Postville Mandates Broader Response


For the past several weeks, the St. Louis Jewish Light has published numerous news stories, opinion pieces and letters to the editor regarding the ongoing controversy over the Agriprocessors, the Rubashkin Kosher Meat and Poultry Products facility in Postville, Iowa. There have been serious allegations regarding poor and unsafe working conditions, the use of illegal immigrant workers with false documents, and even allegations of the use of child labor, which have prompted expressions of concern and outrage from many segments of the Jewish community. In St. Paul, Minn., a group called Jewish Community Action organized an interfaith program dealing with the crisis, stressing, in the words of its executive director, “For thousands of years, Jews lived by two rules: Welcome the strangers and don’t exploit the worker.”

In addition to the criticism and concern, Agriprocessors has had its defenders. Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, the sole entity authorized to supervise the Jewish dietary laws in Greater St. Louis, was among a group of 25 leading U.S. and Canadian kashrut supervisors in their communities who traveled to Postville to walk through the facility.

In an op-ed piece published in the Aug. 13 edition of the Jewish Light, Rabbi Zuravin said that after the group was led into the plant by Chaim Abrams, the plant manager, “Once inside there were no restrictions on us whatsoever. We were given free and unfettered access to the entire plant. We interviewed dozens of empoyees, selecting them ourselves. We spent a number of hours inside the plant, and we reviewed the elaborate production lines.” While we have no reason to doubt that Rabbi Zuravin reported accurately on what he and his colleagues observed, the trip has been criticized over the fact that the travel expenses were provided by Agriprocessors itself, and that this fact was not disclosed in Rabbi Zuravin’s published report on the trip.

Rabbi Zuravin reported, “The reality that we found at the plant was far different than what had been depicted in the media. Agriprocessors is a modern, efficient and impeccably clean facility. Great emphasis is placed on safety, sanitation, quality control and assurance. Contrary to some reports, the workers are in good spirits and seemed remarkably content with their work environment as well as their pay.” While these impressions might be an accurate impression of the visit by the group of 25 Orthodox rabbis and lay people, questions have been raised as to how truly “open” the employees felt knowing that their jobs could be at risk if they offered criticism, and how “spontaneous” the inspection was if it was organized and planned by Agriprocessors itself?

Our sacred texts, including the Torah, the Tanakh and the Talmud are filled with strict requirements that we must not take unfair advantage of our employees, and that we should treat all workers and servants with respect, fair wages and humane working conditions. These ancient values found modern expression in the strong Jewish involvement in the American organized labor movement, with such union leader giants as David Dubinsky and Samuel Gompers playing leading roles in forming major unions in the United States.

The controversy over the Agriprocessors plant has raged on for several weeks. What then, should be done? We believe that follow-up action is called for, which should include:

* An inter-branch group of rabbinic and lay leaders from all segments of the kosher-keeping community should be organized, perhaps by the New York Board of Rabbis which includes all streams of Judaism, with representation from groups like the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. This group should be charged with conducting periodic and truly spontaneous inspection visits to Agriprocessors and similar facilities nationally.

* The above inter-branch kashrut inspection regimen should be sustained and ongoing, and not limited to the present concerns over the Postville issues. This will assure that the rights of all concerned parties will be respected, including those who must be able to count on the moral and ethical values of the businesses which produce kosher food and other products.

* Finally, in evauating this crisis, care must be taken to avoid judging people “guilty” before all the facts are known with accusatory rhetoric, which only serves to inflame, rather than to inform.

As we prepare to observe the High Holidays for the new Jewish Year of 5769, we hope that the concerns around the Postville matter will be urgently addressed and that concrete steps will be taken to fix any current problems and to prevent such concerns in the future.