By Debbie Maimon
The public relations campaign by Magen Tzedek, a new kosher certification devised by Conservative Rabbi Morris Allen of Minnesota and actively promoted by his movement, has raised the company’s profile-and also brought it under sharp scrutiny.
Magen Tzedek grew out of the smear campaign waged against Agriprocessors and the Rubashkin family before and after the 2008 immigration raid on their Postville, Iowa plant. It has become a rallying point for Conservative leaders to galvanize their struggling movement.
The evolving story of Magen Tzedek is one of the most disturbing chapters in the Rubashkin saga. In turning back the pages of its short history, we confront a chilling tale driven by falsehood, deceit and injustice. Perhaps it would be best not to examine the ugly episode too closely.
Yet, Magen Tzedek is perceived as an effort by Conservative leaders to inject themselves into a highly complex realm of halacha where their expertise, not to mention respect for halacha, is sadly lacking. This bid for a market share in kashrus certification threatens the integrity of kashrus in this country and cannot go unchallenged.
Rabbi Allen and his Conservative colleagues assert that Magen Tzedek was created as a response to unethical treatment of workers in Agriprocessors. But the paper and media trail they left behind them in the company’s wreckage tells a far different narrative.
A close look at that trail exposes the roots of Allen’s social-justice program as mired in the slander its founder spread about the Postville plant and the Rubashkin family. Rabbi Allen preached humanity and compassion toward workers and immigrants, all the while casting stones at a beleaguered fellow Jew struggling to save his company and family from destruction.
He promoted Magen Tzedek as the solution to what he termed “systemic” abuses in the kosher food industry, and then campaigned to prove the existence of those abuses at Agriprocessors as a way to legitimize his new agency.
Joining forces with the labor unions who were waging a bitter battle to unionize Agriprocessors, Allen’s incendiary rhetoric poisoned public opinion against Sholom Mordechai at his most vulnerable moment, irreparably harming him and his family.
Magen Tzedek drew its life from this mudslinging. As we examine the paper and media trail, it is hard to escape the evidence of lies, cruelty and deceit upon which the organization was created.
Rabbi Allen became involved with Agriprocessors in the summer of 2006, some months after an article appeared in the Forward newspaper attacking the plant for inhumane treatment of immigrant workers, and for “breeding fear, injury and short pay” among them.
The article accused Agriprocessors of forcing its immigrant workforce to live in squalor and fear, too intimidated to protest their exploitation and ill-treatment by their employers. The uproar sparked by the article prompted immediate fact-finding tours by Rabbi Asher Zelingold of Minneapolis together with the Spanish-speaking Dr. Carlos Carbonera (who later testified about his findings at Sholom Rubashkin’s sentencing hearing in April, 2009).
Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU and a group of Orthodox rabbis and laymen toured the plant as well. These groups published reports that not only refuted the Forward’s rabid allegations but noted Agriprocessors high ratings for safety and lower rates of worker accident and injury.
Allen conducted his tour as part of a five-member team, including labor activist Vic Rosenthal and labor consultant Avi Lyon. Allen’s group was welcomed and personally given a tour by Sholom Rubashkin at the request of Rabbi Zeilingold. The commission agreed that the tour would be for the sole purpose of checking out the Forward’s allegations.
Testimony Frozen In Time
The fateful tour of Agri went well. Much later it would be used deceptively as a tool to publicly pillory Sholom Mordechai. But immediately following the visit, Allen penned a letter of warm appreciation to him, with an enthusiastic, even congratulatory message.
“I want to thank you for the time you and your staff spent with us last week. All of us were impressed with the consideration shown us,” Allen wrote, going on to praise the Rubashkin family and the Agriprocessors workforce. “You have much to be proud of as regards the production of Kosher meat.”
Allen stressed that he and his team had conducted an exhaustive two-day investigation, meeting “with people from the government, those connected to the healthcare system in around Postville and with those associated with organized labor.” The commission’s members “were impressed by the Rubashkins’ contributions to Postville and encouraged by their commitment to making Agri a plant where the values displayed on your website are able to be lived out fully.” [Morris Allen letter to Sholom Rubashkin, August 2006]
One examines the letter in vain for the slightest reference to adverse working conditions, company policies or treatment of employees. In fact, no mention whatsoever is made about the Forward article in this or any other written correspondence from Allen to Sholom Mordechai.
Labor Activist: “Exciting”
Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, posted his own reactions to the tour on the organization’s web site. Strikingly, after a perfunctory mention of theForward article, Rosenthal, like Allen, leaps over the entire subject of whether the commission found any basis for the article’s lurid allegations against Agriprocessors.
“Last week, [Aug 16, 2006], I had the opportunity to tour the Agriprocessors Plant in Postville, Iowa. This visit was spurred by an article in the Forward which severely criticized the plant for violations of worker health and safety, among other problems,” Rosenthal wrote.
“We spent nearly two full days there, meeting with government officials, workers, lay and religious leaders in the community, union reps, and the owner and key staff from the plant itself.”
Rosenthal cites his expectation of being able to implement a pro-labor agenda at the plant. “For the first time, I had a chance to tour a meat-packing plant,” he beams. “Most exciting about this visit is the opportunity to work on an issue that is very important to the Jewish community, kosher meat, while also improving conditions for workers and protecting their rights.”
(Mr. Rosenthal Goes To Postville, Jewish Community Action, August 2006)
Months later, in stark contrast to his and Rosenthal’s enthusiastic letters following the Agri tour, Allen’s tune changed. He began to publicly malign the meat-packing plant for “inadequate or non-existent worker safety training,”‘ for “concern about unsafe chemical use”‘ and “unclean and unsafe lunchroom conditions.” (Forward, Dec. 2006)
Allen’s slandering of the kosher slaughterhouse in interviews with the media went hand in hand with actively pumping up the need for Magen Tzedek as an ethics watchdog for kosher food companies. (New York Times, July 2007, Rabbi Morris Allen Blog, Oct. 2007).
There were awkward moments when his innovations hit a snag. One such moment happened in an interview with a NY Times reporter when Allen was asked if he had been able to validate the Forward’s allegations. Allen was evasive.
“We were not able to verify everything,” he hedged, “but we found things that were equally painful…”
He went on to air his dissatisfaction over low starting wages and the need for more safety training in Spanish. He also criticized the plant for offering only one option for health insurance coverage-overlooking the fact that free heath care is available at the clinic in town.
Regarding the tales of squalor, forced labor, rampant injuries, dirty facilities and lack of safety training that he came to investigate, he had nothing to say. But his silence spoke volumes.
Despite being caught at fudging the truth, Allen continued to link his promotion of Magen Tzedek with disparaging comments about Agriprocessors, always vaguely worded as “health and safety concerns.”
This stream of negativity was bolstered by mudslinging Forward articles and by a corporate campaign formally launched by the UFCW against the meat-packing plant.
Surprise in St. Paul
In an interview with Yated, former Postville city councilman Aaron Goldsmith notes that at some point it became obvious that Rabbi Allen was working in close cooperation with labor and union activists.
Goldsmith had accompanied Sholom Mordechai to St. Paul, Minn., to what had been billed as a private meeting with Allen.
“Sholom was willing to sacrifice time from an overwhelming schedule to travel to St. Paul in order to assuage Rabbi Allen’s concerns about ethical treatment of workers at Agri. At that time, we believed that Allen was sincerely motivated by these concerns and was acting independently,” Goldsmith said.
He recalled his surprise upon discovering two others sitting with Allen in the social hall where the meeting took place.
“We walked into the room and there are two men whom Sholom had met during their previous visit to Agri as part of the Conservative commission-Avi Lyon and Victor Rosenthal! We were very taken aback. A meeting with Rabbi Allen had become a forum for labor activists. They put their agenda right on the table.”
The meeting focused on a bid by Allen, Rosenthal and Lyon to have input into upper management decisions regarding some of the company’s policies. Goldsmith said he helped defuse the tensions by comparing the relationship between Agriprocessors and the rabbis overseeing shechitah as a ‘marriage’ with the halacha supplying the “glue.”
“What’s your role in this marriage?” Goldsmith quipped to Allen and his friends. “You’re the mother-in-law. You can make suggestions but we can’t let you meddle in the marriage.”
“Everyone laughed and the tension broke,” recalled Goldsmith. “But gaining a foothold in Agri’s policies was clearly a goal with these people. To up the ante, they had pledged to use their media contacts to rehabilitate Agri’s reputation. That image had been badly tarnished by the Forward’s attacks, the earlier PETA campaign and union harassment.”
Allen eventually began to press Sholom hard for concessions, relaying demands by the labor activists in his own name.
A December 2006 letter from Allen to Sholom Mordechai shows Allen arrogantly issuing instructions and demanding to be kept in the inner loop where top management decisions were discussed.
“We believe it will be in everyone’s interest if we can be in the loop as to whom the candidates are for this job (of performing a safety and health scan of the entire plant), what they are empowered to do about their findings, and the timeline for their implementation,” Allen wrote.
He expected to have “meaningful input into the selection process, “adding that “in coming days, Avi Lyon will be submitting names for your consideration. We would also like to be informed of the expert’s findings, receiving a copy of the report itself.”
“Sholom found himself entangled in manipulation by these people whom he had allowed into the plant for one purpose alone -to verify the truth of the Forward’s allegations,” said Goldsmith. “That now appeared to have been a pretext to gain entry to the plant and to assert control.”
But the plan imploded. In January 2007, Sholom Mordechai thanked Allen for his interest and suggestions but politely made it clear that senior management would not be sharing internal affairs and decisions with him.
Allen Shown The Door
Sholom Mordechai’s move was bolstered by a letter from Rabbi Zeilingold (shared withYated by a Rubashkin family member), asking him not to “allow Rabbi Morris Allen and members of his Conservative commission onkashrut any further access to your facilities or records. From this day forward, no inspections are to be made by this group.”
“In the entire matter of Rabbi Allen and the commission’s visits to Iowa, Rabbi Allen’s dealings with me and with you have been dishonest and underhanded. Therefore, he is not to be trusted.”
“Rabbi Allen gained entrance into your Postville plant through my auspices. At my specific request, you graciously extended to him every courtesy, signing a letter that enabled him and his commission members to speak freely with your employees.
In his letter, Zeilingold explained why he felt used. Allen had insisted his visit to Agriprocessors was for the purpose of investigating the Forward’s charges. Instead, he had carried out a different agenda and was badmouthing the meat-packing plant over issues that had nothing to do with the purpose of his visit. (Zeilingold letter to Rabbi Allen, January 2007)
Zeilingold said he believed that the commission discovered that the Forward article was a falsehood and all of their subsequent “findings” were a result of their collaboration with the labor union. In other words, they had already written their agenda before they visited the plant.
“After the break off of talks, Allen turned on Agriprocessors with a vengeance,” a former senior management officer at Agriprocessors testified.
By the summer of July 2008, Allen began publicly reinventing his findings at the plant, recalling things he had previously made no mention of, even in private correspondence with Sholom Mordechai after his 2006 tour.
“We discovered things that were unbelievably painful,” he told the Wall Street Journal in July 2008. “Among other allegations,” the article reported, “Rabbi Allen says pregnant women working on their feet all day were denied bathroom breaks; injured workers lacked proper medical care; and accounting machinations deprived workers of payment for all clocked hours.”
By September 2008, Allen and other Conservative rabbis were calling for a ban on Agriprocessors products. The Wall Street Journal in an article that month disclosed that “Rabbi Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi from Mendota Heights, Minn, has called on consumers to avoid the company’s products…. The Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, issued a statement [to the same effect.]It quoted Deuteronomy: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.”
“Reaction has been swift,” the WSJ went on to report. “Synagogues and blogs are rallying in support of the ban. And this week the Conservative movement is set to release guidelines for an initiative called Hechsher Tzedek [later renamed Magen Tzedek]. ”
The Immigrants “Protector”
As Allen positioned himself as a protector of the rights of the immigrants allegedly mistreated by Agriprocessors, the ensuing publicity catapulted him to national prominence, lending his ethics-certification project an enormous boost.
“These have been exciting and dizzying times for those of us involved in Hechsher Tzedek,” he wrote “What began as a modest initiative in my own community of Mendota Heights, MN… has snowballed into a national, interdenominational effort…”
Rubashkin-bashing became a steady staple of Allen’s interviews and media appearances. In one of his worst excesses, Allen appeared in a recently released documentary about the Postville raid, leading a demonstration against Agriprocessors, denouncing Sholom Rubashkin for “deplorable” labor practices.
Residents had gathered on the first anniversary of the raid to protest the government operation that had destroyed the town and surrounding region. Allen and Conservative colleagues turned the event into an anti-Rubashkin demonstration, busing in hundreds of people, including youngsters from the Conservative Movement’s Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
After a ceremony in the Postville church, Allen led demonstrators down the street to the entrance of Agriprocessors where he gave statements to the press about the “terrible exploitation” that took place at the plant.
On several subsequent Shabbosim at Twin Cities’ Conservative synagogues, the rabbis distributed pamphlets telling of their recent trip to Postville where they had interviewed Agriprocessors’ workers at the labor union offices. They spread appalling stories of abuse — including physical abuse, harassment, and exploitation of workers.
Here is Allen in 2009, speaking at a HIAS immigration rally, painting Agriprocessors as a virtual house of horrors:
“From my own knowledge of what was happening in Postville, I can tell you that the plant should have been infiltrated not by the immigration folks but by the labor department, the Health and Human Services folks, by OSHA!
“They would have been able to protest what the migrant workers were incapable of raising their voices against: the extortion, the forced labor, unsafe conditions, long hours and the intimidation and exploitation and endless types of abuse that went on here!” (HIAS Immigration Rally, 2009)
Jew Against Jew
Casting the struggle as crusader-for-social justice (Allen) against arrogant corporate boss (Sholom Rubashkin), played well in the media. Compounded with the novelty of a Jew-against-Jew motif, the scandal captured headlines across the country.
To justify throwing Sholom Rubashkin to the dogs, Allen explained that he had no choice-he had tried to assist the plant in cleaning up their act, but had been rebuffed.
Elaborating on this “no-choice” theme in a November 2007 interview with Rachel Barenblat, (Rethinking Kashrut), Allen reminisced about his tour of Agriprocessors. At that time, he had not yet launched the myth of workplace abuse, forced labor and the like.
“In August 2006, we went to Postville for a visit, and it was pretty fascinating,” he told his interviewer.
Fascinating? Is this how one would describe the worker abuse….immigrants living in squalor, and serious work-related injuries he later claimed to have discovered? But wait-this was before the grand spin.
Allen continues in the interview: “Initially we proposed three major undertakings which, if Agriprocessors would agree, would indicate a sincere desire to address our concerns. We promised them that we would keep our report out of the press in that event. We didn’t want to be party to a world in which one Jew exposes another Jew, you know? It didn’t seem necessary. We felt that if they would take these three steps that would demonstrate good faith on their part to clean up their behavior.”
Allen didn’t elaborate on what the three undertakings were, trusting insinuation to do the job.
Today he claims that his silence on the subject was due to a promise he made to Sholom Rubashkin not to discuss his findings with the media.
Allen parrots the line on the American Greed show, in which Allen and Avi Lyon pitched the movie’s outrageous libel to millions of viewers that Sholom Rubashkin was a rapacious corporate monster.
“We tried to keep this matter ‘Jew to Jew,’ Allen piously explains on American Greed, but said he “had no choice but to go public” with his complaints.
The claim of a promise extracted to keep the truth from the media is sharply disputed by Rabbi Zeilingold, who facilitated Allen’s visit with Sholom Mordechai. Zeilingold confirms that Allen was given unrestricted, unconditional access in making his investigation.
The claim is also disputed by members of other fact-finding commissions who said they, too, were given unconditional access, from top management down. There is no reason to believe Rabbi Allen’s group would have been treated any differently.
The story about promising to keep the lid on their findings is seen as a lame attempt to explain the glaring discrepancy between Allen’s and Rosenthal’s glowing responses to their tour of Ariprocessors in 2006, and their belated outrage two years later.
Check The Paper Trail
Uncovering the truth is a simple matter of checking the paper trail. If Allen’s claim that he had agreed to keep his findings Jew-to-Jew is factual, his communications with Sholom Mordechai ought to reflect that.
One would expect to read in these private communications some mention of the abusive practices, deplorable conditions or grave injustices that Allen later rallied about. One would expect him to have strongly urged Agriprocessors owners to correct these abuses.
There is simply no record of a single comment pointing to evidence or even rumors of any of the abuses Allen later fed to the media.
Allen’s communications with Sholom Mordechai, frozen in time, stand as the most eloquent and telling testimony that his later presentation is pure invention.
Merciless Attack At a Most Vulnerable Moment
Allen’s reinvented findings are on display in his published statement immediately following Sholom Mordechai’s federal trial.
Preening himself as an expert on the case with inside information, Allen reminded the public that “As the founders of Magen Tzedek, we were on the ground in Postville from the virtual start of this tragic drama…bearing witness to the terrible worker conditions and business practices at [Agriprocessors.] We tried to steer the Rubashkin family towards taking responsibility and correcting their mistakes.”
He castigated “the Rubashkin family’s flagrant disregard for the law and ethical behavior.” Allen fueled antagonism for Sholom Mordechai by warning the public to brace itself for shocking disclosures in the upcoming state labor trial.
“It is important to note that the trial on charges of worker abuse is not even underway. The heartbreaking stories that will emerge in the course of this trial will be as cringe-worthy as they are criminal,” he advised.
–Statement From the Hechsher Tzedek Commission Regarding The Conviction of Sholom Rubashkin, Rabbi Morris Allen, 2009
These remarks were written when Sholom Mordechai had been hauled off to prison moments after the guilty verdict and denied bail. Across the world, people following the case including strangers as well as the thousands whose lives had been touched by his kindness, wept at the outcome of the trial. His frantic, brokenhearted family was not told where he was being incarcerated and could not communicate with him.
Sholom Mordechai still faced sentencing by judicial authorities that would take into account evidence of good character and decency when weighing his sentence. At such a vulnerable, perilous time, Allen’s merciless assault not only against Sholom Mordechai but the entire Rubashkin family, was akin to throwing a lighted match on gas-soaked debris. It was picked up by the media, and later recast by prosecutors and the sentencing judge.
In May-June of 2009, two years after being indicted on over 9,000 counts of labor violations, Sholom Rubashkin stood trial for state labor charges that he had knowingly hired minors at Agriprocessors and subjected them to dangerous working conditions.
In addition to these charges, the presiding judge allowed the prosecutors to air allegations about harsh working conditions, shortchanging workers’ salaries, and forced overtime. Any evidence pointing to human rights violations was permitted.
In one of the most profoundly revealing moments in the Rubashkin saga, the government produced no testimony or evidence of molestation, forced labor, shorting of pay, extortion, severe injury or abuse. The stories promised by Allen that would be “as criminal and they were cringe-worthy” never materialized.
In addition, the evidence of child-labor was so lacking in credibility, the jury threw out all the charges, handing Sholom Mordechai a dramatic acquittal on all counts.
Pretending The Trial Never Happened
As if the trial and verdict had never happened, Allen incredibly has continued his Rubashkin-bashing, linking every public plug for Magen Tzedek with moral posturing about the so-called human rights scandal at Agriprocessors.
Asked by a participant at the recent public launching of Magen Tzedek in Minnesota this April why he continues to defame Sholom Rubashkin, Allen sought to deny and then distance himself from his past excesses. “I’ve moved on from that,” he said.
Once again, the paper trail exposes the dark truth. Allen is not finished feeding off the Agriprocessors/Rubashkin tragedy. There is still some marrow to suck from the bones.
The bashing this time comes in the form of linking the Agriprocessors human rights scandal with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, a disaster that claimed the lives of 146 women who worked in a clothing factory due to abysmal conditions there. Exit doors had been locked, elevators failed and fire escapes crumbled.
The atrocity focused national attention on the need for regulations to protect workers and ensure workplace safety. Allen referenced the tragedy in a newsletter sent to his congregants shortly before Pesach, informing them of an upcoming premiere showing of the Postville Documentary.
The Postville film captures the devastating impact of the ICE raid on the Postville community, while casting Sholom Rubashkin as a ruthless employer who made his fortune off the backs of the immigrants. Allen has a cameo role in the film.
Equating the exploitation of workers in Postville with the horrific negligence that led to the 1911 fire, Allen told congregants, “The story of Pesach is not over when we close thehagaddah, but continues in the work which is being done to insure that never again will there be a Postville or a Triangle Shirtwaist fire.”
Publicity is a double-edged sword. As Magen Tzedek eagerly seeks the limelight, the rot at its core is being exposed to review as well. Rabbi Zeilingold in a recent letter to the editor of Jewish Week summed up the reaction of many: “Magen Tzedek is built on fraud, on the anguish of an innocent Jew. In my opinion, it is nothing more than a symbol of the most unethical and contemptible standard of human behavior.”
“They can call it Tzedek. I call it falsehood and deceit.”