By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The driver who took us from Postville back to the Minneapolis airport for the flight home summed it all up. As we were approaching our destination after a three-hour drive through the darkened cornfields in the wee hours of the morning, Jonathan Saphira turned around and said to me, “I must tell you something. Last year, when you came to visit after ‘the raid’ and I drove you from the Minneapolis airport to Postville, it was a life-altering experience for me.”
I was worried that I had done something wrong. I listened with rapt attention as our driver, a resident of Rochester, Minnesota, and a translator who worked for the Rubashkins, continued.
“You see, I don’t know if you remember, but you were in the car with another rabbi. I had thought that I knew everything about Agriprocessors and the Rubashkins and that I didn’t have to pay attention to the media reports. But then I heard how that rabbi was speaking and how you were arguing with him in vain, and I realized for the first time the power of the media and how their unsubstantiated allegations took root and gained acceptance.
“Even religious Jews and people like that rabbi fell for what they were writing and that added to the pressure. I am sure that if religious Jews had fought back, the government never would have been able to proceed based on the anonymous, unfounded allegations I knew were wrong, and we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Jonathan couldn’t have expressed it better. So many of our problems are self-inflicted. We hear a good story, we jump to quick conclusions without bothering to ascertain the truth, and in the process we destroy people, families, careers, and much else.
It’s not a secret to Yated readers that we are haunted by what happened to Agriprocessors and to Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin. I have read the malicious book about the Postville experience and the reports of the disgusting manner in which the workers there were treated. I read the articles painting the company managers as modern-day shylocks trading in human misery and making their living off of the virtual enslavement of a servant class of workers. They were rolling in money like typical evil capitalists, the articles claimed, enjoying the fruits of the labor of the illiterate, the unskilled, and the proletariat, whom they ruled over.
The facts as I saw them with my own eyes on my visit to the plant last year were so obviously contrary to the media portrayals that I didn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to sense that something deep and sinister was at work.
The plant was ultra-modern, ultra-clean, ultra-efficient, and so far removed from the jungles of Chicago and Upton Sinclair that it was inconceivable how any objective person could confuse the two. The workers, both home-grown Americans and those from Spanish-speaking countries to our south, smiled as they went about their work and, when we spoke to them, had only positive things to say about their jobs, their bosses, and their salaries.
But as the only media outlet to constantly take up the cause of reporting what was really transpiring in that plant and in the town of Postville, our efforts, regrettably, were not enough to turn the tide and convince the masses of the truth.
People who should have known better didn’t. People who are enjoined not to accept lashon hara and hotzo’as sheim rah did. People who should have given their brethren the benefit of the doubt didn’t. People who should have perceived that the real target was shechitah, and should have raised a hue and a cry, didn’t. Thus, the lynch mobs were able to vilify and destroy the reputation of a family renowned for its charity and care of the less-fortunate.
A dream of the highest standards of kashrus coupled with the highest quality of USDA inspected meat was allowed to turn into a nightmare, and few who could have made a difference can say, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh.”
We didn’t care. It was just another news tidbit for us to talk about. It was fodder for conversation, and we didn’t fathom the human toll and cost it would take.
When I saw how wide the gap was between the facts and the reports, I adopted the cause. I had never met Shalom Mordechai Rubashkin. We became close over the year of his travails by speaking on the phone and through emails and text messages, and then he decided that it was time we met.
My wife and I spent this past Shabbos in Postville, Iowa. We took off to the Shabbos of Chizuk for Shalom Mordechai with great trepidation, not knowing what to expect, but it turned out that we had nothing to fear, and we learned quite a lot over the day and a half that we were there.
Imagine living in a place three hours from anywhere where you can buy a house on a decent piece of property for $25,000. Imagine living in a town where there is no crime and everyone keeps their doors unlocked day and night. There are no hills, the earth is as flat as can be, and when you look around, all you see are fields of green for miles around you. You are enveloped by a calming silence and fresh fragrant air wherever you go. Very rarely does a car come by, and when it does, it is moving at about 15 mph.
The tiny sliver of a town has a shul, a yeshiva, a cheder, a mikvah, and a kosher, fully-stocked grocery store. Everybody davens in the same shul which, if you didn’t know better, could be confused for a chassidishe shteibel in Boro Park or Yerushalayim. As you walk out of davening, you hear the people speaking to each other in a dialect composed of Yiddish, English and Hebrew in a way that you can’t tell who is from here and who is from Israel. They all sound alike and get along so well with each other.
As strange as it sounds, some people live here and commute to their jobs in other states, coming home for Shabbos. One shochet I spoke to is a Klausenberger chossid from Yerushalayim. From his mother’s side, he hails from the Vilna Gaon. His great-great-great-grandmother arrived in Eretz Yisroel with the first organized aliyah shortly after the passing of the Gaon. He went to Postville to shecht for Agri and now commutes to the shechitah in Kansas. He loves it in Postville. What is there not to like? He says this is the best place to bring up children, so far from the vagaries of city life and incipit influences.
In addition to spending a Shabbos in the company of people we had just met but who felt like family, on Friday night there was a shalom zachor, and on Motzoei Shabbos there was a festive melava malka. We experienced real, living Yiddishkeit in the cornfields of Iowa. It was such a lovely experience to spend Shabbos with so many nice, normal, friendly people.
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The shul in Postville is named Achdus Yisroel and that is exactly what it is. It is a place that draws all types of Jews, who speak a collection of languages and hail from various parts of the globe. They all get along. A spirit of calmness pervades the shul where everyone knows everyone else, each person feels at home, and all attendees get along magnificently.
I couldn’t help but think of the Chazal which states that when Jews are b’achdus and together, they can stand up to any enemy, except those who we ourselves empower. But the thought that this idyllic little town of Torah in the middle of nowhere in Postville, Iowa, may be headed for Ghostville hung over the place.
Despite all the smiles and the cheerfulness, and the pervasive simcha and bitachon apparent there, nobody knows what the next year will bring. This is because it is not only our external, eternal enemies who have been empowered to destroy this place of transplanted kedushah by themselves, but the fact that they have been aided and abetted by wolves in sheep’s clothing disguised as do-gooders concerned with the ethical treatment of animals and the people who process them.
As we approach the Yom Hadin and seek zechuyos for ourselves, let us daven for the success of the good Yidden of Postville and all the others in economic distress across the country, and resolve to improve in the middah of kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh in every aspect of our communal and Jewish lives.
Ish lereyeihu ya’azoru ule’achiv yomar chazak. When what divides us is external and minor, we have to ignore those differences and be able to support each other and come together as one nation for our eternal benefit.
Let it not be said of us in the coming year that we remained apathetic and didn’t rise up when the occasion demanded it. Let it not be said that we didn’t fight for the truth and help it emerge from the dark clouds of golus and treachery.
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