postville is a very small
community where most long-term residents are of Lutheran German
extraction. Over the next 20 years, the Rubashkins developed this
plant into a very successful business. It is estimated that the
Postville plant provides over 60% of the kosher beef to the US
market, and also exports to Israel. This developing kosher meat
packing business has brought significant economic benefits to the
Postville area, but it has also changed the nature of the
community. In addition to a small but significant and very visible
orthodox Jewish presence, Agriprocessors has recruited and imported,
at various times, non-local workers willing to take the many
dangerous, difficult and low-paying jobs offered in the plant. The
latest such group of workers consisted of approximately 800 (mostly
undocumented) workers, primarily from Guatemala and some from
Mexico. Many came to Postville with their families.

The ICE Raid
On May 12, 2008, the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
part of the Department of Homeland Security, raided the Postville
plant and detained nearly 400 undocumented workers, many of whom had
false identity papers. In the following weeks, most of these workers
were subjected to summary trials. About 300 of them were given
prison sentences of 5 months to be followed by deportation. Another
45 or so, (mostly women) were released to care for their young
dependent children. These 45 were fitted with ankle bracelets to
monitor their movements. The conditions of their release require
them to remain in the state until their cases go to court-which will
not be until October. They are forbidden from returning to any kind
of work, including the packing plant. An additional 20 minors were
also detained and released on humanitarian grounds, and they face a
very similar situation to the adults on conditional release.

The Current Situation
The sentence of 5 months incarceration followed by deportation is an
unusually harsh sentence and has created a humanitarian crisis in
Postville. Postville is a very small community with little in the
way of a social welfare system. As a result of the ICE raid, there
are about 200 families of former workers at the plant that have no
means of support. Their loved ones are currently in prison. These
families cannot work, and continue to be tied to Postville until
their loved ones are released from prison. The situation for those
workers who were temporarily released is yet more uncertain in that
their hearings are not scheduled until October. There is no
organized relief agency in Postville, but some volunteers from the
area have been working through a local church, St. Bridget's, to
provide what relief they can.

The Role of Agriprocessors
The plight of these former workers of a kosher meat processing plant
is of great concern to the Jewish community, not only because it is a
significant humanitarian crisis, but also because it is a crisis that
has been created, at least in part, by the actions of Agriprocessors.

Over the years there have been many allegations of mistreatment by
Agriprocessors of their workers. These charges against the company
are serious, but they have not been unequivocally substantiated and
in the absence of such substantiation one should not be quick to
judge the company. On the other hand, the current response of
Agriprocessors to the plight of their former workers is clear, and,
in itself, is chillingly disdainful and uncaring. In brief,
Agriprocessors has done nothing to help alleviate the suffering of
its former workers and their families. On the contrary, following
the raid, Agriprocessors moved quickly to hire workers from other
parts of the country to replace the arrested workers. Since the
company does not pay its workers in advance, and since those who come
to Postville to take these jobs have very few resources, these new
workers have turned to the volunteers at St. Bridget's for support,
putting additional strain on an already overextended volunteer
organization trying to help the families of arrested workers. Thus,
not only has Agriprocessors not helped their former workers and their
families, they have made matters considerably worse by importing
other out-of-town workers without regard to how that will affect the
community and its scarce resources. The behavior of Agriprocessors
and the Rubashkins following the ICE raid is a chillul Hashem (a
desecration of God's name). These actions stand in startling
contrast to the case of Aaron Feuerstein, also an orthodox Jew, who,
when his textile mill, Malden Mills, burned down in 1995, kept all
3000 of his workers on full pay and benefits for months after the fire.

WHAT OUR JEWISH COMMUNITY CAN DO

Agriprocessors is owned by orthodox Jews associated with the Chabad
Lubovitch community. Agriprocessors, however, is not a Chabad
organization. It is not an orthodox organization. It is not even a
Jewish organization. It is merely a private business owned by
orthodox, Lubovitch Jews. But in being a successful kosher meat
packing plant, it is a very visible business with a very strong
Jewish identity. As a result, even though there is nothing
officially "orthodox" or officially "Jewish" about the business, its
policies and actions necessarily reflect on the entire Jewish
community, and, in the perception of the non-Jewish world, has
implications for the ethical foundations of our religion.

For these reasons it is vitally important that the Jewish community
respond vigorously and publicly to the humanitarian crisis in
Postville. We have organized a relief fund for the former workers of
Agriprocessors. The organization providing relief to the workers'
families in Postville estimates the cost of providing basic needs for
these families over several months at about $700,000. It is our
intention to collect donations as quickly as possible from the Ann
Arbor Jewish community and send those funds, on behalf of the entire
Ann Arbor Jewish community, to the relief organization in Postville
in support of their work with the families of the former employees of
Agriprocessors. We will also work to publicize these donations and
thereby try, as best we can, to counteract the public perception of
unethical Jewish behavior engendered by the actions of
Agriprocessors. We hope that you will join us in donating generously
to this effort.

Donations may be made on-line at http://www.annarborminyan.org using
paypal. Please click on the "Donate to the Postville Relief Fund"
button. Donations can also be made by check made out to the Ann
Arbor Orthodox Minyan and marked for the Postville fund. Checks
should be sent to Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan, 1606 Brooklyn, Ann
Arbor, MI 48104. 100% of all funds collected will be sent to the St.
Bridget's Hispanic Relief Fund in Postville where they will be used
to help provide basic services to the families of the workers.

If you have any further questions or want more details about the
situation in Postville, please do not hesitate to write to me (Robert
Savit) at savit@umich.edu.

Thanks very much for your help. Together we can make an important difference.

Robert Savit

1 comment:

Denise said...

Shez - Thanks so much for this information. I had heard about the raid but not about how we could help. Hope you, Shira and Ben are having a wonderful time at Fuhrman conf. The children's artwork continues to delight me; thanks for posting. If there's ever an opportunity to post a video of the children reciting poetry, I know I'll enjoy it. I read poetry aloud to my cats - obviously not the same effect. ;)