Nathaniel Popper of the Forward has written…
…a long background piece on the Rubashkin family.
Popper interviewed me months ago, and I heard no more about the piece until I saw it on the Forward's website a few minutes ago.
Because Popper quotes me, I'll deal only with that quote now and leave anything I might have to say about the rest of this article for another post.
It was Aaron’s two youngest sons, Sholom and Heshey, who moved to the Midwest to grow the plant into more than just a beef slaughter facility. The brothers would work in Iowa during the week and commute to Minnesota, where there were synagogues and yeshivas for their children. During this time the Rubashkins earned the antagonism of one of their most unstinting critics. Shmarya Rosenberg, who now chronicles the Rubashkins’ every move on his blog, FailedMessiah, met the family in synagogue and would go over to Sholom’s house for Sabbath meals.
“There were always people there eating, and always people visiting at all hours, and the kids were wild as hell,” Rosenberg said. “It was a very Rubashkin household.”
During one of their meetings, Rosenberg says that Sholom prodded him to buy a struggling butcher store and offered him a good price on meat. Rosenberg decided to go for it. A few weeks after opening, though, none of the meat he ordered was arriving. He also noticed that another, bigger distributor in town had the meat he was supposed to get for lower prices.
“My personal experience was very good. They’re nice people, except when you get into business with them,” Rosenberg said.
The general outline here is correct, but some details are slightly garbled.
My remarks about the Rubashkins' non-business life were actually much deeper and broader than quoted.
(This is not a flaw in Popper's reporting. Articles have word count limits and stories need to be told in the most concise way possible.)
For example, I told Popper a story about Sholom M. Rubashkin's yeshiva high school classmate, Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff, now the Agudath Israel-affilliated rabbi of Minneapolis.
Lieff goes to Rubashkin's mother's restaurant after school to get a burger and fries. As he sits waiting, beggar after beggar comes in, sits down and gets served first.
More than 1/2 hour passes. Lieff can take it no longer. He calls into the food preparation area and says, "Please! Mrs. Rubashkin! I'm HUNGRY! And I have money! I Pay!"
Lieff got his burger – almost 1/2 hour later.
(Lieff is a great speaker, by the way, and when I heard him tell this story at a large public event – I think it was a yeshiva dinner in Minnesota honoring the Rubashkins – he had hundreds of people laughing uncontrollably.)
I suggested to Popper that he try to get Lieff to speak on the record.
I said Popper should tell Lieff he would agree to Lieff telling him only good things about the Rubashkins – as long as that story was one of those good things.
My point is, when I spoke about the good things the Rubashkins do, I did not stint.
But I did say that wonderful mitzvot and tremendous kindnesses done with money made by exploiting, mistreating and abusing other human beings are, in my view at least, null and void.
I gave a coarse analogy: Al Capone gave away a lot of money to poor people. But Capone got that money in part through murder and plunder. Very few people would argue that Capone's charity – some of it very real and genuinely motivated – "koshered" that murder and plunder.
The Rubashkin's are not murderers, of course, but the analogy should stand.
The brothers would work in Iowa during the week and commute to Minnesota, where there were synagogues and yeshivas for their children. During this time the Rubashkins earned the antagonism of one of their most unstinting critics. Shmarya Rosenberg…During one of their meetings, Rosenberg says that Sholom prodded him to buy a struggling butcher store and offered him a good price on meat. Rosenberg decided to go for it. A few weeks after opening, though, none of the meat he ordered was arriving. He also noticed that another, bigger distributor in town had the meat he was supposed to get for lower prices.
I do not think it fair to say the Rubashkins "earned [my enduring] antagonism over this.
My partner and I perceived Heshy Rubashkin as the bad guy – not Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin.
(By the way, Heshy lived in Postville – not Minnesota. He did not yet have children of school age, and so he could more easily live there.)
It was Heshy who promised the meat we ordered was on the truck, and it was Heshy who never had an answer when the truck came without it.
As for the distributorship, I made a point to Popper when we spoke. The point is a bit fine, and that may be why Popper's condensed version leaves it out.
Sholom Mordedchai Rubashkin wanted me to buy the closing kosher meat market.
He offered to sell me as much non-glatt meat as I could move at his cost.
All I had to do was promise to work on a normal markup, meaning the non-glatt meat would be priced so cheaply that Jews who at that time did not keep kosher would, absent a price differential, start buying kosher meat.
I agreed, excited to be able to do this mitzva.
Between the time Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and I made that verbal agreement and the completion of the sale of the kosher meat market to my partner and I, a period of about 2 weeks, Agriprocessors signed a distribution agreement with Twin City Poultry (TCP), a large, Minnesota-based national distributor.
TCP's owners were (and are) members of Rabbi Lieff's synagogue. Lieff did want non-glatt fresh meat sold in the Twin Cities.
TCP insisted on enforcing their agreement with Agriprocessors in a way that stopped my partner and I from selling non-glatt meat.
The Rubashkins for their part agreed to TCP's demands. That is what led to Rubashkin trucks coming without the meat we ordered – even though those same trucks continued on a few minutes past our store to TCP's headquarters, where they dropped off product.
At the same time, my partner and I checked the prices of Rubashkin and Empire chicken in several markets, from New York City to St. Louis, to Denver and LA.
We were charged by Rubashkin $1.47 per pound for whole chickens by the case, the same price we paid from TCP for Rubashkin and for Empire chickens.
We were shocked to find out these same chickens retailed for about $1.29 per pound cut in quarters in all the other markets we contacted.
TCP was a major Empire distributor. and Rubashkin's largest distributor.
The Empire chickens came to TCP from Empire and then went out to markets across the country – including some of the markets we called.
The Agriprocessors chickens came from Postville to TCP, the trucks passing within 1 1/2 miles of our store. From TCP, the chickens went to markets across the country, including its home market. The store I co-owned made up more than 1/2 of TCP's local market for Agriprocessors chicken.
In other words, you could by an Iowa-shechted and Minnesota-distributed Agriprocessors chicken for less money per pound retail in Brooklyn, St. Louis, Denver, LA and other markets than my partner and I paid wholesale – and it did not matter if we bought that chicken from TCP or Agriprocessors.
We were very angry about that , which led to an effort by my partner to bring in another chicken from some other kosher producer.
And that led to a threat from TCP to put Empire Fresh Pack chicken into every grocery store in the Twin Cities area at 99 cents per pound until we went out of business.
And what about the other kosher store, the one in Minneapolis under Rabbi Lieff's supervision? That store would also get the 99 cents per pound deal.
Needless to say, we did not import any non-Agriprocessors or non-Empire chickens.
Rabbi Lieff's butcher, the then Minneapolis kosher meat market owner, took my partner and I to beit din (religious court) for hasgat gevul (infringing on his business). It was a zabla, with Rabbi Lieff representing the Minneapolis butcher.
The Minneapolis butcher lost.
During this process, Rabbi Lieff announced that no one should buy meat from my partner and I. He said our kashrut could not be trusted because of the non-glatt Rubashkin meat we were trying to sell.
(At the same time, he had no problems allowing Rubashkin glatt to be sold and, indeed, a significant portion of the glatt meat sold by that Minneapolis kosher butcher was Agriprocessors.)
The beit din forced Lieff to retract and the non-glatt meat was supposed to be delivered to us – but it never came.
Even after wining in beit din, the Lieff-TCP-Rubashkin collusion stood.
I sold my share of the business soon after.
I could not have my money (little that it was) tied up in a business that could be destroyed this way.
(It was also clear there was no way, especially after the hit we took from Lieff's actions, for two families to live off the proceeds of the business.)
To say this prolonged incident caused me to be antagonistic toward the Rubashkins is an oversimplification.
We had no context for the Rubashkins' behavior other than the good things we knew about them from their time living in Saint Paul and from the stories we heard – like the one Rabbi Lieff tells – about their family.
I thought Sholom Mordechai had been forced into hurting us.
I thought Heshy, who I anyway found to be obnoxious, did not need to be forced, and that Aaron Rubashkin was only doing what was best for his business.
As for TCP, while I had no illusions about its business model, I liked Hillel Robert's, o.h., TCP's CEO and senior partner. His father, o.h., was an iconic figure in the Minnesota Jewish community and was someone I truly respected.
It was not until I saw the first PETA video in 2004 and Agriprocessors' response to it that my views of the Rubashkins changed for the worse.