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Sentencing Rubashkin

As much as this newspaper has worked to highlight the abuses at the kosher meat company once owned by the Rubashkin family, the sentencing of Sholom Rubashkin to 27 years in prison for bank fraud is troubling. The lengthy sentence with no chance of parole, handed down in federal court on June 22, is too harsh a punishment for a nonviolent crime committed by a man without a criminal record.

This government overreaching has already turned the 51-year-old Rubashkin into a cross between folk hero and martyr in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox world to which he belongs. The frenzy of emotion surrounding his plight should not be allowed to derail the important, ongoing efforts to ensure that the kosher food industry upholds legal and ethical standards.

But it is difficult not to feel a twinge of sorrow for a man who faces a prison term longer than the one received by the chief executive who helped drive Enron into the ground, wiping out thousands of jobs, more than $60 billion in market value and more than $2 billion in pension plans. By contrast, Rubashkin was convicted of 86 counts of financial fraud that represented a loss to two financial institutions of about $26 million.

Comparing one case to another is always problematic, and the judge in this case offered reasons for her dramatic punishment, but they were not all convincing. Judge Linda Reade took the prosecutors’ request that Rubashkin be jailed for 25 years and raised the ante, adding two more years because, she said, Rubashkin lied in court. One doesn’t have to excuse perjury to wonder whether that was necessary.

Since Rubashkin’s lawyers intend to appeal the sentence, there is still a chance for justice to right itself and for a court to impose a more reasonable punishment. Ultimately, however, this case is not about one man.

The mistreatment of workers and animals at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, under the Rubashkins’ ownership was a terrible stain on the good name of Judaism’s dietary laws and codes of conduct. The Forward’s stories and the publicity of the massive immigration raid in 2008 signaled the beginning of the end of the Rubashkins’ dominance of the kosher world and a widespread re-thinking among observant Jews about the ethical dimension of these ancient laws. Creative leadership from Conservative and Orthodox Jews has spawned real, measurable reforms, prompting higher standards for how food is produced and eaten, by whom and under what conditions. In the wake of this unjust sentence, the wider injustice must not be forgotten.

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