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10 Years After Postville, Sholom Rubashkin Is Free — And Backing Prison Reform

On May 12, 2008, government agents raided a massive kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Within days, over 300 undocumented workers at the plant had been sentenced to five months in prison, followed by deportation. One of the plant’s managers, Sholom Rubashkin, was eventually sentenced to 27 years in prison for financial fraud.

But in December of last year, after years of advocacy on Rubashkin’s behalf by the ultra-Orthodox community, President Trump commuted his sentence.

Now Rubashkin, the former kosher meatpacking executive accused of falsifying documents for illegal immigrants and employing underage workers, is free. He is living a private life with his wife in the Hasidic enclave of Monsey, NY. Since his release, he has spoken to close supporters about his newfound passion for prison reform. He has also been lauded by the ultra-Orthodox community for surviving prison with his spirit intact.

“Prison breaks most people. And it didn’t break him,” said Rabbi Eli Cohen, executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. “He was able to stay in a positive frame of mind every single day.”

A little before 4 p.m. on December 20, 2017 — the eighth day of Hanukkah — Sholom Rubashkin was called to the warden’s office at the Federal Correctional Institution in Mount Hope, New York. He was seven and a half years into a 27 year sentence for financial fraud. A guard came to his cell and told him to get out of it “immediately,” and wouldn’t tell him why.

A few minutes later, the warden explained that Trump had commuted his sentence. Within a couple of hours, Rubashkin’s wife Leah had picked him up from the prison and taken him to Brooklyn to celebrate.

Rubashkin’s lawyer, Gary Apfel, was the first person in his circle to be notified about the commutation. Apfel spoke to Rubashkin briefly before calling Rubashkin’s wife Leah, who would pick Rubashkin up. According to Apfel, the last thing Rubashkin told him before hanging up was, “Please tell her to drive carefully.”

Rubashkin used to be a manager of Agriprocessors, a massive kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant in Postville founded by his father Aaron. The family-owned company sold kosher meat under the brands “Aaron’s Best,” “Supreme Kosher” and “Rubashkin’s.”

In 2006, the plant was the subject of a Forward expose. The report found widespread mistreatment of workers, many of whom were undocumented and poorly trained for work in the slaughterhouse.

When U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raided the Agriprocessors facility in May 2008, over 400 people were arrested. It was the largest raid of a workplace in American history up to that point. Rubashkin, his father and brother were initially charged with 9,000 counts of child labor law violations.

Though some charges were dropped, Rubashkin was sentenced to 27 years in prison for financial fraud in November 2009. Allies of Rubashkin carried out a years-long campaign to have his sentence reduced or thrown out. Apfel told Ami Magazine that the White House seemed to be going back and forth on the commutation throughout the fall. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz brought the issue up with Trump personally. After coordinating with members of Congress, Trump commuted the sentence.

Rubashkin’s release was met with rapture by the ultra-Orthodox world. Celebrations broke out across the ultra-Orthodox sections of Brooklyn. Rubashkin, along with hundreds of other men, danced in 770 Eastern Parkway, the lodestone of the Chabad movement. So many revelers filled the streets in Boro Park that the local chapter of Shomrim called in its unit from neighboring Flatbush to help with crowd control. The next morning, Rubashkin recited the prayer for surviving a serious ordeal in the basement of 770 to a thunderous “Amen!”

After the release, Rubashkin spent a week meeting with rabbis and community leaders around New York City and in upstate New York. He had audiences with the leaders of several Hasidic groups, including the Munkatch and Satmar rebbes.

Cohen said that people who have seen Rubashkin since his release have noted his good attitude. Cohen added that Rubashkin took pains to remain in contact with his community while in his medium-security prison.

“He preserved his spirit throughout,” Cohen said. “He never had a day where he wasn’t upbeat. He spent a lot of time in prayer, he spent a lot of time corresponding with school students.”

Rubashkin’s commutation revved up ultra-Orthodox support for Trump.

“It is very important that every reader… expresses his or her gratitude directly to the President of the United States,” Apfel told the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. Apfel did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

A Twitter account supposedly run by a close family member of Rubashkin also called for Jews to thank Trump for the commutation.

Though Rubashkin’s release was met with outrage from some quarters, he is widely seen as a martyr and a scapegoat in the Orthodox world. Writing in the Forward, Eli Reiter suggested that Rubashkin’s prosecutors were trying to make up for the federal government’s failure to prosecute big banks during the Great Recession.

“This was after Bear Sterns and AIG went under, with its executives unscathed, and they were going after a hasid from Brooklyn,” Reiter wrote.

Since his release, Rubashkin has made statements about the importance of prison reform. At a February dinner with close supporters, Rubashkin spoke at length about his experiences meeting his fellow inmates while in prison. The gathering was meant to honor Rep. Yvette Clarke, who represents a segment of Brooklyn that includes several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. During the Obama administration, Clarke had lobbied then-Attorney General Eric Holder for Rubashkin’s release.

“I hear you’re a very powerful person,” Rubashkin told Clarke. “So you should use everything you can to change the system.”

Rubashkin’s call for prison reform has been echoed by some ultra-Orthodox leaders. Yossi Gestetner, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council, told Lohud.com that he hoped the commutation would lead to a bipartisan effort to improve the criminal justice system.

“This was the right step,” Gestetner said. “The punishment did not fit the crime.”

While speaking to Clarke at the February dinner, Rubashkin inveighed against corporations that own private prisons. He said that the judge in his case bought stock in a private prison company before the raid, which she knew about ahead of time, as Mother Jones reported.

“My story is just an example,” Rubashkin said. “Thank God I was saved. A lot of people there need help. And I think prison reform will do it.”

Contact Ari Feldman at [email protected] or on Twitter @aefeldman

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