…[Baruch] Weiss' onetime client Sholom Rubashkin faces an array of federal charges filed in 2008 in connection with the operation of the ill-fated Agriprocessors plant, including bank fraud, money laundering and helping illegal immigrants procure fake documents.
Rubashkin turned for help to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the American Friends of Chabad Lubavitch Washington office. Shemtov then contacted Weiss, a longtime friend whose areas of responsibility at DHS had included immigration enforcement.
Weiss was retained specifically to press for Rubaskhin's release on bail pending the start of his trial, a move that federal prosecutors opposed on controversial -- some said inflammatory -- grounds.
They argued during a Nov. 19 hearing that Rubashkin should remain in custody until the trial because he posed a heightened flight risk. The prosecutors contended that the state of Israel might present a convenient refuge for Rubashkin because Israel grants automatic citizenship to all Jews through its Law of Return, and Rubashkin, of course, is Jewish.
"The Law of Return business really got into his kishkes," Shemtov said of Weiss.
"I was stunned," Weiss said. "So I guess if you're Jewish, you get locked up with greater frequency than if you're a non-Jew? For me, that converted the Rubashkin matter from a case into a cause."
Magistrate Judge Jon Scoles ruled in favor of the prosecution. In an appeal brief filed on behalf of his client, Weiss said there is virtually no evidence that a prosecutor had ever before argued that an American Jew might not show up in court because of the Law of Return.
By the government's logic, the brief continued, all Jews therefore can be viewed as posing a heightened flight risk "simply because they are Jews." Weiss concluded: "It is ironic that a law designed to provide refuge to persecuted Jews has now become the basis for detaining Jews who might otherwise have been released pending trial."
In late January, Linda Reade, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, granted Rubashkin's release on $500,000 bond (with other provisions attached), ruling that although he might indeed flee, reasonable measures could mitigate that risk. A spokesperson for the prosecution declined comment.
"If you think of the federal government's case as a rock," said one observer who asked not to be named, "Baruch destroyed it with the drip, drip, drip water torture of legal exegesis."
Weiss is no stranger to textual gymnastics, having grown up in a home steeped in rigorous intellectual give-and-take and advanced Jewish scholarship, with an emphasis on the Talmud, virtually a handbook for future lawyers.
"We never went on vacation," recalled Weiss, the oldest of three boys. "For fun, we argued around the Shabbat table about almost anything."
His mother, Tzipora Hager Halivni, who died last summer, was a Holocaust historian (and Auschwitz survivor) with a Ph.D. in Yiddish and Hebrew literature.
His father, David Weiss Halivni, now 81 and living in Israel, is a world-renowned talmudic scholar, a so-called "boy genius," who first earned rabbinic ordination as a teenager in Europe before the Holocaust decimated his world.
Beginning at age 8 or 9, Weiss regularly delved into the Talmud with his father, who pioneered an exacting approach to studying the text "that taught me," Weiss said, "to not always accept the standard answer as the answer.
Weiss received a master's degree in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has conducted an informal Talmud class for years.
He said his study of Judaism's signature repository of mind-sharpening argumentation and reasoning "certainly gave me a head start" in developing lawyerly thinking.
Weiss' wife, journalist Laura Blumenfeld ----who has observed the Weiss clan in action -- is also intimately familiar with the dogged pursuit of justice, having walked that path herself. (They live in the District with their three children, and attend Conservative Adas Israel Congregation, Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation and Chabad in the District.)
Blumenfeld's father was shot in Jerusalem in 1986 by a terrorist, but he survived. She later resolved to confront the man who had tried to kill her father, and she wrote about her quest in a 2002 book titled Revenge: A Story of Hope.
In her book, Blumenfeld -- a reporter with the national staff of The Washington Post -- recounts Weiss' nightmares of being captured by the Nazis, as well as his fantasies of retaliating with bombs from above.
"Maybe it's not so much what Baruch is chasing," she said, "but what is chasing him -- the injustice done to the generation before him, the generation of the Holocaust."
Whatever his motivation, Weiss' "purpose in life is to undo injustice," added Blumenfeld, who said "there is something almost superhuman" about her husband's drive to do the right thing. "He is the consummate law man," she continued, determined to demonstrate that the courtroom is superior to "the crack of the whip."