Kosher meat plant in a mess

Two decades ago, the Rubashkin family of Brooklyn opened up a kosher slaughterhouse amid the cornfields of Iowa – not exactly a center of Jewish culture.

The bearded, fedora-wearing strangers from Brooklyn transformed Postville into its own small-town melting pot. Immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico began arriving to work at the slaughterhouse. Soon, the town was home to churches and temples, and the shelves of stores were stocked with tortillas and bagels.

Lately, though, the Rubashkins' grand cultural experiment seems to have lost any chance at a feel-good ending.

The family's Iowa business, Agriprocessors, the nation's biggest supplier of kosher meat, was raided by U.S. immigration agents in May. Nearly 400 workers, mostly Guatemalans, were swept up and jailed and are likely to be deported as illegal immigrants.

Labor organizers and workers have also accused the company of exploiting its employees, tolerating abusive behavior by managers and illegally hiring teenagers to work on the factory floor.

A few Jewish groups have questioned whether the plant, given its problems, should keep its kosher certification.

It all adds up to a mess for a family that has never sought attention, and now feels it is being attacked unfairly, especially by the media.

“The press? Terrible!” the family's patriarch, Aaron Rubashkin, told a reporter with the Jewish news service JTA during a rare interview in June. He said allegations that the company knowingly hired illegal immigrants and children and tolerated abusive conditions were all lies.

“I wish everybody would be treated like we treat people,” he said.

Attempts to arrange an interview with Rubashkin this week failed. The family's history, though, is well documented.

Aaron Rubashkin and his wife, Rivka, fled the Soviet Union after World War II and settled in Brooklyn. In the 1950s, Aaron founded a kosher meat market in the city's Borough Park section. In 1987, the Rubashkins – looking to bolster an unreliable supply of kosher beef – bought an abandoned non-kosher meatpacking plant in tiny Postville, Iowa.

Suddenly, the town was infused with rabbis and other Jews, Guatemalans and Mexicans, expatriates from former Soviet Republics – and a host of new ethnic tensions. The town became a stop for reporters looking for a story about America's diversity.

Amid it all, the company was a huge success, with popular brands such as Aaron's Best and Rubashkin's. By 2006, Agriprocessors had a second plant in Nebraska, run in partnership with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and annual revenue of $250 million.

One of Aaron's sons, the influential Brooklyn rabbi Moshe Rubashkin, pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2002 after writing $325,000 in bad checks related to a family textile business. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Agriprocessors also found itself battling a lawsuit filed by a bankruptcy trustee overseeing the remnants of a New York health and beauty supply company whose owner had pleaded guilty to a multimillion-dollar bank fraud.

Supporters say the Rubashkins are no scofflaws, just unsophisticated businessmen who made some mistakes as their company grew.

“These are simple people. They are a family of butchers,” said Dovid Eliezrie, a California rabbi who has been assisting the family with the media.

Scott Frotman, a spokesman for the Food and Commercial Workers union, called the company's treatment of its immigrant work force “morally reprehensible.”

“They blame the media. They blame us. They refuse to accept responsibility for anything that is going on in that plant,” he said.