A group of seven rabbis took to the podium January 26, in front of three reporters, to make the case for the pre-sentencing release of Sholom Rubashkin, the former owner of the kosher meat processing plant Agriprocessors. The rabbis went so far as to offer up eight Torah scrolls to secure the release of Rubashkin, who was convicted in November 2009 on 86 counts of financial fraud and is awaiting sentencing at the Linn County correctional center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Rubashkin’s supporters who gathered January 26, all from the Orthodox community, did not dispute his conviction, but rather questioned the decision to keep him incarcerated before sentencing. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the rabbis argued that insistence of prosecutors to keep Rubashkin behind bars is not justified and is “particularly cruel.”
“Employing illegal aliens and committing bank fraud,” the letter states, “do not warrant the extreme draconian sanction of pre-sentencing imprisonment.”
In their letter, the rabbis claim Rubashkin cannot attend communal prayer services or perform Jewish observances while in prison and that, due to the lack of kosher food, he has eaten only cold food since being incarcerated.
“It’s a humanitarian issue,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel. “The local and federal prosecutors have been extraordinarily inflexible and harsh in terms of their own approach to this matter.”
When asked if he believed there was an underlying antisemitic bias that led prosecutors and courts to insist on pre-sentencing incarceration for Rubashkin, Zwiebel replied, “I can’t say we have any evidence of antisemitism over here” and added that “if you use the term inappropriately when its not warranted you’ll only generate more of it.”
Prosecutors had argued in court that Rubashkin could be a flight risk, basing their claim on the fact that large sums of cash were found at his home. Supporters of the former Agriprocessors owner said the court was offered numerous measures to secure Rubashkin’s bail, such as 24-hour security and an electronic ankle bracelet. Members of the Orthodox community also put up 43 homes, worth a total of $8 million, to ensure Rubashkin shows up in court and, in an unusual move, the letter to Holder reveals that rabbis were also willing to offer eight Torah scrolls as security — agreeing to have them confiscated if Rubashkin skips bail. “According to our tradition this is something which is done only in the most extraordinary and extreme of circumstances,” said Zwiebel.
Among the rabbis attending the press conference was Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Tannenbaum had his own run-in with the law, when in 1996 he pleaded guilty to tax evasions and served 10 months in prison.
From the National Press Building in Washington, the Rubashkin-supporting rabbis walked to the Department of Justice in order to hand-deliver their letter to Holder. It is not clear yet when Rubashkin’s sentencing will take place, and if the Attorney General will opt to intervene before the sentence is delivered.
Below, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel from Agudath Israel of America speaks at a press conference:
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.