Nathaniel Popper, who is currently a senior writer for the Los Angeles Times, visited Penn State on Sunday, February 27th, as a part of the "Tend and Sustain It Forever" program series organized by the Jewish Studies department. His talk was about a story Popper reported on when he was still a writer for The Forward on AgriProcessors, which was previously one of the biggest kosher slaughterhouses in the United States.
Now, I know next to nothing about Judaism or even what the word kosher means. Some cursory research on the internet led me to Judaism 101: Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws. There I learned that kosher in fact does NOT mean a rabbi blesses food, but in fact IS a set of rules about what foods should and should not be eaten as well as how these foods should be kept and prepared. After reading through the site and seeing the lists and rules explained, I thought I would at least be prepared enough to go to Popper's talk and sort of understand it on an elementary level. Honestly, though, I was a little worried it would all be over my head.
The talk was held at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, and after a bried introduction about Popper and his background (this post from the L A TImes explains his background well), the man himself stood and started his talk. Here's an outline:
The kosher food industry is the largest religiously motivated industry in the world. More traditionally, the process to get kosher meat revolved around a process that happened in each town where people had a demand for kosher meat. The butcher would react to the needs of the townspeople, and the chief rabbi in the town would usually also be involved. There was a sense of "old world trust" because everyone knew the butcher, knew where the cattle or chicken or whatever came from, and could trust that the whole process was kosher. AgriProcessors changed this process when they grew to the point where they could provide grocers across the country with kosher meat. How did people know it was actually kosher? Popper visited the meat plant in Postville, Iowa to see if the plant followed kosher rules. Beyond seeing the plant's kill floor and witnessing the process the plant followed to kill their animals, Popper also saw that there was a huge population of assumed (and later confirmed) illegal immigrants working at the plant. He went around with a Guatemalan baker that lived in the town and met people that he been injured and lost limbs from working in the plant, and heard about the inconsistent pay practices. Then, in May 2008, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the plant and rounded up about 400 illegal immigrants. What was different about this raid was that some of the people that were caught were sent to jail before finally being deported. And Sholom Rubashkin, the slaughterhouse executive, went to trial for charges of bank fraud and harboring undocumented immigrants. He eventually received a sentence of 27 years of jail time. (NOTE: many of Popper's articles on the subject were written while he was a writer at The Forward, like articles about the pay, Rubashkin's trial, and about Rubashkin's past, amongst all the other articles Popper wrote that can also be found.)
That's a lot to chew through, and there are a ton of questions this entire story raises about many different things. Even though this post is hyperlink happy, if you only look at one, I urge you to read this post Popper wrote about the fundamental problems he found through all of his investigating, because it outlines things very well. But I had some questions of my own that got me thinking. Popper talked a lot in the talk about how Jewish establishments, like AgriProcessors, have a different set of laws beyond the laws set by the US government they must follow - mainly, Jewish law. And that determines not only the kosher rules in the kashrut, but also rules about how employers should treat employees. My question is: why should Jewish establishments be so much "better"? Why shouldn't all establishments be held to such high standards? Should there be changes to the US laws? And what about the whole issue of the immigrants that worked there? Not to keep clubbing this poor dead horse, but immigration is still a huge issue, and this story only reminds us of that. Why were these people sent to jail? Beyond the legality of their citizenship or their right to live here, what about access to health care? What about the people that are losing limbs and are afraid to go to a hospital? Is there a line between legal issues and humanity? And what about the intersect between religion and law in a country that supposedly is trying to separate church and state? There are Orthodox rabbis trying to get Rubashkin released from jail, as there is an ancient religious obligation to free fellow Jews from "gentile captivity".
Popper addresses the problems within the Jewish community in that last post I linked to, but there are so many more questions that arise out of the story of AgriProcessors that reach far beyond the religious community. Many questions that have yet to be answered.