"The Jewish narrative for 2,000 years has predominantly been about our powerlessness as unprotected immigrants," says Shmuly Yanklowitz, co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, a progressive Orthodox group. The allegations are "particularly embarrassing because of how deeply connected our religious and historical identity and universal moral mandate are to the plight of these workers."
One such worker, Joel Rucal, is a Guatemalan immigrant who worked on the chicken line before the raid. He says his mother, who also worked at the plant, was arrested and wears a monitoring device around her ankle. Mr. Rucal also listed alleged abuses in the plant including extra shifts without pay and sexual advances by supervisors.
"Sometimes we needed to use the bathroom and they didn’t allow us," says Mr. Rucal. "We were afraid to say anything because it was the only job we could get."
Agriprocessors, started by Aaron Rubashkin, a Hassidic Jew from Brooklyn, is best known for its kosher brands such as Aaron’s Best and bills itself the world’s largest processor of what’s called glatt kosher beef, which adheres to the strictest kosher standard. A statement issued by vice president Chaim Abrahams said the company had hired immigration and safety-compliance experts after the raid. An employee hotline was activated last Friday.
Rabbi WeissMandl, top supervisory rabbi for kosher certification at the plant, says: "We were not aware of any mistreatment of workers." However, he added, "we are not involved with cutting and packing…That’s not the kosher part."
But for Rabbi Morris Allen, kosher is about more than a process. The revelations at Agriprocessors have prompted the conservative rabbi from Mendota Heights, Minn., to call on consumers to avoid the company’s products. The 53-year-old is founder of a movement that advocates for animal and worker welfare in kashrut, food prepared in accordance with Jewish law.
"We shouldn’t accept a standard of kashrut that is more concerned about the lung of a cow than the hand of a worker," he says. "Isn’t it important for us as Jews to care that our food isn’t just ritually kosher but ethically kosher, too?"
Rabbi Allen’s critics say that until wrongdoing is proven, no Jewish organization should condemn Agriprocessors or seek punishment for the company. Some Orthodox rabbis, who control the supervision of kosher plants, have charged the Conservative movement with hatching a plot to take over kosher certification. Some detractors also say that most Conservative Jews, who constitute the largest Jewish denomination, don’t even keep kosher.
Rabbi Allen first became concerned in March 2006 when he read an article in the Jewish press about poor conditions for Latino laborers at the Agriprocessors plant. With the blessing of the Conservative movement’s leadership, he formed a commission of inquiry and won Agriprocessors’ permission to visit the plant.
Rabbi Allen led a five-man team that included a Spanish-speaking rabbi, labor and immigration activists and an official from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing Conservative congregations.
"We discovered things that were unbelievably painful," Rabbi Allen says. Among other allegations, he 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.