Rubashkin’s Crimes


Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.
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Moments after Sholom Rubashkin, former vice president of the now-defunct Agriprocessors kosher meat company, was found guilty of 86 counts of felony fraud, his oldest daughter was interviewed by The Des Moines Register. “It’s unbelievable,” Roza Weiss was quoted as saying. “My only comment is, we’re Jewish and we’re proud of it.”

Perhaps that’s the only response to expect from an anguished daughter watching her father led away to spend what could be, if his conviction is upheld, the rest of his life in prison. For the Jewish community, however, this should be a moment not of pride but of extreme embarrassment over yet another example — did we need any more this year? — of a Jewish businessman gone bad.

The rise and fall of the Rubashkin family — Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim from Brooklyn whose patriarch transformed a butcher shop into a meat and poultry empire — has focused our community on Agriprocessors’ violations of the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws of kashrut. Ever since the Forward began documenting abuses of workers and animals at their plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2006, the Rubashkin saga has highlighted central questions about the practice of keeping kosher. Is slaughtering animals according to religious law the primary obligation? Or should broader ethical concerns about the treatment of animals, the safety of workers and health of the environment also be considered?

But Sholom Rubashkin was not found guilty of violating Jewish dietary laws on November 12 in a courtroom in South Dakota, where the trial was moved because an Iowa venue was deemed too prejudicial. He was found guilty of bank fraud, making false statements to a bank, wire fraud, mail fraud and money laundering, and violating an order from the U.S. secretary of agriculture — on all but five of the 91 felony charges filed against him by the federal government.

In December, he’s scheduled to face yet another trial on 72 immigration charges. But this trial by jury was about his business practices. His crimes really had little to do with the production of kosher meat. He could have been manufacturing sneakers or vacuum cleaners, for that matter.

Prosecutors alleged that Rubashkin falsified sales records to defraud First Bank Business Capital in St. Louis, which had issued a $35 million line of credit to Agriprocessors. They say he used fake invoices and shipping papers to create the illusion of sales that never happened, allowing him to borrow more money from First Bank. And he was accused of diverting customer payments instead of sending them directly to the bank, using the money for personal expenses and to keep the family business afloat.

Beyond the legalese, that’s called lying and cheating, and flouting the law. These crimes are so serious that, unless they are overturned on appeal, Rubashkin could be sentenced to a maximum total of 1,255 years in jail. By contrast, Bernard Madoff is serving a mere 150-year prison term.

It should be deeply embarrassing to the Jewish world that a man who wraps himself in the garb, language and rhythm of an observant life should be guilty of such base behavior. His family and supporters testified to his kindness and devotion, and there’s no reason to doubt them. But that cannot be a shield from scrutiny, nor an excuse for not adhering to basic laws.

Thieves come in all sorts of dress, of course, from all races and religions. There’s nothing inherently Orthodox or even Jewish about Rubashkin’s crimes. But in fact, there is something strong and profound that Jewish law and tradition has to say about personal behavior in society.

Just before Rosh Hashanah this year, the leaders of the three institutional pillars of Modern Orthodoxy took the unusual step of asking rabbis to speak about Jewish ethics during the holidays. In a letter sent to more than 2,000 rabbis, the leaders asked them to discuss the prohibition against stealing, the need to obey secular laws and the goal of serving as “a light to the nations” through honest social interactions with the non-Jewish world.

The tradition shows how far we’ve come in enunciating the highest standards of ethical behavior. The Rubashkin verdict shows how far we still need to go in realizing them.

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