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Jewish activists rally in Postville to support Agriprocessors workers

By Sue Fishkoff

July 28th, 2008

Demonstrators at a rally in Postville, Iowa, on July 27, 2008 show their support for undocumented Agriprocessors workers arrested in a May raid on the kosher meat plant. Photo by Denny Eilers.

Demonstrators at a rally in Postville, Iowa, on July 27, 2008 show their support for undocumented Agriprocessors workers arrested in a May raid on the kosher meat plant. Photo by Denny Eilers.

Postville, Iowa (JTA) — When busloads of Jews from Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin started pulling up outside St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Sunday morning, and more than 350 people, some sporting yarmulkes, poured out to take part in a big immigration rally planned for the afternoon, locals noticed.

“We weren’t expecting so many Jews to show up,” said Alicia Lopez.

A Mexican native and former employee of Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher meat plant, Lopez was one of nearly 400 undocumented workers arrested in a May 12 immigration raid at the factory.

Like four dozen other women released to take care of dependent children, her right ankle is encased in a heavy tracking device that keeps her under virtual house arrest as she awaits trial and, likely, eventual deportation.

Lopez never met a Jewish person in Mexico, and the impressions she developed during her seven years here were not flattering. They were her bosses, the guys who didn’t give her raises, the guys she blames for not warning her and the other workers that La Migra — the immigration police — was on its way.

“I thought badly of them,” she said bluntly, speaking through a Spanish interpreter.

But after marching with Jews on Sunday afternoon, praying with them in her church and hearing their shouts of solidarity with her plight, Lopez changed her mind.

“I could see and feel they were different,” she said. “I really appreciated them. It was like an injection of adrenaline.”

That’s why 22-year-old Tamar Pentelnick came on one of the buses from Minneapolis.

“As Jews, hearing that other Jews treat people like this, I wanted to show that not all Jews are like this, that we care about others and human rights are important to us,” she said.

The interfaith service, march and rally represented the largest and most public demonstration of Jewish support for those affected by the massive raid two months ago by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. Police estimated the crowd at more than 900.

Agriprocessors first gained national attention in 2000 with the publication of the book "Postville," which described the tensions between the the local community and the company, owned by Lubavitcher Chasidim from Brooklyn.

Since then, Agriprocessors has come under fire over its slaughter methods and labor practices, as well as health and safety violations. The May 12 raid added new layers to the controversy, with federal authorities coming under criticism, the plant's former workers facing economic problems and the company scrambling to keep up production.

Through it all, the company has denied any wrongdoing and vehemently rejects the claim that it does not look out for its workers.

Sunday's events -- spearheaded by the Minnesota-based Jewish Community Action and the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and supported by a number of other groups including the Jewish Labor Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society -- focused on the affected workers and their families as a way of generating support for the larger goal of comprehensive, national immigration reform.

“The Agriprocessors raid is the legacy of a failed immigration system,” said Gideon Aronoff, the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Aronoff told the crowd that immigration reform is something “that matters” to the Jewish community.

“Instead of a national solution to a national problem, we have a mishmash of local responses, a border fence that doesn’t work and millions of dollars spent chasing down immigrant workers,” he said.

Athough virtually all the workers arrested in the Postville raid were from Mexico and Guatemala, the Jews who participated in the rally say this is a very Jewish issue. Text study and discussions of immigration policy were held on the buses coming in from Minneapolis and Chicago, emphasizing the Jewish values and teachings that informed the rally’s organization.

“We’re here because we care,” said Rabbi Harold Kravitz of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minneapolis.

Working conditions are no better in many other industrial plants, he noted, but the fact that Agriprocessors is Jewish owned and produces kosher meat gives the case particular urgency to some Jewish activists.

“We’re here as Jews because we believe kosher means we must answer to a higher authority,” Kravitz said.

“We think a Jewish voice is critical,” added Vic Rosenthal, the executive director of Jewish Community Action. “Who else should be speaking up for workers' rights, especially when it involves kosher food?”

Jonathan Ribnick, 15, was on one of two busloads of teens from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

On one hand, Ribnick was upset that the allegations of worker mistreatment by Agriprocessors and its Jewish owners are giving Jews a bad name, fanning the flames of anti-Semitism and “messing it up for the rest of us,” as he put it.

“But we’re not here because we want kosher meat,” he said. “We’re here for the people. We care how people are being treated.”

Abby Seeskin, 20, a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, had been to a few rallies for immigrant rights, but this was the first time she went as part of a Jewish group.

“It’s important not just because it’s a kosher plant but because although I’m not particularly religious, the Jewish values I grew up with influence my outlook in life and have informed my interest in immigration issues,” she explained. “The idea of tikkun olam" -- reparing the world -- "is very important to me, probably more than any other Jewish value.”

The issue of caring came up repeatedly throughout the day.

Agriprocessor owners take issue with the claims that they, by contrast, don’t care.

Aaron Rubashkin, who founded the company two decades ago, in a prepared statement said he and his family were immigrants themselves, escaping first Soviet and then Polish communism to find “freedom and opportunity” in America.

The company has helped workers hurt by the raid, said spokesman Chaim Abrahams, providing food and subsidizing rent by allowing them to stay in Rubashkin-owned properties even when they are not up to date on payments.

No workers interviewed were aware of rent subsidies, although some said that company trucks handed out boxes of meat, chicken and sausages in their neighborhoods last week.

Earlier Sunday, Abrahams met with leaders of the Catholic and Jewish activist groups to address their major concerns, including help for the affected workers and back pay for those arrested. Talks should continue next week, participants reported.

For more than an hour, the blocks-long march snaked its way through town, past the front gates of Agriprocessors and a playground eerily empty of children. In some classrooms, locals report, more than half the students disappeared overnight.

Young Jewish activists used megaphones to lead the crowd in Spanish-language chants: “Nosotros todos immigrantes” -- “We are all immigrants.” They were answered by Guatemalans wearing traditional woven shirts and young mothers with electronic ankle bracelets wheeling babies in strollers, American flags flying from the handles.

Longtime Postville resident Norma Schlee watched it all from her front lawn. “I think it’s magnificent that they were able to come from all over,” she said.

And as for the Jews coming in from out of state to show their support for this tiny Iowa town ripped apart by the raid and its aftermath, Schlee nodded her head in approval, saying, “I think that’s very important.”