When two progressively minded Orthodox rabbinical students sat down last week at a Manhattan kosher dairy restaurant with four Lubavitch businessmen, radically different segments of the Orthodox world collided, and sparks flew.
The rabbinical students and a young rabbi who accompanied them were from Uri L’Tzedek, a liberal Orthodox activist group organizing a boycott of Agriprocessors, the country’s largest kosher meatpacking company. The businessmen were tied to that company, which has come under fire for alleged labor violations.
Last month’s government raid on the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, which had been employing hundreds of undocumented workers, created the unusual circumstances under which the meeting took place. Progressive Jewish groups had long criticized Agriprocessors for its treatment of employees and animals, but the raid precipitated the first significant outcry from within the Orthodox world — that is, from within the primary community that buys kosher meat.
Late last month, Uri L’Tzedek leaders released an open letter to Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin asking that the company obey all applicable labor laws and that it empower a third party to monitor its progress. It cited allegations that the plant has hired child labor, paid its workers below minimum wage and employed supervisors who mistreated employees.
The letter, whose 1,300 signatories included prominent Jewish leaders from a variety of different denominations and organizations, called for a boycott on Agriprocessors products, and on restaurants that sell those products, until demands for reform were met.
Uri L’Tzedek’s willingness to organize a boycott seems to have succeeded in persuading the often unreachable Agriprocessors leadership to sit down and talk. The meeting marked the first time since the raid that Agriprocessors has agreed to talk with any of the Jewish groups calling for reform at the plant.
In attendance on the Agriprocessors side were Menachem Lubinsky, a consultant to the company; David Oberman, director of operations and sales; Sholom Baer Minkowitz, a son-in-law of Aaron Rubashkin and director of New York operations, and another son-in-law, Milton Balkany, who has no official position within the company. Balkany, the first person affiliated with Agriprocessors to make contact with Uri L’Tzedek, is something of a public figure apart from his connection to the company. A prominent figure within the Brooklyn Lubavitch world, and a major Republican campaign donor, he made headlines in 2003 when he was charged by the federal government with embezzling $700,000 from an Orthodox girls’ school. After issuing an apology and making restitution, he was not prosecuted and remains dean of the school.
Shmuly Yanklowitz and Ari Hart, co-directors of Uri L’Tzedek and students at the Manhattan liberal Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, along with Jason Herman, a young pulpit rabbi, represented the organization.
According to both parties, the conversation was frequently acrimonious.
“They came in trying to intimidate us,” Yanklowitz said.
According to the rabbinical students, Balkany at one point made an ominous reference to “the last guy who went up against my father-in-law.” Balkany denies having made any sort of threat, maintaining that he had referred only to a business loss that a Rubashkin competitor had suffered.
In a conversation with the Forward, Balkany dismissed Uri L’Tzedek as being too far to the left for its positions to be relevant within the rest of the Orthodox community. Lubinsky invoked the Nuremberg Laws in his criticism of the calls for a boycott.
“As someone whose grandparents suffered greatly during the German boycotts, I don’t even like to hear that word,” Lubinsky said.
Lubinsky suggested that if company representatives had anticipated that Uri L’Tzedek would report to the media about the meeting, they would not have agreed to meet.
Whether anything will significantly change at Agriprocessors because of the meeting remains unclear. The company agreed to draft a document stipulating its workers’ rights policies and to send it to Uri L’Tzedek within 48 hours after the conversation. To date, the document has not arrived.
“There’s no reason to believe that substantive change is about to happen,” said Morris Allen, head of the Conservative movement’s Heksher Tzedek initiative, which spearheaded the efforts within the Jewish religious community to reform conditions at Agriprocessors but has not called for a boycott of the plant.
“We met with Agriprocessors extensively throughout fall and winter in 2006, and are still awaiting their response from the recommendations we made,” Allen added.
The Uri L’Tzedek representatives have been in touch with Jim Martin, a compliance officer the company hired earlier this month to monitor its workplace conditions. Martin is authorized to speak to the government about violations he finds in the plant, and Uri L’Tzedek hopes he will be authorized to report to the public, as well.
The activists said they were still optimistic.
“This is a good opportunity to restore the faith that has been lost in the Agriprocessors product,” Hart said. Lubinsky was less certain.
“I think this was a one-time dialogue,” he said.