The Postville Raid
Ronald C. Kiener
On May 12, 2008, a large contingent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) agents descended upon the northeastern Iowa town of Postville, home of
the kosher meat processing facility Agriprocessors Inc., armed with 697
criminal complaints and arrest warrants involving illegal workers, identity
theft, and the fraudulent use of social security numbers. Using helicopters,
a makeshift processing center on a converted county fairground, and dozens
of buses, the federal ICE agents, directed by the regional office in
Bloomington, Minnesota, carried out two federal search warrants on the
Agriprocessors site and arrested almost 400 workers.
On the eve of the raid, Agriprocessors had emerged as the leading producer
of strictly kosher meat and poultry products in the United States,
providing an estimated 60 percent of such beef to American consumers who
cared about such things. According to some industry estimates, nearly six
million American consumers regularly buy kosher meat, of whom only 1.5
million are Jews. The rest are consumers who believe that kosher standards
are healthier than those provided by federal food safety inspectors.
But in terms of poundage, Agriprocessor’s main output was non-kosher meat,
which was sold to supermarkets and restaurants throughout the Midwest under
the Iowa’s Best Beef label.
Agriprocessors, in league with the rabbinical supervision service of the New
York-based Orthodox Union (OU), not only gave assurances that the cattle and
poultry were slaughtered and dressed according to acceptable standards of
Jewish law, but also promised that the slaughtered animal’s internal organs
had been hand-inspected by a rabbi or specially trained Jewish line worker
and were thus free of life-threatening disease. The internal organs were
smooth (glatt, in Yiddish) and thus conformed to the strictest
standard offered by the OU to consumers.
The Postville raid, which was the largest illegal worker sweep in ICE
history, initially was front-page news in the regional media of the Upper
Midwest, a dominant story in the (mostly weekly) Jewish press, and for the
most part a minor immigration story in the national mainstream print media.
(The AP moved a 480-word story on May 12 on its newswire; the New York
Times ran a 19-paragraph story on the raid; and the Washington Post
ran a two-sentence “Around the Nation” notice.)
For most of the mainstream media, the Postville story was another chapter in
the occasionally vital and oftentimes contentious immigration debate in
American domestic politics. For the international and national Jewish press,
dominated by New York City’s Forward and the Jewish Telegraphic
Agency, the Postville story was about consumer news, Jewish ethics, and
sectarian rivalries. For the regional Upper Midwest media, it was a
confusing jumble of nativist immigration issues and a coming-to-terms with
an alien ultra-Orthodox Jewish presence in the cornfields of Iowa.
And for one obscure “new media” blogger, it became the story and obsession
of a lifetime.
The back story of Agriprocessors was written in 2000 by Stephen G. Bloom, a
Jewish journalist from the West Coast who had come to the Midwest to teach
journalism at the Univeristy of Iowa. In Postville: A Clash of Cultures
in Heartland America, Bloom tells the tale of the Hasidic family of
Aaron Rubashkin, a Russian immigrant and Brooklyn-based butcher who in 1987
purchased the abandoned HyGrade slaughterhouse in Postville in order to be
nearer the herds and flocks, to avoid the unionized kosher slaughterhouses,
and to tap a source of cheap labor in hard-pressed northeastern Iowa.
The Rubashkins worked out of the Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul,
Minnesota, where a sizable contingent of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim had
established a Chabad House (an evangelizing outpost), founded a women’s
school (Bais Chana), and took over a synagogue (Congregation Adath
Israel). Bloom describes Aaron Rubashkin’s first visits to Postville and
how, with the help of a charismatic St. Paul-based Chabad rabbi named Manis
Friedman, he persuaded the town elders that his plan would reap benefits for
Members of the Rubashkin family then moved to northeastern Iowa, where they
bought homes, established a synagogue, a mikveh (ritual bathhouse),
and eventually a parochial school. Aaron’s son Sholom became CEO of the
company, and along with brother Heshy, ran the facility. The family brought
to town an ever growing number of observant ritual slaughterers and ritual
examiners, who were immediately distinguishable from other on-site workers
by their beards and black Hasidic garb.
By 1996, the expanded Agriprocessors slaughter complex was processing more
than 1.85 million pounds of beef and poultry a week under a variety of
labels, including “Aaron’s Best,” “Rubashkin’s,” “Shor Habor,” and “Supreme
Kosher.” The bulk of the cattle carcasses, which are unfit for Jewish
dietary consumption (primarily hind quarters of cattle), were processed
separately and marketed as “Iowa’s Best Beef.”
Bloom recounted how this group of Lubavitcher Hasidim headquartered in
Brooklyn entered a sleepy farming community of 1,465 Lutherans and
Catholics. In his telling, the Lubavitcher Hasidim were simultaneously pious
and aloof, avoiding all but the necessary business interactions needed to
make the slaughterhouse successful. With little attempt to integrate into
the town’s insular patterns, and with open scorn for the locals, they
brought the garrulous urban mannerisms of Crown Heights to the cornfields of
Bloom wrote of growing resentments between the natives and the newcomers.
The Jewish owners and staff at Agriprocessors openly referred to the
townspeople by the dismissive Yiddish term “goyim.” The townspeople
complained bitterly that the Jews were dishonest and unscrupulous in their
business dealings. By the end of the book, Bloom—who wrote himself into the
story—seemed to take the side of the townsfolk and was castigated by the
Lubavitchers as a traitor to his faith and his people.
On December 1, 2004, long after Bloom’s book had gone into paperback,
Agriprocessors was hit with a double whammy. First, the Department of
Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency filed a federal civil action
against the company for numerous violations of the Clean Water Act.
(Eventually, in 2006, Agriprocessors signed a consent decree and agreed to
pay a $600,000 fine.)
But more notoriously, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
issued a gruesome 30-minute video encapsulating seven weeks’ worth of hidden
camera footage of the slaughtering of cattle. The video caused a firestorm
amongst animal rights activists and within the Jewish community. The major
wire services and the New York Times ran the PETA story, but very few
other media organs seemed to care.
Kosher slaughter has faced numerous challenges in American law. Some have
argued that kosher food production, and the occasional involvement of local
jurisdictions in assuring its authenticity, violates the Constitution’s
For decades, anti-vivisectionists and animal rights advocates, particularly
in the Midwest, have from time to time singled out kosher (and its Islamic
counterpart, halal) slaughter as an example of animal cruelty, often
challenging the exception for religiously mandated slaughter encoded in the
1958 federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
Theoretically, kosher slaughter (shechita in Hebrew) is supposed to
be a single hand-delivered cut with a nickless knife across the throat,
severing all the major nerve and arterial connectors between head and torso
in an instant. Animal rights activists have consistently characterized this
ritualized slaughter practice as barbaric.
Efforts in Midwestern states to criminalize kosher slaughter after World War
II were easily defeated. One of the most telling counter-arguments offered
up by Jewish communal leaders against such efforts was the successful effort
of the Nazis to ban kosher slaughter throughout Germany in 1933, a
forerunner of worse things to come. American Jews suspected, and were able
to convince sympathetic state legislators, that nativist anti-Semitic
motives hid behind calls for criminalizing kosher slaughter on ethical
But the PETA tape was a new and unprecedented weapon in the assault on the
ethics of kosher slaughter, because a number of expert rabbis who viewed the
tape condemned what they saw. OU representatives were quick to defend the
videotaped slaughter as fully within the strictures of rabbinic law, but the
Times quoted a British rabbi who said of the tape: “I don’t know what
that is, but it’s not shechita.” In particular, the practices of
applying a “second cut” to the apparently still-suffering animal, and the
use of a large hook to rip out the animal’s trachea, were cited as violating
the word and spirit of the slaughtering laws.
Under pressure from offended Jewish consumers and rabbis, Agriprocessors and
the OU ultimately responded to the concerns over slaughter by announcing a
series of humane reforms in the slaughtering process in Postville. Temple
Grandin, a professor of animal science and slaughterhouse designer at
Colorado State University who initially declared the video the “most
disgusting thing I’d ever seen,” was consulted in order to design a better
In February of 2006, Grandin visited the Postville Agriprocessors facility
and the company issued a statement that quoted her indirectly as approving
the new process. (In early September of this year, after PETA released a
recent tape displaying ongoing use of the “second cut” at Agriprocessors,
Grandin was quoted by the New York Times criticizing the slaughter
and suggesting that video cameras be installed in the kill room to monitor
Thus, by the time of the ICE raid in May of 2008, Agriprocessors had a
reputation in Jewish circles as a company that played fast and loose with
the “laws of the land” concerning the environment and humane slaughter. But
it was producing kosher meat at a stupendous pace and was credited by
supporters for keeping its overall price—always higher than non-kosher
meat—at least within reasonable bounds. Critics contend that “Agri” (as it
is called by insiders) simply undersold its competitors and then raised
prices, and it is in fact part of an ongoing collusion investigation by the
Department of Justice.
As far back as 2000, Bloom had noted the voracious appetite of
Agriprocessors for a reliable labor pool, which was not to be found in
Postville. Not coincidentally, Agriprocessors was the largest non-union
slaughterhouse in Iowa.
Slaughterhouse work, even in unionized plants, is a gruesome and filthy
affair, and outside of the Jewish ritual slaughterers and glatt
inspectors working the line, the use of immigrant workers at Agriprocessors
was the rule. So the population of Postville quickly doubled, as Eastern
European immigrants, many of them undocumented and many of them arriving
straight from Aaron Rubashkin’s Brooklyn butcher shop (where they had
walked-in after hearing rumors of jobs), worked the line.
By the time of the raid, with the slaughterhouse running on a torrid 24/6
pace, over 1,200 workers populated the plant. ICE was prepared to arrest
over half the workforce of Agriprocessors, but because of the luck of the
draw, only 400 were on shift when the raid came. ICE arrested 100 on the
spot and followed up with another 300 as the day progressed.
But Bloom missed a major piece of the labor story. In August of 1995, Aaron
Rubashkin and his son Moshe were found guilty by the National Labor
Relations Board of collecting union dues from workers at Cherry Hills
Textile, Inc., a Brooklyn company they owned, and failing to remit the funds
to the United Production Workers Union. They were ordered to make complete
In 2005, the Rubashkin family opened a new Local Pride slaughterhouse on the
Oglala Sioux tribal reservation in Gordon, Nebraska, employing over 100
people. It has been the subject of numerous food safety violations, and PETA
has issued a video from Gordon that shows “poor” practices, according to
For most news writers and news consumers, the ICE raid on the Agriprocessors
facility in Postville story was one more piece in the illegal immigration
debate, in a part of the country and a sector of the economy few had
troubled to investigate. Big regional newspapers like the Minneapolis
Star-Tribune and far-away outlets like the New York Times
returned over and over to the plight of the illegal immigrants and their
families, the rump court processing of the illegal workers by federal
authorities, the overtaxed social services of the local Postville churches
that tried to assist the mainly Central American and Asian families
devastated by the disappearance of the breadwinners of the family, and the
growing anger of residents to the flood of illegal workers in the region.
The culpability of Agriprocessors in the hiring of so many illegal workers
was hinted at, but largely ignored. The abusive working conditions cited in
the federal search warrant were covered by both the Times and the
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, but for most media outlets, the story simply
slid away. The St. Paul Pioneer-Press, astonishingly enough, ignored
the story altogether.
In his July 12 “On Religion” column for the Times, Samuel G. Freedman
focused on the immigration angle, writing about St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic
Church in Postville and the efforts of its retired priest to cope with the
trauma experienced by families of jailed workers. This was yet another
example of the paper’s extensive reporting on the failings of U.S.
But in reporting the Postville story, the Times ignored the
complicity of the privately held slaughterhouse in the creation of the mess
in the first place. The other New York papers sidestepped the story
More than a few observers (none of whom wanted to go on the record) have
noted that New York papers have a reputation of shying away from stories
that cast ultra-Orthodox Jews in a bad light. The first guest op-ed piece
that the Times ran on the Agriprocessors story was published more
than two months after the raid, and came from Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel
Herzfeld, who decried the reported working conditions at the plant and
proposed a Pollyanna-ish “independent commission” to look into them. Until
that point, no story in the Times had dealt with the worker rights
issues raised by the raid.
The only other part of the story worthy of the Times’ attention has
been the effort initiated by some Twin Cities’ Conservative rabbis to
institute an ethical standard for the humane slaughter of animals, and for
the humane treatment of workers in the kosher slaughtering business. It was
Freedman who first dealt with this story in his May 19, 2007 “On Religion”
column, a full year before the ICE raid, profiling St. Paul Rabbi Morris
Allen, who has led an international effort to institute a co-certification
of kosher meat, a “[social] justice certification” (hekhsher tzedek)
to accompany the normal kosher certification.
Coverage of the thornier aspects of the story fell to the Jewish press. It
was the New York-based Jewish weekly Forward that first published a
series of articles in the summer of 2006 about the working conditions at
Agriprocessors. Since then, the paper has pushed the story hard, breaking
news just about every week—including how the company has sought to restore
its reputation by hiring a “compliance” officer and a PR firm.
Most of the Forward’s reporting has been done from New York by
Nathaniel Popper, who covers the paper’s kosher beat. In addition, Ben
Harris of the JTA has written and reported from Postville regularly. In
June, Harris scored an hour-long interview in Brooklyn with Aaron Rubashkin,
patriarch of the family and president of the company, who categorically
denied all charges of worker abuse at the plant.
For the Forward and JTA, the controversy over illegal immigrant
workers has been only one aspect of the story, and not the major one.
Rather, their coverage has been driven by the politics of the kosher
industry, the ethics of the kosher consumer, and the internecine battles
among the various Jewish denominations over kashrut.
Besides being on hand for a July 27 protest against Agriprocessors by Jews
from as far away as Minneapolis and Chicago—for which even the mainstream
media (including the BBC) showed up—the Forward and the JTA covered
halting attempts by Orthodox groups to hold the Rubashkins accountable to a
higher ethical standard for their workers, and calls in certain liberal
Orthodox circles to boycott Rubashkin products.
In August, a group of Orthodox rabbis was invited to inspect the plant and
emerged with glowing reports. Two days later, the Iowa Labor Commission
reported on multiple and “egregious violations” of child labor laws at the
plant. All of this has gone largely uncovered outside Iowa except by the
Forward and the JTA.
Supporters of the Rubashkin family claim that the editorially liberal
Forward and the JTA have knowingly washed Jewish dirty laundry in public
to the delight of anti-Semites. They also believe that the ICE raids were
reminiscent of Nazi-style prosecution of Jewish ritual industries.
Believing themselves to have been “burned” by Bloom, the Rubashkins, having
hired an incompetent New York PR firm that claims to specialize in damage
control, are very wary of talking to “foreigners.” But it is not difficult
to come across stories of the Rubashkins’ civic charity; they are widely
credited with donating $20,000 to a day care facility used primarily by
It should come as no surprise that no newspaper or wire agency has been able
to throw more resources at the Agri story than the Des Moines Register.
Only the Register has committed a team of reporters non-stop in the
field, providing follow-up in the ongoing criminal prosecution of floor
managers, covering Iowa political reaction, even doing stories on school
enrollment statistics in Postville public schools.
It was the Register (relying at least partially on a blog source)
that published a list of political contributions of over $55,000 made by
Rubashkin family members to Democrats and Republicans alike from 2000 to
2006. One of the recipients was Gov. Chet Culver, who wrote an op-ed
rebuking Agriprocessors in the Register August 24.
Finally, there is a “new media” element that adds an interesting dimension
to the ongoing Agriprocessors story. Full-time blogger Scott Rosenberg, a
former Chabad-Lubavitch Hasid from St. Paul who knows many of the players
first-hand, has covered the story extensively on his blog
FailedMessiah.com. (The strangely titled blog is a reference to deceased
Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former leader of the Chabad
sect, who some Lubavitchers continue to believe to be the messiah.)
So authoritative has Rosenberg become that he is now regularly quoted by the
Register; and his site has been referenced by the Wall Street
Journal, the New York Times, and both the Forward and the
JTA. In July, Rosenberg used an IP trace program to break the story of an
effort by Agriprocessor’s PR firm 5WPR to impersonate a rabbinic critic of
the slaughterhouse on the Internet. Rosenberg’s blog entries, and the follow
up comments posted by his readers (including a Rubashkin family member,
writing “unofficially”), provide some of the most useful insight and
information on this continuing saga.
In late August, Barack Obama injected Agriprocessors briefly into the
presidential campaign by commenting on the issue of workers’ rights at the
plant. At the beginning of September, Rabbi Allen’s ethical kosher
initiative, already embraced by the Conservative movement, was endorsed as
well by the national rabbinical leadership of Reform Judaism, America’s
largest Jewish denomination (though, because of its historic ambivalence
towards kashrut, the smallest denomination consuming kosher meat).
Agriprocessors, meanwhile, was back in business at diminished capacity,
having first hired an employment agency in Texas, and later, agencies from
Iowa and Indianapolis, to find replacement workers. The company subsequently
lured Somali Muslim workers from the Twin Cities with promises of a
reasonable wage, though the reality turned out to be less promising. Workers
found that the $100-per-week cost of their filthy and dilapidated dorm-style
housing was deducted directly from their paychecks.
On the legal front, in July a floor supervisor from the Agriprocessors plant
pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the harboring of undocumented
immigrants; another supervisor was charged; and a third, a Palestinian,
reportedly fled to Israel.
Then, on September 9, the Iowa attorney general’s office charged Aaron
Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three members of Agriprocessors’ human
resources division with over 9,000 misdemeanor violations of Iowa’s child
labor laws. Simultaneously, federal charges having to do with the harboring
of illegal aliens were entered against two of the human resources managers.
The head of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Menachem Genack, immediately announced
with great fanfare (reported first by the Forward and the JTA, and
two days later by the New York Times) that it would suspend its
association with the slaughterhouse unless a new management team was put in
place. Without such clerical supervision, the site could simply not
continue, though at least one rabbi said he would personally stay on board
in Postville no matter what the OU decided.
While some regarded the threat as a principled line in the sand on the part
of America’s largest Orthodox organization, many critics (including
Rosenberg) considered it a public relations ruse designed to give the
And sure enough, after the company replaced indicted CEO Aaron Rubashkin
with 63-year-old Long Island attorney Bernard S. Feldman (who had defended
the family in an earlier case) on September 18, Rabbi Genack declared
himself satisfied, pronouncing the move “credible and wise.”
Once again, Agriprocessors had avoided a complete meltdown. But the company
and its owners are likely to face further, and more serious, charges down
the road. Rosenberg, for one, believes a RICO prosecution for criminal
conspiracy will bring an end to the Rubashkin story.
The revulsion that non-Orthodox Jews in the Upper Midwest have for the
Hasidim of Postville is visceral and undeniable. Over and over, while
talking to non-Orthodox Jews in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area—arguably the
Jewish community outside of Postville that has the most at stake in this
story—I have heard one constant refrain. “How could this have happened?”
they ask rhetorically. “I’ll tell you…,” and then their voices drop a
register: “These Hasidim do not think their workers are human beings.”
What these Jews are saying is probably the deepest and darkest secret of the
This is a tale of Hasidic Jews who are utterly at odds with what most
Americans understand as modernity. They learn from their most sacred text,
the Tanya (published in 1797 by the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi
Shneur Zalman of Liadi) that “the souls of the nations of the world, the
idol worshippers, derive from unclean husks and have no goodness in them
This xenophobic teaching, an intolerant note hiding within the otherwise
fetching melody of Chabad Hasidism, is spun differently for different
audiences. But it indicates what can happen when business proprietors armed
with a chauvinistic mystical theology that denies the humanity of non-Jews
face off against the “laws of the land.” Such behavior might pass unnoticed
in the cloistered brownstone neighborhoods of Crown Heights, but in the open
light of the prairies, there will be an inevitable clash of civilizations.
Agriprocessors, a multimillion-dollar food manufacturer, defied the rule of
state and federal law to wreak havoc on a group of workers and a town they
cared nothing about. It provided the niche consumer with a needed product
and along the way made a tarnished and now vulnerable fortune.