Uncertainty, change test Postville's Jews
TONY LEYS • Des Moines Register
Postville, Ia. - A few dozen Jewish families have left this northeast Iowa town in the year since federal agents raided their employer.
About two-thirds of the unusual enclave remains, however, and in the 12 months since the raid, change and uncertainty have moved in.
Several hundred followers of the Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism began settling here in the 1980s. They were attracted by jobs at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant, which became the nation's largest supplier of kosher beef and chicken.
The plant is in bankruptcy now, and its operations are limited to a pared-down poultry line. Work is less plentiful than it used to be, and residents are uncertain if anyone will buy the plant, or if a new owner would support their community the way the old owner did.
Some of the men, no longer offered full-time hours at the struggling Agriprocessors plant, travel during the week to other meatpacking plants in Nebraska or Minnesota. They return to their wives and children in Postville in time for Friday night Sabbath dinner.
"It's a miracle we're still here today. It's from God," said Rabbi Aaron Schimmel.
Schimmel has lived 12 years in Postville, where he supports a wife and six children. He laughed ruefully when asked how likely it was that he and other Jews could sell their houses here if they decided to move from Postville.
"You'd have to pay someone money to take your house," he said, only half-kidding.
For-sale signs already are visible all over Postville. With the city's main employer in limbo, there are few potential homebuyers. If the plant closes, scores more Jewish families probably would leave, adding to the glut of houses for sale.
Amy Dickel, an Orthodox Jew who works as a Postville insurance agent, said the Jews who left tended to be young single people or new families who were renting homes and had not put down deep roots.
"The people who are here now really want to live here," she said. "It's not just about a job to them."
Jews here describe themselves as optimists who put their trust in God.
Tuesday morning, they held an annual parade through downtown to celebrate a holiday called Lag b'Omer. The parade was a joyful affair, complete with floats, a drum line and dozens of costumed grade-schoolers.
Most of the decorations focused on the holiday, but several made reference to the town's upheaval. A sign on a pickup truck full of dancing teenage boys read: "We the people made Postville a piece of heaven!!! Then 'they' (the outsiders) turned Postville into pieces."
Another sign showed distaste for animal-rights and union activists, whom Agriprocessors' supporters blame for the company's downfall. "Truth builds our community," the sign read, "agendas destroy it."
Members of the community hoped Agriprocessors would be sold by now. Although an unidentified investor bought out some of the plant's debt last week, people here said they didn't know who the person is or whether the move would lead to a sale.
Many of Postville's Jewish families hung on last fall and winter when they weren't getting paid by the faltering plant. Many fed their families with kosher foods donated by Jewish groups in other states.
The situation has improved a bit in recent months, as an outside trustee has restarted limited production. But life is not back to normal, and no one is sure what to expect.
Even if the company is sold, the Postville Jews worry that a new owner might not be as generous as the old owners were.
The Rubashkin family, which ran the plant for decades, supported the religious schools, the synagogue and kosher deli, all of which are necessary to keep the enclave going.
The family's leaders face state and federal charges, and the government has portrayed them as callous businessmen who took advantage of poor Hispanic immigrants.
But Jewish people here saw a different side of the family. They still voice support for Sholom Rubashkin, a former company manager who faces numerous charges that could bring decades of prison time. Rubashkin attended Tuesday's celebration, and men continually approached him with smiles and handshakes.
Giora Bass, who has lived here about 15 years, said Rubashkin was known for his quiet generosity. "You need money, you go see Sholom," he said. "You need food, you go see Sholom. You need rent, you go see Sholom."
Bass, who used to work at Agriprocessors, said he couldn't condone hiring illegal immigrants. "But I never saw abuse," he said.
Rubashkin's son Getzel said, "We're a people of faith. We hope there will be a happy ending for everybody."