The Fall of the House of Rubashkin

As the nation's largest kosher empire implodes, Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jews begin to break ranks

Men in long black coats and women wearing stiff wigs crowd the benches of the courtroom at the Federal Building in Philadelphia. The room is packed, so the men remaining outside wait to take turns with the ones indoors.

Early on the morning of Monday, November 3, dozens of people had taken a charter bus from Crown Heights, the center of New York's Lubavitch Jewish community. Even more had carpooled. They had come for the sentencing of Moshe Rubashkin, chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council (a powerful nonprofit) and former owner of Montex Textiles in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

When a still-unidentified arsonist started a blaze at the Montex plant in 2005, it burned down with 300 drums of hazardous chemical waste inside. Rubashkin subsequently pleaded guilty to illegally storing the waste, which had been transported from a textile factory his family owned in New Jersey. But the city says he refused to pay the $450,000 in cleanup until the EPA forced him to do so. Allentown's city solicitor, Martin Danks, says the Rubashkins still owe millions of dollars in unpaid taxes.

Photos like this, of Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin, are reverberating in Crown Heights.
AP Photo/Iowa City Gazette, Jonathan D. Woods
Photos like this, of Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin, are reverberating in Crown Heights.
Conditions—for animals and people—at Agriprocessors have even loyal supporters of the Rubashkins wondering.
Newscom/ Mark Hirsch/ Rapport
Conditions—for animals and people—at Agriprocessors have even loyal supporters of the Rubashkins wondering.

Inside the courtroom, Rubashkin, an excitable 51-year-old man—his defense lawyer had claimed he was suffering from attention deficit disorder—listens in silence as a prosecutor blames him for endangering the people of Allentown with his carelessness. But when it comes time for him to speak, Rubashkin launches into a stream-of-consciousness oration—not about Montex or Allentown, but about the history of the Jewish community in Crown Heights, and about Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is known as "the rebbe" to Lubavitch Jews, a revered rabbi who died in 1994.

His audience of supporters, meanwhile, is on edge. Beyond their concerns about the sentencing, they've heard rumors that Agriprocessors, the Rubashkin family's notorious kosher-meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, is on the verge of bankruptcy. (Bankruptcy papers were filed the following afternoon.) In May, Agriprocessors became a national news story when the federal government made it the subject of what was then the biggest immigration sweep in history, taking 389 undocumented workers into custody. The workers had been paid some of the lowest wages in the nation, and were allegedly forced to work up to 17-hour days with 10-minute lunch breaks in a freezing-cold, dirty hallway. Workers as young as 16 were said to have been operating meat grinders and power shears, often without any safety training.

Before the raid, the Rubashkins had been running a multimillion-dollar kosher empire that sent beef and poultry of the highest religious standard to places as far-flung as Anchorage, Memphis, and Jerusalem, under the brand "Aaron's Best" (named after Moshe's father, the family patriarch). The Agriprocessors plant employed about 700 people and was estimated to supply more than 60 percent of the country's kosher meat, reporting annual earnings of $300 million. Since the raid, however, the empire was imploding: The federal and state investigation resulted in three indictments for Moshe's brother, Sholom; the lack of workers after the raid had the Rubashkin family resorting to recruiting new employees in the former American Pacific territory of Palau; and with Agriprocessors offline, the price of kosher meat was rising.

The Rubashkins' slaughterhouse has been in trouble before: In 2004, Agriprocessors weathered an animal-cruelty scandal—videos secretly taped at the plant showed cattle stumbling around with their throats cut and their windpipes pulled out, trying in vain to bellow. The videos proved highly offensive to Jews: "Kosher" is supposed to ensure a more humane process of slaughter. The scandal led to a workers'-rights investigation and a boycott of Rubashkin meat by conservative Jews.

But only a few Rubashkins have been accused of wrongdoing, and even they still have their friends.

Rabbi Eliezer Yarmush, director of social services at the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, is sitting on a card table outside the courtroom. Despite the nearly daily news reports about Agriprocessors and the crumbling Rubashkin empire, Yarmush says that he hasn't followed the news and isn't interested in controversy: "Absolutely nothing unethical happened at that factory," Yarmush declares with certitude, adding that he's not concerned that Moshe Rubashkin's sentencing will harm his standing with the publicly funded nonprofit. Also standing by Moshe Rubashkin is Crown Heights Democratic Congressman Eric Adams, who took a day off from work to testify as a character witness at the Philadelphia sentencing.

But another man, who didn't want to give his name for fear that his words might upset the Rubashkins, admits that the constant bad news is having an effect on the Lubavitchers: "We are going through a terrible, terrible time," he says.

Inside, Rochelle Ginsburg, 22, has squeezed onto a bench that the Crown Heights visitors have designated the women's section. "It's about time that we stood up and did something for this family that has done so much for us," she whispers. "You know how Jews are. Like the Holocaust, people just think: 'Oh, it will pass.' "

She fiddles with her pink handheld, opening it to a Facebook page titled "Stand up for the Rubashkins."

Beside her, women clutch prayer books, vigorously mouthing Hebrew phrases. One woman, a widow with six children who says that Moshe Rubashkin had paid for her visit to Israel, asks whether the judge seems confused. She hopes so, she says, because that's what she prayed for.

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