Yesterday, Hazon organized a conference call with Rabbi Morris Allen for our staff, board, and volunteer leaders of our food programs. Rabbi Allen is the founder of Hekhsher Tzedek, and and just came back from visiting Postville, Iowa along with his daughter, fellow Rabbi, Harold Kravitz, and his daughter, and the chair of Allen’s synagogue’s social justice committee.
We asked him to brief us on the current situation with Agriprocessors, the mood in Postville, and the Jewish response – from an on-the-ground perspective.
This is what he saw and reported:The Situation
Until recently, Rabbi Allen said, Postville was a bubbly little community with bustling streets and a newly built community center built with a donation from the Rubashkin family. “It was a happy community from a Martian’s standpoint,” he said. “But it was dependent on a landlord of the community that was calling the shots.”Since the raid two weeks ago, the overall mood in Postville has been grim.
At this point, Agriprocessors’ ownership has not been arrested and no charges have been filed against them. Agriprocessors has stated that they are looking for a new CEO to replace Sholom Rubashkin, but it is unclear if this nominal shift will result in any real change in who runs the company. Meanwhile, over 300 workers have been convicted. “This is all as a result of the Jewish community’s need to keep kosher,” Rabbi Allen commented. And, without any comprehensive immigration reform in place, “the scenario will repeat itself.”
Many of the workers in Postville have had charges filed against them, many are in jail, some have fled, and many others are wearing ankle bracelets, which Rabbi Morris described as “a monitoring device slapped on to you to allow the authorities to know where you are.”
The bracelets essentially stop people from reporting to work or fleeing. The workers, some of whom are under the age of 18 (despite a federal law that prohibits anyone under the age of 18 to work on the killing floor in a meat processing plant), are now jobless and do not have a way to pay rent, or support their families. The local church, St. Bridget’s has currently raised about $40,000 and are helping people pay utility bills and food money, but it’s limited.
One of the key differences between this raid and others, he said, is that usually workers get deported. This time around, however, they are being convicted and will have a lasting criminal record. Additionally, nearly everyone Rabbi Allen spoke with reported some type of verbal or physical abuse and berating supervisors on the floor. “Postville is very small with a small population,” Rabbi Allen said. “But we heard the same painful story over and over.”
The Jewish Response
Rabbi Allen said the he believes Jews have a responsibility to not fan fires between one group of Jews and another. He also defended the Conservative Movement’s recent statement, which emphasizes the importance of carefully evaluating our consumer decisions, but doesn’t call for a full boycott against Agriprocessors.
On the one hand, “How does one differentiate between one meat plant and another?” He asked. Additionally, the situation is complicated for Postville residents because the town’s economy so relies on Agriprocessors existence. One person Rabbi Allen spoke with said, “We don’t want Agriprocessors to fail. It should be sold to another company, but it should not fail.” That said, Rabbi Allen commented, “It is clear that people are rightfully concerned about eating food produced at Agriprocessors.”
He quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words from 40 years ago: “You have become skilled at spotting blood in an egg. When there is blood in an egg, it becomes unkosher and unsuitable for eating. I hope you will be just as able to spot blood in money as well.” Hekhsher Tzedek’s work, he said, is to bring this same message of justice into our kashrut and consumer decisions – both with regards to meat products, and all products bearing a hekhsher. (For the record, Rabbi Allen visited Postville wearing a Hekhsher Tzedek hat, surely, but also as, “one Jew reaching out to a population that has served our communal needs by being the workforce that produces our food.”
One of the Sisters at St. Bridgets said to Rabbi Allen, “You are like angels to have come. You are the first Jews to come here to meet with these people.”
Rabbi Allen suggested that it is our Jewish imperative, whether we boycott Rubashkin products or not, to consider our food choices more deeply. “Hekhsher Tzedek works to pull together the two silos of Jewish ethics,” he said. “Economic and ritual law both have a place at the table. We should not tolerate a situation where Jews care more about the smoothness of a cows’ lung than the treatment of the workers.”
How You Can Help
Rabbi Allen suggested two ways to contribute directly to the work going on “on the ground” in Postville. Funds large and small can be sent directly to:
St. Bridget’s Hispanic Ministry
St. Bridget’s Church
P.O. Box 369
Postville, IA 52162
St. Bridget’s is the “city of refuge” for those most directly affected.
Rabbi Morris J. Allen
Beth Jacob Congregation
1179 Victoria Curve
Mendota Heights, MN
Rabbi Allen, Project Director of Hekhsher Tzedek, will send funds immediately. Write “Postville” on your check. He will also facilitate visits for those with pastoral and other needed skills. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Rebecca Joseph, who maintains the blog, The Parve Baker, made an additional suggestion:
To add meaning to your gift, make your donation equal to or more than the amount that you’ll spend on your most costly Shabbat (or restaurant) meal this week. Forego meat this Shabbat, if it’s ordinarily present. Whether you’re an omnivore or vegetarian, use the absence of meat on the table as an opportunity to discuss the Jewish imperative to respect the sanctity of human and animal life in kosher food production.