By Nathaniel Popper
During past presidential transitions, when pardons were in the air, many Orthodox Jewish activists set their sights on securing a pardon for Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned since 1987 on charges of spying for Israel. This year, though, members of the Orthodox community had another jailed cause célèbre to focus on: Sholom Rubashkin.
Rubashkin, former CEO of the kosher meat company Agriprocessors, has been confined to a five-person Iowa jail cell since November, awaiting trial on charges of bank fraud and helping workers at his plant to falsify their immigration status.
Tales of the working conditions at the slaughterhouse that Rubashkin ran in Postville, Iowa, have earned him widespread criticism, including that of members of the Orthodox community. In recent months, however, people from a wide range of Orthodox groups have gone to great lengths to rally behind Rubashkin, who has been denied bail pending trial as an alleged flight risk. According to his lawyer, more than 30 people have offered to put up their homes as collateral if Rubashkin is released on bail. Multiple groups have been formed to raise money for Rubashkin’s legal costs. And a delegation of rabbis representing a cross-section of the Orthodox community traveled to Iowa to visit Rubashkin in jail and make a plea for his release.
“This is very unusual,” said Guy Cook, Rubashkin’s Des Moines-based lawyer. Cook, who has been in private practice for nearly 30 years, said he had never seen another client receive the sort of support that Rubashkin has been given.
“This is a community that really feels an obligation to defend one of their own,” Cook added.
Support for Rubashkin does not come only from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic community that Rubashkin grew up in. Among Rubashkin’s visitors have been leading rabbis representing the centrist Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s largest Orthodox rabbinical association, as well as the Orthodox Union, the main umbrella body for Modern Orthodox synagogues and the largest certifier of kosher food. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, who visited the jail as a representative of the O.U., said he was there not to say whether Rubashkin was guilty or innocent, but merely to support a fellow Jew.
“We were there to give him support as a Jew who is incarcerated,” Elefant told the Forward. “People I speak with don’t understand why the government is taking such a tough stand on him.”
Those who have visited him say that Rubashkin is confined to a cell with four other men in the Dubuque Law Enforcement Center. Rubashkin told the rabbis that he spends most of his days praying and studying Jewish texts. While the rabbis say that his wife has been able to bring him kosher food, he has been unable to visit with some of his 10 children, including an autistic son who has become a part of the legal wrangling in his case.
Rubashkin has a lengthy legal fight ahead of him. On January 15, federal prosecutors handed down a new 99-count indictment against Rubashkin and a few supervisors who worked under him at the Postville slaughterhouse. That slaughterhouse was the subject of a massive immigration raid in May 2008 in which nearly 400 workers were arrested. Rubashkin’s trial is set to begin this coming September. One rabbi who has been raising money for the case said that he had heard that Rubashkin’s legal fees will likely total between $2 million and $5 million.
For now, the immediate rallying cry has been the court’s decision to keep Rubashkin in jail rather than release him on bail. The prosecutors initially argued that if the judge allowed Rubashkin to be released, he might flee to Israel, where he would be granted immediate citizenship due to Israel’s Law of Return. Another defendant in the case, Hasam Amara, has already fled to Israel, according to the new indictment.
But the reference to the Law of Return has inflamed many of the activists on Rubashkin’s behalf.
“He’s sitting in there only because he’s Jewish,” said Rabbi Shimon Hecht, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Brooklyn who was in the delegation visiting Rubashkin in jail.
Several non-Orthodox Jewish organizations have written briefs supporting Rubashkin on this point, arguing that if courts used the Law of Return in this way it could lead them to deny any Jewish person bail.
But the magistrate judge overseeing the case has rejected Rubashkin’s appeals and said that his lawyers have put too much emphasis on the reference to the Law of Return. The magistrate judge, Jon Scoles, wrote that the primary reason Rubashkin was kept in jail was the thousands of dollars in cash and precious coins that government officials say they found at his home when he was arrested in November.
Rubashkin’s lawyers are disputing exactly what those officials found, but the rabbis supporting Rubashkin are hoping that by speaking up for him, they can convince the judge that Rubashkin would never flee. “The bottom line is if you look across the country, there are people who have done a heck of a lot worse things and have gone out on bail,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice-president of the National Council of Young Israel, who organized the delegation of rabbis that visited Rubashkin. “Sholom Rubashkin has no funds. His family is here. He’s not going to run.”
While his Orthodox supporters say that Rubashkin has been treated unfairly, several people involved in the Agriprocessors case say that he has received far better treatment than many others caught up in the company’s problems. After the government’s raid of Agriprocessors in May, most of the 400 non-Jewish workers who were arrested were given six-month jail terms after hasty trials in which each public defender was representing nearly 20 workers.
Jewish Community Action, a social action group in nearby Minnesota, helped raise funds to assist the immigrant workers and their families. The executive director of that organization, Vic Rosenthal, said that during the drive to give the immigrant workers support, he never heard any interest from the same Orthodox leaders who are throwing their weight behind Rubashkin today.
“Had the Orthodox community, which had such an interest in Agriprocessors, been willing to say, ‘We’ll make lawyers or resources available for these workers,’ that would have sent a real message,” Rosenthal said.
As it is, Rosenthal said, the different handling of Rubashkin and the immigrant workers has been a “perversion of American justice.”
“You have one person who has resources and access to good attorneys, and who will get his day in court. And you have another group of people that gets railroaded through the legal system,” Rosenthal said.
Most of the Orthodox rabbis who are supporting Rubashkin and spoke to the Forward said that they had never considered providing support to the immigrant workers last year. But Rabbi Shea Hecht, a Chabad rabbi who helped establish a committee that seeks to spread awareness of Rubashkin’s case — and that has already given money for his legal defense — said he wished he had done more in the raid’s immediate aftermath.
“If I would have done more in May — to help the company and the 400 Guatemalans — maybe we wouldn’t be here now needing to form this committee,” Hecht said.