By Ben Harris, 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,” said Raices, the principal of Postville’s Jewish day school, Beis Chaya Mushka. “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 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.”