POSTVILLE – The Agri Star kosher meat processing plant offers a potential stabilizing force for the battered economy of Postville. Despite the promise of more jobs, members of the Orthodox Jewish community say they still face an uncertain future.
The plant may draw observant Jews to work at Agri Star as ritual slaughterers, known as shochtim, but members of the Orthodox Jewish community say they need more than employment to sustain their community. People who adhere to halakhah, Jewish religious law, find the cost of keeping their faith while living in Postville has risen since last year.
An immigration raid in May 2008 forced Agriprocessors, the predecessor to Agri Star, to shut down last year. Most members of Postville’s Jewish community depended on the plant for their income.
Many Jewish families also relied on the plant’s owner, Aaron Rubashkin, and manager, Sholom Rubashkin, for more than a paycheck.
“The generosity of the Rubashkins had created a company town atmosphere within the Orthodox Jewish community,” said Aaron Goldsmith, a Postville business owner and member of the Orthodox Jewish community.
Sholom Rubashkin was operating the kosher grocery store, Jacob’s Market, at a loss, said Meir Simcha, who took over the business after it closed following the raid. He renamed the business Kosher Community Grocery store. He discovered the business had more than $120,000 in outstanding balances owed to the store under Sholom Rubashkin’s management.
Simcha said he had to repair relationships with vendors to restock the shelves. Simcha, who is married and has a 3-month-old baby to support, said selling his inventory at a loss isn’t an option. As a result, the store’s food prices have gone up at least 15 percent on all items and more than that for a few others.
Orthodox Jews who keep kosher must follow Jewish law that outlines what foods can be eaten. Some meats, including pork, and specific animal parts aren’t kosher. The guidelines also specify how some foods are to be prepared and prohibits eating foods made with utensils used to prepare nonkosher food.
Simcha said he has a limited number of suppliers to choose from for inventory and a closed customer base. Those factors and shipping costs drive up prices, but he adds, his customers understand.
On the other hand, having Agri Star nearby allows him to price some meat items much lower. Some people come from as far as Minnesota and Des Moines to stock up on meat from the store, he said.
Another keystone for the Orthodox community is a Jewish education. Families who send children to the Jewish schools, Bais Chaya Mushka for girls and Oholei Menachem for boys, have seen tuition increase.
Mordy Brown said his daughter’s tuition has doubled from last school year. Officials at Bais Chaya Mushka declined to comment.
Diora Bass has 10 of his 12 children attending the Postville Jewish schools. Support the schools received from the Rubashkin family kept tuitions much lower, the parents said. Bass said the cost of the education is ranging $250 to $300 per year for each student.
Bass said he knows some Jewish families have left Postville because of the financial hardships of staying. Each family with children that leaves adds an extra burden on those remaining to subsidize the school. A class one of his sons attends has three students, Bass said.
“The base of students is so small that if one family leaves, it has a bigger effect,” Bass said.
Bass and his family weathered a nearly six-month period during which he had no job. Bass was a contract worker who depended directly on the Agriprocessors plant for his income. What little money he had went to food and utility bills. Bass has found new work but is still behind on his mortgage. The higher cost of living isn’t helping him catch up.
“When everything you have goes to education and utilities, it makes it very tough,” he said.
Bass said he doesn’t want to leave Postville, but added he may have to consider moving on.
Agri Star chief executive officer Hershey Friedman has made contributions to the schools and met with school officials after taking over the meat processing plant. Friedman declined to say how much he contributed, said Agri Star spokeswoman Eileen Wixted.
Goldsmith said the school needs immediate financial assistance to help keep some of the Jewish families in Postville.
“If Agri Star closed today, would there be a school? The answer is no,” Goldsmith said. “The reverse may be the same, I’m afraid, if (Agri Star) waits too long. If the school fails, the business will struggle.”
Wixted said Agri Star is committed to providing high-wage jobs with good benefits that allow employees to take care of their families.
Simcha agreed the schools are essential to keeping Jewish families in Postville, but said Friedman is a businessman who didn’t purchase a school.
“He’s not obligated,” he said. “He’s only obligated to pay decent wages.”
That obligation is part of the long-term outlook for Postville, said Goldsmith.
“If that doubles the number of Jewish families here in one year, that would make sense,” Goldsmith said, adding that he believes short-term help is needed now.
“We need a short-term approach and a realistic long-term plan.”
Education can be a selling point or breaking point for Jewish families weighing where to live, Goldsmith said. He relocated his hospital bed business, Transfer Master, from Los Angeles to Postville in 1998 after sending his 12-year-old son to school in Postville. Goldsmith learned the class his son was supposed to go into in the Los Angeles area was canceled two weeks before school was supposed to start. His son attended school in Postville while the rest of his family was in California. Goldsmith said he fell in love with Postville during a visit and weeks later had an opportunity to move his business there. At one point all five children attended Postville Jewish schools for less than $600 per year for all of them.
Although he isn’t directly dependent on the Agri Star plant for his livelihood, Goldsmith knows his fate is still tied to it.
“If someone wants to maintain the quality of their Jewish religious life, they have to have the infrastructure,” he said.
If the company fails or the Orthodox Jewish community isn’t able to rebound, he said, he knows he will probably leave, but not without reluctance.
“It’s not only what I would lose with the Jewish community,” he said. “I have a lot of friends here and I like Postville.”
The families who haven’t left have stayed because they like the community and because of the most important thing that binds the Orthodox Jewish community – faith.
“I think (Postville) will flourish again,” said Goldsmith.
“I would, personally, today, invest money in Postville,” Simcha said. “We all believe it will rebound.”