The great USA kashrut debate

By Sue Fishkoff, July 23, 2009
Demonstrators protest conditions at America’s largest kosher slaughterhouse following a massive immigration raid in 2008, which netted 400 illegals

Demonstrators protest conditions at America’s largest kosher slaughterhouse following a massive immigration raid in 2008, which netted 400 illegals

An Iowa bankruptcy court has approved the sale of what was once the largest kosher meat-packing plant in America, bringing to a close a long-running scandal which has forever changed America’s kosher food industry.

On the one hand, the damage left behind in the small town of Postville, Iowa, is irreparable. Hundreds of families, mostly Guatemalan and Mexican, were torn apart by the massive federal immigration raid on Agriprocessors in May 2008 — the largest in American history — and hundreds more left as the factory ceased production and declared bankruptcy.

The town of 2,000 is on the brink of collapse. And they blame the Jews.

Why wouldn’t they? The only Jews most of them know are the Chasidim who owned and worked at the plant.

One Guatemalan woman told me, as she was awaiting deportation, that she didn’t like Jews because of what they’d done to her. There is little sympathy for the 400 Chasidim who also lost their jobs as shochtim and shomrim.

On the other hand, the raid, which netted almost 400 illegals, including children, and landed CEO Shalom Rubashkin in jail, where he awaits trial on nearly 1,000 charges, made kashrut a household word.

When prestigious news sources including the New York Times gave the story high-profile coverage last summer, it gave liberal Jews across America the hechsher to talk about Jewish dietary practice.

In synagogues and the Jewish press, the debate raged. What does kosher mean? Can meat be kosher if the workers involved in its production are not paid fairly?

Liberal Jews who had never kept kosher and dismissed the subject as pertaining only to the Orthodox, began giving serious thought to the notion that what one eats can express one’s values.

The Reform movement, which claims 39 per cent of the country’s affiliated Jews, posted a guide to Jewish dietary practice on its website, and kashrut was one of three topics proposed by the movement’s youth group for its 2009-2010 action focus.

That does not mean the movement is endorsing kashrut, but it is encouraging members to talk about it.

The Conservative movement leapt into the fray with uncharacteristic energy, proposing a Magen Tzedek, or shield of justice, for kosher food manufacturers that meet certain standards of health, safety and workers’ rights. Conservative rabbis were asked to devote their High Holy-Day sermons to the topic of ethical kashrut, and many did so.

Among the Orthodox, an initial circling of the wagons eventually grew less frenzied. Orthodox rabbinical students in NYC have started vetting kosher restaurants’ treatment of workers, modelling their programme on a similar campaign in Israel, and a group of Orthodox rabbis in Los Angeles are applying ethical standards to Jewish-owned businesses, including synagogues and doctors’ offices.

In more established Orthodox circles, clear distinction is still made between the laws of kashrut, which are cut and dried, and Jewish ethical values concerning the fair treatment of employees, but they are being discussed in the same conversations.

So the collapse of America’s largest kosher meat plant has, ironically, created a wave of Jewish interest in the pros and cons of kashrut. Reform Jews are talking about traditional kosher practice and Orthodox Jews are discussing social justice.

The trajectories of the conversation are headed toward the middle, where, if dialectics prevail, something new and better may emerge.

Sue Fishkoff is author of a forthcoming book on kashrut and the kosher food industry

Last updated: 2:02pm, July 28 2009