In the time since our first article of the Rubashkin case came out, Sholom Rubashkin has been found innocent of all 83 (down from 9,311) charges of violating child labor laws. This is significant, because it was the presumption of egregious violation of such laws that led to the unprecedented military-style action against the plant (detailed below), which, in turn, led to the inability of the company to meet its financial obligations, which, in turn, served as the foundation of the situation that led to the charges of bank fraud. In other words, it set up a chain reaction that should never have been set in motion.
Today, June 21, word has just come out that Sholom Rubashkin will be sentenced to 27 years, which is more than that recommended by the prosecution (although less than the outrageous life sentence originally suggested and subsequently withdrawn when, among other things, former attorney generals, including Janet Reno, denounced the sentence as unfathomable).
In any event, in light of today’s events, I wanted to post most of the rest of the Rubashkin article as it appeared in our June issue.
There are few states in the US where the unions possess the immense power that they do in Iowa. The politicians, aware of their significant influence on voters, are out to please them.
For years now, the unions have had their sights set on Agriprocessors, one of the only big businesses in Iowa to work out their own arrangements without completely deferring to the powerful unions, and they finally decided that the time has come to go to war against the enemy.
The unions were not alone in this venture. They had the full support and backing of many groups on the political left and right who all had one thing in common, a xenophobic hatred of outsiders… and Jews. The Rubashkins were the ones who broke the decades-strong barriers and self-imposed isolation of the Iowans. They were the first to establish a successful Jewish business in an area where outsiders were regarded with distrust. Postville residents did eventually learn to appreciate the economic bounty the Rubashkins brought to their neighborhood, but that was still not enough to suppress the latent anti-Semitism that pervaded.
Agriprocessors’ high profile success had struck a raw nerve, and there was no way they were going to be allowed to continue business as usual in Iowa.
An Al-Qaeda Terror Camp?
In the spring of 2008, things were relatively calm in Postville, but as it turned out, it was the calm that comes before the storm.
Somewhere in a government bureau, a team of government prosecutors were secretly composing a lengthy affidavit of 60 pages in preparation for a massive federal raid on the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville. The plan was to present the affidavit to a judge in order to obtain a search warrant, and in that spirit the federal agents rendered a description of the kosher plant in Postville as if it were some Al-Qaeda terrorist training camp in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Among others, the government agents claimed that there was clear evidence that the slaughterhouse in question was involved in illegal weapons trading and the production of illegal drugs. The affidavit gave the impression that there was a powerful criminal gang operating within the plant. Slavery, torture, extortion, illegal identification forgeries, drugs, guns, bombs, and more were going on behind closed doors. Every accusation in the affidavit was substantiated by “anonymous sources” and “informants” within the plant who had supplied the information.
It is not known who could have authorized an affidavit like this, containing countless incredible exaggerations and dramatic accusations. Whoever it was, though, it was obvious that the authors of the affidavit themselves did not believe in the truth of their words, but felt it was needed in order to justify the upcoming massive, attention-grabbing overdone raid.
As Getzel Rubashkin, R’ Sholom Mordechai’s son, points out, there was another goal achieved with the authoring of this affidavit: to further besmirch R’ Sholom Mordechai’s name. The document contained dramatic, exaggerated and unsubstantiated accusations against his father that were revealed to the public on the very same day of the raid, something that is never done and not part of government protocol. It was obvious that whatever the outcome of the investigation would be, they were determined to humiliate and blacken the Rubashkin name.
Just one example of the many lies in the document: The affidavit discussed “Hassidic” supervisors who were torturing employees. Actually, there weren’t even any Jewish supervisors in the plant. Another example is the allegations in the document that certain crimes were being perpetrated in the buildings on the southern side of the train tracks that pass through Agri. As Reb Getzel says, “There aren’t even any buildings on the southern side of the tracks.”
In addition to these blatant lies, there are many contradictions in the affidavit. For example, on one page the prosecutors allege that the different color hats worn by the workers signify their status as either legal or illegal immigrants. On another page, they claim that the colors are a coding system for which employees receive wages on the books, and which ones receive cash. In reality all they signified was the different ranks of the workers, as is done in many other plants.
The officials crammed the affidavit with every accusation that caught their fancy, knowing that they will never have to prove the accuracy of their accusations. They never intended to use this affidavit against R’ Sholom Mordechai at the trial. This document was created for the purpose of giving R’ Sholom Mordechai the image of a monster before his trial even began.
All the legal proceedings were conducted under a veil of secrecy, far from the public radar. Thousands of Jews, Christians, local Postville residents, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Russians and others going about their lives far from northeast Iowa were completely and blissfully unaware that a plan was being set in motion that would change their lives in a flash, with bitter consequences.
“La Migra” Appears on the Scene
Despite the tight secrecy surrounding the planned operation against Agri, rumors began circulating in Iowa weeks before the raid, and Iowans began suspecting that something big was about to occur.
Residents began noticing unusual and feverish activity in the old “National Cattle Congress” located in Waterloo, Iowa, a huge swath of territory with many large buildings, warehouses, and a massive auditorium. For many decades, the National Cattle Congress was used to host sports games, gun shows, concerts and rodeos. The area is dotted with huge brick barns to house cattle. These were erected in the times when the Cattle Congress served as a host for national conferences of farmers and representatives of the milk industry from all over North America. Those years were glorious ones for the Congress, but today little of that glory is left. The area is nearly deserted, except for some occasional gatherings of small groups.
However in that spring of 2008, the Cattle Congress came alive in a sudden surge of activity as armies of contractors, trucks and bulldozers descended on the area. It was obvious that something was going on, but what?
Rumors began circulating that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was behind the activity. Observers reported that chain link fences were being constructed and the huge buildings were being furnished with bunk beds. It appeared that FEMA was expecting to host a great number of people in the near future.
But why? Some speculated that FEMA was conducting a drill in preparation for the next Hurricane Katrina (though that wouldn’t explain why the buildings were being surrounded with fences). Maybe the buildings were being prepared for a drill in the case of a terrorist attack?
Fringe groups, who are always suspecting the government of preparing to institute “Marshall Law” whereby they would confiscate the weapons and freedom of its citizens, began weaving conspiracy theories. They plastered photos of the Cattle Congress all over their websites, accompanied by speculations that the government was constructing a giant prison where they were planning to incarcerate anyone who would not cooperate. One website sarcastically postulated that the government was unwilling to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, and was therefore constructing concentration camps where they were planning to lock up those who protest against government corruption.
Local officials in the Waterloo area who wished to find out what the government was planning to do with the Cattle Congress were fed lies and disinformation.
It didn’t take long, though, for people to begin suspecting that the “Immigration and Customs Enforcement” (ICE) agency was getting ready for a massive raid. All the signs were there. In addition to the contractors and construction workers at the site, there were also a large number of people dressed in regular clothing, and obviously not working in construction. Several of them stood at the entrance to the Congress and stopped all incoming vehicles, demanding identification.
In the weeks that followed, the local hotels and motels saw a sharp rise in clientele, and so did the hotels in Cedar Rapids and in all other cities within a two mile radius. ICE officials informed the media that they were not authorized to discuss or release specific information concerning the operation.
In the Hispanic immigrant community in Iowa, rumors spread like wildfire that “La Migra” — as the agency is referred to in Mexican slang — was coming to the city. Immigration advocates and attorneys organized an informational session in Waterloo to inform the immigrants of everything they needed to know. A similar session was planned for Postville, but came too late.
At this point, it was no longer a question of whether or not a massive raid was being planned; only the target of this raid remained a mystery. Some speculated that the raid would be executed in Swift, a meatpacking plant in neighboring town. But the theory was dismissed when many recalled that the government had already invaded the plant in 2006 and it was unlikely that they would return so soon. Another possible candidate was a pork plant in Waterloo, but that, too, was difficult to believe since the company maintained strategic political connections. Before long, the population began realizing that the most likely target of the government’s ire would be the Agriprocessors plant in Postville.
Agri immediately expressed its readiness to cooperate fully with the government in order to render such a massive raid unnecessary, a raid that would only bring destruction to the plant and the entire local economy. The company hired the well-known attorney, Robert W. Kent. Kent had been involved in previous cases where raids had been planned by the government, and he had successfully convinced authorities to ditch the raids in favor of going through all the employee records to identify illegal immigrants. Thus, the government would be able to arrest the offenders without causing pandemonium and destroying the entire enterprise.
In this case as well, on May 9, Mr. Kent appealed to the Iowa prosecutors to refrain from unnecessarily ruining a thriving business that was so crucial to the local economy. He made it clear that Agri – which was “the largest kosher meat production company in the country” — wished to cooperate with ICE and avoid the dangers and disruption of a raid. But Kent’s requests were categorically refused.
The Unsubstantiated Immigration Accusations
The accusations of immigration offenses committed by Rubashkin were false and unsubstantiated from the very beginning. The Rubashkins maintained a firm policy of only accepting job seekers who could present appropriate identification papers, and, legally, they were not allowed to refuse applicants because of suspicions that they are illegal immigrants. In fact, were they to do so, they were liable to be sued for discrimination. As long as an applicant provided the proper papers, they were required to accept him.
The accusations of immigration offenses exposed an important detail: if until now the attacks were only emanating from political groups on the left, from PETA to the Unions, they had now been joined by anti-immigration groups on the right. It was a massive united effort to bring the Rubashkins to their knees.
The patriarch of the Rubashkin family, R’ Avrohom Aharon, takes the accusations that his plant had knowingly hired illegal immigrants very seriously. From his store in Boro Park, he categorically denies the charges:
Right from the beginning, we set up a special division just to deal with hiring workers. On the day we first opened, in January 1988, we had 60 workers. Two of those men went through all the workers’ papers and made background checks to ensure that all our employees were decent people and that they were working legally. This was despite the fact that illegal workers were not considered a problem at that time. That situation only developed later. Nevertheless, we took all the appropriate steps just to be on the safe side.
With time, the division grew to six men who were busy full time checking each one of our workers individually. We did not hire a worker unless all his papers were in order. Were all the papers genuine? We are not government agents and are not trained to check for forgeries.
When a worker applied with us for a job he had to undergo a lengthy procedure. First, he had to fill out an application in our office and present the appropriate documentation, such as a green card or other papers showing he was entitled to work here. He also had to present a picture ID and various other documents. The office checked everything and if all appeared to be in order the worker was hired. Applications for new workers were accepted every Tuesday.
My children and I were never personally involved in this division. We were busy elsewhere in the business. Hiring was the exclusive function of that office.
When a new worker began his job we had to train him in. He learned how to work with knives and machines. The results of ignoring safety procedures can be disastrous. We had a separate department with men in charge of safety and security.
Then the worker would begin working for us. If we were satisfied with his work and he liked the job, he would bring his family over to Postville. He had to register his children in the local schools. What kind of papers do you think he presented for registration? The very same papers he used to apply for his job with us!
As the schools grew, they asked Washington for more funding. What papers do you think they sent to document the increased enrollment? Obviously the same papers we had seen! And which papers do you think the worker presented when he opened a bank account at the local bank? How about when he applied for a driver’s license or registered a new car? The same documents were accepted by local officials, by the county, state and federal governments!
As a business we had to verify all aspects of our work, including details about our workers and their wages to the IRS. Which documents did we show? The very same papers! If you check, you will find that there were no tax complaints lodged against us. We paid taxes for all of our workers. If we had been knowingly hiring illegal workers, how do you think we would have paid taxes for them?
In the conference room in the jailhouse where R’ Sholom Mordechai was interviewed by the Zman, he told us an interesting fact about the case. “The FBI had twice sent an agent in disguise to apply for a job with forged identification papers, and both times the agent was turned away. When he came to our plant the first time, the supervisor in charge of hiring new workers immediately told him, “These papers are no good. We can’t hire you.” He returned a second time and was refused again. It was only when he returned for the third time with authentic papers that we accepted him.”
The only way a company can verify that an employee is illegal is if the IRS sends them a letter informing them that this specific employee’s documents are not in the records. R’ Sholom Mordechai points out the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the system. In the same letter the IRS sends to employers informing them that a worker’s documents are not good, the IRS warns the company that they are not allowed to fire the worker. Rather they must give him 60 days to present authentic documents, and when those 60 days pass, he must be given another 45 days. The same government that is going all out to limit illegal immigration in the US is basically tying companies’ hands behind their backs, precluding them from doing anything about it.
For several years, Agri would receive such letters from the IRS every few months. The company did what it was required by law, firing the workers who could not produce new, authentic documents within the specified time frame.
In 2005, though, the company was suddenly flooded with these letters. This time, the IRS had discovered dozens of employees with questionable documentation. R’ Sholom Mordechai, uncomfortable with the unusual attention the company was being subjected to, sensed that something was amiss. He immediately suspected that something was going on behind the scenes, but he cooperated fully with the IRS.
The company’s attorneys immediately informed the workers under scrutiny that they would need to provide the management with new documents, but at this point, the unions, the perpetual enemies of the Rubashkins, interfered and spread rumors among the workers that the company simply wanted them out, and the letters were only an excuse to fire them.
Union agents circulated among the Hispanic workers, inciting them to revolt, and as a result, a group of illegal immigrants filed discrimination charges against the Rubashkins in court.
The Rubashkins’ attorneys cautioned them to refrain from firing any workers until the charges were settled, because such action could have serious ramifications on the lawsuit.
The Rubashkins took the advice of their lawyers and for a while took pains not to fire any employees.
Once the charges were settled and R’ Sholom Mordechai wanted to start the process of firing illegal workers, a federal judge from California appeared on the scene and imposed a stay, temporarily forbidding all companies across the country from firing employees due to questionable documentation. Again, the Rubashkins’ lawyers warned them not to fire anyone because it was considered an offense to disregard the ruling of a court of law.
Several months passed, and then, one day, the Rubashkins received an urgent letter from their attorneys that the California judge had removed the stay, and they must send away the illegal workers at once.
The Rubashkins frantically began composing a list of all the employees that must be fired, but before they were able to act on their intentions, the government invaded the plant and conducted the raid.
The Military Invasion
On May 12, 2008, one day after the informational session in Waterloo, a formidable army of over 600 agents culled from several different agencies, all dressed in black, swooped down on quiet, little Postville.
The agents were armed from head to toe with military style weapons and some of them were accompanied by attack dogs. The sirens pierced the tranquil air with their wails. Dozens of vehicles of all shapes and sizes, all painted black, converged on the town, followed by a fleet of buses emblazoned with the words, “Homeland Security Department” and “ICE.” Military Black Hawk helicopters whirred in the skies, including a military ambulance helicopter.
The laid back Postville residents were stunned. In Postville, where a honking horn is fodder for the headlines, the human hurricane that stormed into their town was just too much for the locals to digest.
“There is no airport in Postville,” remarks Yoshe Zelig Aranoff. “When a small airplane passes overhead every once in a while, necks all over town crane to see the sight. It’s no wonder that the military helicopters rumbling across Postville skies for several hours elicited such a reaction.”
Sholom Mordechai was outside the plant on the morning of May 12, 2008, when a helicopter suddenly appeared overhead. Plant manager Brent Beebe called him on his cell to tell him that federal immigration agents had entered the plant. Mr. Rubashkin looked up and was shocked to see hordes of cars speeding into the parking lot.
Toby Bensasson, the human resources manager, called him, hysterical. “Where are you? ICE is here. They want to break your door down!”
“Why would they want to break the door down?” R’ Sholom Mordechai asked, surprised. “I’m here. I can open the door for them. I’ll let them in and they’ll be able to look around and take whatever they please.”
The agents stormed the Rubashkin plant much like they would an Al-Qaeda training camp. The agents were itching for action. It was a difficult task for the manager to prevent them from destroying everything in their paths.
Sholom Mordechai made a beeline for the plant and arrived, panting, seconds before the door to his office was taken off its hinges. Then the agents handed Mr. Rubashkin a search warrant.
Mrs. Rubashkin recalls her own experiences of that day. “I was on my way to Rochester, Minnesota, a nearly two hour trip, to see a doctor with Moshe. My son, Yossi, then a bachur in yeshiva, called me on my cell phone and said, ‘Mommy, you’re not going to believe what’s going on in Postville as we’re speaking.’ He was in yeshiva at the other end of town when the boys spotted a Black Hawk helicopter circling above, apparently to ensure that no one escapes.”
Getzel, Sholom Mordechai’s son, who had arrived at Agri some time before to assist with the business, relates. “They converged on us from all sides simultaneously. Heavily armed agents immediately surrounded the plant. The scene was reminiscent of a huge, hungry beast attacking its prey.”
At that moment, Getzel was sitting in a meeting with his uncle, Hershy Rubashkin. “We used to conduct meetings every morning with all the department managers,” Getzel explains. “We would go through the records of the day before and settle any problems that had cropped up. On that day, the meeting concluded in good time and I began making my way down the stairs. That’s when I heard the unmistakable whirring of helicopters above the plant. During the past few days, there had been a lot of talk of something big happening, but no one was sure what that would be. Once I heard the helicopters in the skies, I immediately grasped exactly what that something big was.”
Yoshe Zelig Aranoff added, “They entered Sholom Mordechai’s office and began inspecting the mezzuzos on the doorposts. They had to ensure the mezzuzos weren’t actually pipe bombs, they explained.”
Getzel Rubashkin continues: “I quickly ran over to the Rabbis’ Room, a little shul on the premises where the shochtim and mashgichim could daven and learn in their free time. There was also a small kosher cafeteria and a vending machine at the place where food could be purchased. I ran inside and breathlessly told the people there what was going on. Less than two minutes passed before the Rabbis’ Room, located in the farthest corner of the plant, was overrun by agents. The agents ordered the rabbis to retreat to the basement where the workers’ new lunchroom was located. On my way downstairs, I glanced out of the window and saw dozens of armed agents patrolling the building.”
“There is no way they could’ve executed this without assistance from an insider,” Aranof concluded. “They knew exactly where they were going. They knew the precise locations of all the offices and where the workers were supposed to be at that time. They had a blueprint of the entire plant.”
“I was not downstairs with the workers,” says Getzel Rubashkin. “As I later learned, the agents shouted and cursed at the workers, and shoved them around as if they were animals in a cage. They were pretty aggressive with the rabbis as well, though they did display a modicum of grudging respect there.”
Aranoff continues, “The panic that swept through the plant was acute. The place looked like a war zone. They did not differentiate between those who did have the appropriate documents and those who didn’t. Even the shochtim were treated roughly, as if they were a group of gangsters. In fact, they arrested one shochet and one mashgiach on immigration charges. One of them was released the following day after intense lobbying because his wife was ill. The other one was wrongfully arrested – he was in the US legally. He was kept behind bars for a full month, under harsh conditions, and it was only with great difficulty that we managed to have him released.”
“After intense lobbying, he was freed,” continued Getzel, “but he was nevertheless deported to Israel. This was already considered a victory for us because there were others who were imprisoned for six months and then deported.”
Returning to his rendering of that fateful day at the plant, Getzel continued, “After they had rounded up everyone and brought them to the lunchroom, they lined everyone up while several agents went back to search the premises for any hidden suspects. They searched every nook and cranny in the plant, and the fate of anyone who was found hiding was not to be envied. Some did actually manage to escape, but others were caught.”
“Workers concealed themselves in every imaginable hiding place,” Aranoff describes. “Some immigrants hid in boxes. The chaos and fear ended up causing the death of one worker, who hid in the freezer and was then unable to open it from the inside. Men and women alike crawled into pipes and ducts and some remained there for two days straight. They were terrified of what awaited them outside when they finally felt it safe to emerge.”
Getzel resumes his narrative: “After the federal agents were confident that everyone was in the lunchroom, they began dividing the workers into two groups: those who could show they had the right documents, and those who couldn’t. They then began interviewing everyone individually. People were terrified and many women sat on the floor and cried. The entire episode was exceedingly traumatic. I wanted to be of assistance to the workers, but I didn’t know how. I was aware that many of them had no idea that in the US, anyone under arrest must be given access to a lawyer. I didn’t know any Spanish so I approached one of the rabbis and asked him if he knew how to say ‘lawyer’ in Spanish. He replied that the word was abogado. I began making the rounds among the people — for some reason they didn’t stop me — and I attempted to reassure the frightened employees. I advised them, ‘Make sure to demand a lawyer. Don’t let anyone deny you your rights.’ But soon, the agents sent me outside, along with the other people who possessed American documents.”
“On the day following the raid,” Mrs. Rubashkin continues, “several of the agents returned to confiscate additional documents from the plant, and the secretary at the front desk told them, ‘I’m sorry, but you have to sign in.’ They did so with obvious reluctance.
“When they left the plant, the secretary again turned to them, ‘Excuse me, but now you need to sign out.’ One agent in the group retorted angrily, ‘I don’t know if you are aware of this, but we have guns.’
“The secretary, however, was unfazed, and replied firmly, ‘You can have as many guns as you like but you still have to sign out!’”
A total of 389 workers were arrested. The government apparently was expecting a much larger number of illegal immigrants, since in the Cattle Congress, beds were prepared for 700 people. In any case, those who were arrested were threatened that they would be charged with serious criminal offenses if they refused the proffered plea bargain. The plea bargain would indict them for minor offenses and they would receive a maximum of six months in prison.
The Government Comes Down Hard
“My father was not arrested at the time of the raid,” relates Getzel Rubashkin. “When they did, they did it with such a frenzy and display of might that one would be excused for thinking that they had snagged the case of the century. But the fact was that they had nothing to show against my father. My father was forced to sit in his office and watch them cart off truckloads of documents, but then they let him go, because there was no evidence of wrongdoing against him. Several weeks passed before they finally unearthed something to charge him with, and this too, was one charge involving just one individual.”
The facts are undeniable: the federal agents and prosecutors invaded Agriprocessors without possessing any evidence that criminal activity was actually occurring at the plant. They simply needed the raid as an excuse to set a trap for the Rubashkins and confiscate documents from Agriprocessors, with the hope that after examining and scrutinizing all the details of the company’s records, they would hit upon some offense or infraction that could pave the way for the prosecution to demolish the entire company.
The federal government has executed similar raids in large factories and plants in the US before, but nowhere has it been done with such an excessive display of brute force in such an aggressive manner. In addition, charges were always limited to the illegal immigrants and those who assisted them, and nowhere have the owners of the businesses themselves been personally targeted.
In all other cases, the employers were not charged because it was understood that they had no way of knowing that their employees were there illegally. In fact, there were instances where employers did not register the workers, gave them their wages in cash, and never paid taxes for them. Yet, they received minimum sentences compared to the sentence demanded for Rubashkin. Often it was merely probation; other times it was one year in prison and a fine.
In Rubashkin’s case, however, prosecutors decided to make the unsubstantiated presumption that illegal workers at Agri were deliberately and knowingly hired. Their evidence is dubious at best. Just one example: An immigrant testified in court that he had eavesdropped on a conversation between two supervisors in the slaughterhouse who were discussing their plans to hire illegal immigrants. There was only one minor inconsistency with his testimony: One of the supervisors he was talking about was an Israeli Jew, and the other was an Israeli Arab. The two barely knew any English and certainly not any Spanish. They would therefore always communicate in Hebrew, a language that this immigrant had no way of knowing. But this was what he had heard them say.
There were many such dubious methods and injustices used by the prosecution. For instance, the government agents and federal prosecutors announced to the immigrants under arrest that whoever could provide clear proof that a crime was committed against him would not only be set free, but would receive a U Visa, a special visa given to illegal immigrants who were victims of crimes, which allows them to remain in the United States for four years.
Jacob Mondey, an attorney from Texas who came to Postville in order to provide assistance to the illegal immigrants, related how he had visited the Catholic church where many immigrants had come to find shelter following the raid. He spent one day making his rounds among the immigrants and giving them legal advice. When he returned the next day, though, the church threw him out, because when he witnessed the Hispanics being persuaded to claim that they had been victimized in order to be allowed to remain, he protested against the encouragement of using such sinister, underhanded methods. The attorney later reported that he had overheard immigrants being incited against the Jews. It is worthy of note, however, that despite this malicious advice, nearly none of the immigrants came forward to testify that they had been abused.
It is also worthy to note that even as the illegal immigrants were being mistreated by the federal agents, the owners of Agriprocessors always acted as gentlemen, even stretching out their hands to lend assistance to them following the raid. Messengers were sent to the churches to inform the workers where they could go to obtain their outstanding wages, and, in addition, the Rubashkin family donated money and meat to the victims of the government invasion.
In the final analysis, the government did not have anything on the Rubashkins. The immigration charges that were initiated in the first place were eventually thrown out for lack of evidence. Instead, the government constructed a new and completely unrelated case against Rubashkin.
The raid in Postville left Agriprocessors in a state of total chaos. Following the invasion, the shochtim and mashgichim returned to the slaughterhouse to process the meat of the slaughtered cattle before it went to ruin. But with no workers in the plant, the work could not proceed. In desperation, Agri decided to lure workers from different towns. They procured workers from Ohio and Texas, homeless individuals from Texas, Indians from Nebraska, legal immigrants from Palau and Muslim immigrants from Somalia living in the Midwest (refugees from the Somalia civil war who were taken in by the United States).
However, it is possible to replace several workers, but not nearly 400 at once. You can’t replace the experience the previous workers gained throughout their years at the plant. The new employees were unable to produce the required work and Agri soon found itself with a revolving door of workers coming and going, lending the city a new and colorful appearance that changed every few weeks.
The inevitable result was chaos and confusion. Agriprocessors no longer had the human resources needed to continue slaughtering cattle. Sholom Mordechai and his brothers desperately tried to rectify the situation, but the most they managed to show for their efforts was one renewed shift of chicken slaughtering. Despite the tireless efforts, the business was never able to get off the ground again. The federal government had dealt Agri a fatal blow from which they could not recover.
The destruction of Postville’s largest job provider was a harsh economic blow to the region and to the entire town. Agriprocessors was the first domino in the line to fall, and all others in its path began falling, too. The local farmers were the second casualty. Agri had been their only buyer within hundreds of miles and now they no longer had any customers to sell their cattle to.
Postville’s economy was not spared and swiftly went from bad to worse. Many families in the town had lost their entire income. Stores began closing, one after the other, bringing the crisis to a new low. Since many people were not earning money, they weren’t able to pay the rent, and every few days another family was evicted from their home. Dozens of homes around town became empty and remained that way. Real estate owners in Postville were not receiving rent, and consequently were unable to pay their mortgages. Thus began a series of foreclosures and masses of people began leaving the town. The ruin the government had left in its wake was appalling. When the situation reached unbearable proportions, the Postville mayor requested that the governor of Iowa declare the city a “human and economic disaster area.”
And, still, the government refused to ease up on the pressure. The federal agents proceeded to return to the town again and again, confiscating papers and documents, which only served to wreak havoc with Agri’s desperate efforts to get back on its feet.
The federal government spent $12 million of tax-payer money to carry out the raid. The alternative that had been suggested by Agri’s attorneys, in which the company would fully cooperate with the government, would not only have not cost any money, but would have solved the problem and not have decimated the local economy.
The Demolition: A Thoroughly Planned Strategy
People following the saga might assume that the consequences of the raid were an unfortunate result of law enforcement, and the government could not have calculated the consequences of its actions. But the brazen maneuvers of the prosecutors during and following the raid clearly indicate that the downfall of Agriprocessors was completely planned beforehand.
Unfortunately, federal prosecutors and agents were not above utilizing various unscrupulous methods to deter other companies and individuals from doing business with Agriprocessors. Companies who displayed an interest in coming to the Rubashkin’s aid were duly warned that they were playing with fire, because the slaughterhouse was being closely monitored by the federal government and all those in contact with them were liable to come under suspicion as well.
The travails the Rubashkins endured as they were forced to watch the government deliberately destroying the enterprise they had built over the course of many years are indescribable. Mrs. Rubashkin described those arduous days to the court in detail; with the government brandishing a legal sword on the one side, and the sword of economic ruin hovering on the other side, the family nearly suffocated.
Within several weeks of the raid, Agri incurred $15 million in losses. Fighting despair, Sholom Mordechai searched for any way to obtain the financial wherewithal to weather the storm. The government had backed him into a corner, and as his business foundered, he took up one of the few measures still left to him: he turned to the bank that had provided Agriprocessors with a line of credit, and requested a loan. Unfortunately, this is what the government had been waiting for.
As pointed out, the government used the immigration raid as an excuse to confiscate thousands of unrelated documents from Agri. Those documents were thoroughly scrutinized, and among them, the government discovered the contract between “First Bank” (FBBC) and Agri.
The prosecutors began looking into all the details of the contract in order to unearth something that they could use against Agriprocessors. Finally they hit paydirt. One of the agreements of the contract specified that the borrower undertake never to use the bank loans for illegal purposes. Translation? Bank fraud!
If we go on the assumption that Sholom Mordechai knew the employees were there illegally, that would mean that he used the bank’s money for illegal purposes, which is tantamount to swindling the bank of its money!
But could Sholom Mordechai have known if his workers were or weren’t legal? All told, there were 1,000 employees at the plant. Was it realistically possible to have known who was or wasn’t a legal immigrant if every one of them provided the appropriate identification documents? (As has been mentioned, Agriprocessors did not have any “cash employees.” The company paid taxes on all its workers.)
Sholom Mordechai’s attorneys filed a request with Judge Reade, asking that the trial on the immigration charges be conducted first, in order to allow the defendant to prove his innocence on those charges, which would make the charges of bank fraud entirely superfluous.
However, as mentioned above, the government retracted the immigration charges, a move which denied Sholom Mordechai the chance to clear himself. As a consequence, during the trial, prosecutors were able to continuously harp on the fact that the defendant had knowingly employed illegal immigrants, despite the fact that he had never been charged with that offense!
$10 Million Becomes $20 Million
Another charge leveled against Rubashkin was that Agriprocessors exaggerated the worth of the money owed to them from outside sources in order to assure the bank that they would eventually have the means to repay the loans, thereby causing the bank a loss of $26 million.
Sholom Mordechai categorically denies the bank fraud charges. From the gloom of his jailhouse, he points out to the interviewers that the bank had access to all of Agriprocessors financial records and reviewed all the expenses and profits of the slaughterhouse. Before confirming a loan for Agri, the bank carefully analyzed their finances and knew exactly what was going on at the company, and yet they were willing to loan the money to Rubashkin! Agriprocessors had always made timely payments to the bank in the course of the many years they had dealt with them, and the loans which the company took out, eventually — within several years in fact — left the bank $21 million richer.
Getzel Rubashkin points out that the bank confirmed a $35 million line of credit for Agriprocessors, and Agri had never even taken out the maximum loan allowed from the bank. Accordingly, it is highly unreasonable to claim that Agri swindled money from the bank when they never took a penny more than the bank was willing to give them!
What’s more, even according to the government’s accusations, Sholom Mordechai exaggerated the worth of his receivables by a maximum of $10 million. So we still remain with the puzzle of why the defendant was charged with a swindle involving $26 million.
The attorneys of Sholom Mordechai have further questions about the faulty case the prosecutors constructed against their client. The bank received four million dollars in interest on the ten million dollars during the years that the loan was in Agri hands. Why isn’t the four million dollars being subtracted? And, furthermore, if Sholom Mordechai had indeed fabricated ten million dollars in receivables, it follows that the loan he received from the bank amounted to a total of $8.5 million, because bank policy dictates that loans only consist of 85% of the client’s receivables. So the whole sum in question doesn’t even amount to ten million dollars.
Deliberate Destruction of Agriprocessors
The travesty, however, is far greater than this. The foundation of the charges rests on the allegations that Sholom Mordechai caused the bank $26 million in losses due to his irresponsible actions.
For years and years, Rubashkin faithfully paid his debts to the bank, and FBBC earned millions of dollars from the company. That was until… the government arrived and sucked the financial breath out of it with a raid that was unprecedented and legally never substantiated.
As mentioned, the raid on Agriprocessors left the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the country in a state of unmitigated chaos. For several torturous weeks, Sholom Mordechai attempted to get the company back on its feet, but it proved impossible. The devastation was too great for him to patch things back together again.
When Sholom Mordechai came to the point where he began searching for a customer to purchase the family business, the prosecutors once again interfered. As has been clearly documented, they warned several prospective buyers that if they were they to buy the business, they would be charged with being a front for the continuation of Rubashkin’s criminal activities, and the “forfeiture procedure” would be utilized to confiscate all their property. Several buyers had already been seriously contemplating the purchase, but the prosecutors effectively discouraged all of them. This continued until the company’s assets were valued at mere pennies on the dollar.
The government went one step further by proclaiming a “forfeiture order” on all the properties and business-related possessions of the Rubashkins. The government literally ordered all of Sholom Mordechai’s possessions confiscated.
This was a decision that should have shaken the entire country, but, unfortunately, that never happened. The government routinely confiscates the possessions of underworld gangsters who make their fortunes dealing in drugs, murder, extortion, etc. In this case, however, this was a legitimate family business that had been built with sweat and toil.
In the memorandum the prosecutors filed in court justifying their request for a life sentence, they attempted to draw a picture of Agriprocessors as an inconsequential company of no inherent worth. It was allegedly no more than a huge front for a criminal enterprise, the proof being that no one was willing to purchase the plant.
The absurdity of this claim speaks for itself. Not only was Agriprocessors a legitimate business that provided kosher meat to Jews all over the country that was valued in the millions of dollars, but there were actually a number of buyers that wanted to purchase the plant, and were only scared off by the underhanded tactics of the government.
It is important to note that the bank itself never accused Sholom Mordechai of theft. It merely filed a civil suit against Rubashkin, demanding $21 million — not the $26 million the prosecutors claimed — after the bank closed the line of credit for Agri and demanded the money be paid up in full immediately. Obviously, Sholom Mordechai, in his dire circumstances, had no way of meeting such a demand. Still, the bank never claimed that he defrauded them, because they did not believe that he did.
Adam Zenor, one of Sholom Mordechai’s attorneys, told Zman that the team of attorneys argued in court that what had occurred in this case was a simple breach of contract, a conflict between the bank and Rubashkin wherein the government has no business getting involved. So the question remains, how did a run of the mill clash between a bank and its client evolve into a criminal charge that warranted a life sentence?
Even if we were to accept that Sholom Mordechai was responsible for defrauding the bank of $26 million, the sentence the prosecutors are demanding is way above and beyond anything that the legal system has ever seen. In a letter written by six former attorneys general and prosecutors, addressed to the presiding judge, they accurately referred to the story of “Mark Turkcan, the president of First Bank Mortgage of St. Louis, who misapplied $35 million in loans, resulting in a loss of approximately $25 million. Turkcan was recently sentenced by a federal judge in Missouri to one year and one day in prison.”
Attorney Zenor shared his shock and horror with us that there is even talk of a life sentence for a man accused of such infractions. He told Zman about a case he was involved in just three months prior, where the defendant had fatally stabbed someone with a knife in the course of an altercation. The murderer got five years behind bars.
It wasn’t enough for the prosecutors to press charges. They also ensured that Sholom Mordechai would be left without any resources to defend himself. The Rubashkins owned their own hatchery. It was located at the outskirts of Postville and saved Agriprocessors the expense of importing chickens from far-away hatcheries.
The receiver, who was appointed to manage Agriprocessors after its bankruptcy, would have been able to buy chickens from Rubashkin’s hatcheries. However, the receiver was warned by the government to make no deals with Sholom Mordechai. Instead, he was forced to buy from hatcheries miles away, spending large amounts on the delivery. As a result, Sholom Mordechai was unable to make payments to the bank and the bank confiscated his hatchery, too.
Financial experts maintain that at that point, Agriprocessors would still have been able to sell for a reasonable amount, enough to cover the bank debts. The receiver, however, poured large amounts of money down the drain because of several foolish and wasteful decisions. For example, he took $11 million worth of meat from the inventory and sold it for pennies on the pound (the market was overflowing with cheap meat at that time due to this decision). A lot of inventory was simply thrown away.
The result was that Rubashkin was left with absolutely no means to defend himself. In fact, askanim involved with Sholom Mordechai’s case attempted to retain high profile lawyers for his defense. Unfortunately, that would have run into an expense of millions of dollars, and there was no way he could afford that.
Sholom Mordechai’s eldest daughter, living in New York, tried desperately to raise money for her father’s case. She sent her little children to a babysitter, and personally went from door to door, pleading for contributions to help her father.
Lately, Baruch Hashem, Jews from all over have begun to respond to the pleas, and are now mispallel for Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka, and are donating to the cause. Jews all over need to continue their efforts until the desired results are achieved and a family of ten children gets their father back.
Five-and-a-half months passed after the raid on Agriprocessors when the justice system suddenly sprang to life again. It was on October 30, 2008 (Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan), when federal agents converged upon the Rubashkin household in Postville.
In the preceding days, attorneys for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin tried to reach an agreement with the prosecutors, but to no avail. The attorneys for the defense wanted to have Sholom Mordechai turn himself in, as was done in similar cases. The prosecution adamantly refused to consider it, despite the fact that the defendant was non-violent and without any criminal record.
At 7:30 AM, loud knocks were heard on the door. One of the Rubashkin children opened the door a crack. The agents then pushed the door open and burst in. They immediately advanced toward Sholom Mordechai, read him his rights, and slapped cuffs on his hands and ankles. They then led him outside.
As this happened early in the morning, the Rubashkin children were all present to witness the traumatic scene. They all were sobbing and crying as their father was dragged out of the house. The father himself felt tears rising, but held them in check.
Fortunately, his stay in jail was very short. After several hours his lawyers managed to get him out on bail.
The federal government expended great effort to prop up the immigration charges. They had a hard time finding concrete evidence for their claims. It would, after all, be a huge embarrassment to be unable to produce evidence after the whole hullabaloo. After a while, however, the prosecution pushed the immigration charges to the back burner and changed tactics. They managed to turn the charges into a “bank fraud” case.
Several weeks later, on November 14, 2008 (erev Shabbos, Va’eira), there were more violent knocks at the door. The Rubashkin family was in midst of preparations for Shabbos which included the usual large amount of guests. One of their daughters opened the door.
Mrs. Rubashkin saw the agents and thought to herself, “What now?”
The agents informed Mrs. Rubashkin that they had come to arrest her husband again, now on different charges. One agent apologized, “We’re sorry we came so early, but we know it’s Friday and you have the Sabbath coming and we want to get through all this before the Sabbath starts.”
Mrs. Rubashkin tried to calm herself, “Okay, it’s going to be the same thing as last time. We’ll go through the whole unpleasant debacle and then he will come home for Shabbos.” Sholom Mordechai was again led away in handcuffs, while his children sobbed bitterly in the background.
Mrs. Rubashkin quickly oriented herself and finished up the most important tasks for Shabbos. Shortly after, she drove to the courthouse in Cedar Rapids, a journey of two-and-a-half hours.
The Raid on the Rubashkin Residence
Sholom Mordechai was in a car on the way to Cedar Rapids when the car suddenly stopped. He was transferred to a different car which continued to the courthouse. The first car then made a u-turn and headed back to the Rubashkin home.
Mrs. Rubashkin was on the road at that time and only the children were home, the oldest being 18-year-old Mushka. The children had not yet recovered from their trauma when the door burst open and agents marched in for the second time that day. (It is possible the agents were expecting an empty house, assuming that the entire family had followed their father.)
The table was all set for Shabbos and the house was spick-and-span. The agents burst in like a whirlwind, ransacking the entire house. They emptied every drawer, dumping its contents on the ground. They confiscated every piece of paper with any sort of writing on it. The smaller children began wailing again.
The agents were there on a specific mission. The prosecution was preparing to request that Sholom Mordechai not be released on bail. The agents were searching for any type of evidence that would validate denial of bail.
While they were wrecking the house, Mushka called her mother, who was then in the courthouse, and hysterically told her about this new invasion.
“We were in the courthouse” Mrs. Rubashkin later recalled. “They were processing Sholom Mordechai, and the judge declared that he wasn’t going home for Shabbos. He had to stay there. With painful disappointment we began to make plans for Shabbos and what my husband would eat, when suddenly I got a phone call that agents were ransacking the house!”
The agents kept on searching until they found “The Bag.” The story of the bag is tragicomic and still brings up a mixed reaction by the Rubashkin family. The accusation was ludicrous but the results were incredibly painful.
When the Zman correspondent visited the Rubashkin family, 12-year-old Mendel recounted the episode. “Do you want to see the ‘The Bag’?” he asked, and immediately went to bring it.
Our journalist waited as visions of a sturdy black attaché case with secret compartments flitted through his mind. Mendel came back and showed him—an ordinary tote bag. It was recently bought for the purpose of holding snacks for trips.
Mrs. Rubashkin recounted, “It wasn’t hidden in the loft. It was sitting in a regular clothing closet. It contained the children’s passports, several important documents, and some cash—far less than the $10,000 falsely reported. I put it all in the bag and hid it somewhat because Moishy (the Rubashkins 16-year-old autistic son) is a very curious child. He always opens every package he finds and rips open every envelope. We always kept all important documents together in one place. The week before the raid, Moishy discovered the hiding place and began rummaging there. I therefore placed everything in one bag, and hid it in a closet to keep it out of Moishy’s reach. And this is what they declared to be an escape bag!”
What makes that accusation so ludicrous is that the parents’ passports were already confiscated after Sholom Mordechai’s first arrest. How could it be assumed that the defendant was planning to escape without his passport in his possession, having only those of his children?
Furthermore, the agents did not deem it important to even take the bag with them as evidence! They just left it lying in place. But the next injustice—that made the bag incident pale in comparison—was perpetrated by the prosecutors who asked the judge not to allow Sholom Mordechai out on bail, for no more and no less than the fact that … he was a Jew!
That’s right. The federal prosecutors stood up in court and argued that he cannot be allowed out on bail since he is a Jew and the government in Israel offers citizenship to any Jew in the world, making it easy for Sholom Mordechai to flee America.
When the prosecution argued against posting Rubashkin’s bail, their catchword was “de-facto citizen.” Despite the fact that Sholom Mordechai was born in America and held only American citizenship his entire life, here he was considered—to his detriment—an Israeli citizen.
Factually, Sholom Mordechai had already proven that he had no interest in fleeing. Several months before, while he was already under investigation, he made a trip to Canada. His business was on shaky grounds and he was trying to arrange a loan there. He knew full well that trouble was brewing back home, but, nevertheless, he did not attempt an escape. He chose to come back and fight the charges.
Jewish organizations like the OU and Agudath Israel were very upset by these accusations, which create a dangerous precedent that may be used against other Jews. Any Jew who stands accused of any crime in the future may find his right to be let out on bail withheld because of the same argument: he may find refuge in Israel.
The greatest shock of all came when the federal judge accepted the prosecutors’ arguments and Sholom Mordechai, a father of 10 children, was condemned to spend months in jail with no visitation from his wife and children, pending the outcome of his trial.
When Mrs. Rubashkin returned home, she tried to pick up the pieces of her devastated house, and welcome the Shabbos by herself. Meanwhile, her husband was thrown into a dingy cell, 90 miles away from home and family.
What happened afterwards is well known. Sholom Mordechai spent 76 days in jail before a judge overturned the bail ruling; the de-facto citizen argument was dismissed as it discriminates against every Jew. Mr. Rubashkin had to post a half-million dollars in bail, in addition to handing over his birth certificate and his children’s passports.
In the coming months, Sholom Mordechai made every effort to ensure that the terms of his bail were upheld. This included difficult conditions like not conversing with a broad range of people who were involved in Agriprocessors, many of whom he considered close personal friends. It hurt him to ignore his friends in this manner. He didn’t even renew his driver’s license after it expired.
He felt the need to show utmost cooperation so that there would be no trace of suspicion about his intentions. At one point, the bracelet he needed to wear around his ankle broke. Sholom Mordechai immediately called his probation officer to inform her of this, as she herself later testified in court.
To his extreme disappointment, all his efforts were for naught. Ten months later, Sholom Mordechai went through a court process which was skewed and biased against him from the very beginning. The judge then ruled again in the prosecutors’ favor that the defendant was to be considered a flight risk. The reasons were the same as before, plus two factors added in: that the defendant was found guilty and he probably had a very long sentence ahead of him.
It needs to be noted that, legally, one cannot be punished by the justice system until sentenced by court of law. The prosecutors, therefore, requested Sholom Mordechai’s “detention,” a euphemism for his imprisonment.
Only in rare cases is the defendant jailed before sentencing. The prosecutors need to bring clear proof that the defendant is either a threat to society, e.g. a serial murderer, or a flight risk. As it happens, the majority of criminals, even murderers and others convicted of violent crime, are released on bail. In the case of white collar crime, detainment without bail is almost unheard of.
Comparing this case to that of Bernie Madoff’s is mind-boggling. Madoff, who deliberately and maliciously tricked thousands of individuals and charitable organizations out of their hard-earned funds, was released on bail. Sholom Mordechai, who never planned to steal a penny, was refused bail twice. This is but one example of the injustice this particular Jew was singled out for.
Bitachon in all Circumstances
The journalist from Zman magazine met with Sholom Mordechai in a conference room across the hall from the cell he now inhabits. Sholom Mordechai utilized the few minutes of waiting time to learn from the Sefer Chovos Halevovos.
This man was in solitary confinement, did not talk to a single living soul the entire day, and must surely have felt great excitement at the prospect of having a visitor – and, yet, here he was focusing intensely on the sefer as if there was nothing else going on in his universe. (For the record, Sholom Mordechai has asked many visitors to spend their time with him learning Gemara, Mishnayos or other sefarim.)
Sholom Mordechai is only allowed 10 books in his prison cell. When he realized his family had sent him a Chovos Halevovos, among other sefarim, he was overjoyed. He had been worried about his spiritual survival in the insidious prison atmosphere. A firm resolution to learn the Shaar HaBitachon of the Chovos Halevovos helped him keep his bitachon going strong. As Sholom Mordechai remarked, “The Chovos Halevovos saved me; it helped me be strong and not fall into a depression over my situation here in prison.”
Our reporter was caught by surprise when the guard leading him into the conference room turned to him suddenly and said, “We know exactly when you arrived. You came to Cedar Rapids yesterday at 11:30 PM.”
“How did you know that?” he asked, shocked.
“What do you think? We’re keeping an eye on you!”
As the journalist stood there in consternation, wondering whether the government had decided to hold every visitor to Sholom Mordechai under observation, the guard suddenly broke out in a smile. “Don’t worry. I just happened to be on your flight and was wondering why an obviously Orthodox Jew was traveling to Cedar Rapids. I surmised that you must be coming to visit Rubashkin.”
The conversation was overheard by Sholom Mordechai who remarked, “This guard is the only one who treats me decently. He always tells me that he’s only here to do his job, and has no interest in making my life harder than it is already.”
The other guards, it seems, are not as sympathetic. But they admit that Sholom Mordechai is unique — and not only because he is an observant Jew. He is a model prisoner who keeps mainly to himself and avoids confrontations. The only times he will voice any complaint is when his religious rights have been infringed upon.
Rubashkin apologetically informed his visitor that his visit would need to be cut short at eight o’clock sharp. Despite the immense pleasure he takes in every minute spent with another Jew, he explained that he would not forfeit the eight o’clock telephone shiur he has with his kids every night.
One of the very few privileges Sholom Mordechai has been given at his present location is having a telephone in his cell. He can make a specified amount of calls a week, each call lasting not more than ten minutes. He uses these precious few moments to carry out his fatherly duties so that his children will feel a father’s love even from afar.
What does Rubashkin do in his long, lonely days? How does he keep himself from going out of his mind? He reports that he has placed himself completely in the hands of Hashem, and spends his time learning Torah and davening. In his spare time, he looks through his legal papers, attempting to work on his defense.
Sholom Mordechai and his wife, children, parents and siblings maintain an extraordinary optimism in the face of all the tribulations. They are averse to discussing what will happen when he will be sentenced, for they hope that will not occur.
Getzel Rubashkin, son of Sholom Mordechai, related that his father has wishes to fulfill his longtime desire to become a maggid shiur in a yeshiva. As mentioned above, he had no interest in the world of commerce and only took over the business at his father’s bidding.
Rubashkin discussed the Supreme Court appeal. Defense counsel filed an appeal to the Supreme Court over the refusal to allow bail on the grounds of his religion. Pinchas Lipshutz, editor of the Yated, recounted his conversation with the defendant, which took place on a Friday after the appeal was submitted: “Rabbi Lipshutz, I am all packed up and ready to go home and celebrate Shabbos with my family.”
When Sholom Mordechai was informed that the appeal had been rejected without reason (which was a strong probability) he reacted with the same good cheer he has consistently shown. He told his wife, “If I would be freed until the sentencing, people might have taken the situation with less seriousness and discontinued their intense prayers and contributions. It is all a gift from Hashem.”
In that same conversation, Sholom Mordechai expressed his joy at the zechus he has in uniting his fellow Jews from every community through their efforts on his behalf.
Mesiras Nefesh for Yiddishkeit
Many have wondered about the solitary confinement Sholom Mordechai has been subjected to. It is necessary to go back to the beginning of his imprisonment in order to understand his present situation.
Sholom Mordechai put in great effort to be able to daven each morning with his tallis and tefillin. Through the efforts expended by the Alef organization, whose goal is to ensure the welfare of all Jewish prisoners, Sholom Mordechai was given his tallis and tefillin each morning for one hour.
Rubashkin would sometimes daven with such intensity that he lost track of time. The guards meticulously kept to the one hour-rule and would remove his tallis and tefillin while he was only halfway through davening. Sholom Mordechai begged the guards to give him notice 15 minutes before his time was up, so he would know to hurry along. After a while, they acceded to his request.
There were different “problems” caused by this Jew that “inconvenienced” the prison staff. The prisoners were served breakfast at 6:00 AM every morning. However, Sholom Mordechai was unable to daven before sunrise, which in the winter was often after seven o’clock. As per halachah, he was unable to eat before davening. He also needed to be taken to a different room to be able to pray undisturbed.
A solution was found to this “problematic” situation. The warden placed the Jewish inmate in a private room, about the size of a walk-in closet, where he was to remain for 24 hours daily. This way he could keep his own schedule, praying and eating whenever he wanted. He wasn’t allowed to leave even to get some fresh air. He also wasn’t provided with a pillow to rest his head.
The guards do an hourly patrol down the corridors, opening the doors to each cell and looking in. This gave our correspondent in the conference room an opportunity to peek into Sholom Mordechai’s cell across the hall. He expressed his shock at the conditions of his room, but Sholom Mordechai waved away his concerns with his typical optimism. He pointed out that the curtain could be hung around the bathroom, so he could at least daven there.
It should be noted that he doesn’t wash netilas yedayim with the water from the bathroom sink. Instead he uses water from the meager water rations he is given with each meal.
Blaming the Victim
This arrangement worked for some time. Despite his discomfort, Sholom Mordechai was happy that he wasn’t being disturbed from practicing his religious beliefs. It all changed one morning, on a Friday when another prisoner was thrown into his tiny cell.
The new cellmate immediately began complaining to his fellow inmate, “I have no idea why I was sent here. Everyone kept on bothering me and I complained to the prison management. And instead of taking all those nuisances out of my cell, they took me out and placed me in here! What kind of injustice is this?”
Sholom Mordechai began suspecting who the real troublemaker was. As if to confirm his thoughts, the inmate continued his story. “These people will be punished because I wrote letters to politicians, including Iowan assemblymen, and they wrote back that I should speak to a lawyer. You see? They wrote back to me!” By now it was pretty clear that this individual was missing a few screws.
Sholom Mordechai expressed his sympathy by nodding his head, and otherwise tried to steer clear of him. The next day, on Shabbos, Sholom Mordechai arose early in order to say tehillim while his cellmate was snoring loudly. He completed the whole Sefer Tehillim with heartfelt kavanah.
In the midst of his recital, the non-Jewish inmate woke up and began cursing loudly. Sholom Mordechai pleaded with him to calm down. “What’s your problem? You can watch TV here and I won’t interfere. In other cells there are constant fights regarding which channel to view. Here I’ll give you complete control of the TV. Just please let me practice my religion in peace.”
Sunday morning found the guy even more irate. He complained that he had no one to play cards with, and that the Jewish prisoner prayed too much, wore a tallis, swayed while praying, washed netilas yedayim, and on and on.
Then he turned openly hostile. “I hate Jews!” he called out to Sholom Mordechai. “You should know that people get hurt in jail. People die.” This not very concealed threat threw Sholom Mordechai into a panic. He called Rabbi Lipshutz and told him, “ If I, chas v’sholom, die in jail, you should know how it happened. Remember, no matter what they say, it wasn’t suicide. It was outright murder!”
The fellow came up with a new plan to torture his cellmate. He turned the TV on full volume to disturb the Jewish inmate from his prayers. Sholom Mordechai knew it would be futile to argue with him, so he kept quiet. He only hoped the guards would intervene, as they always did when an inmate turned the volume on too high. But for some odd reason, nobody came to investigate.
When the inmate went out to take a shower, Rubashkin used the opportunity to lower the volume, and then continued davening. Unfortunately, the inmate soon came back and flew into a rage over that action. He accosted his helpless cellmate and threw him on the floor. The Jewish prisoner did not return the blows for two reasons. Firstly, because he is a Jew, and secondly, because prison regulations dictate punishment for anyone involved in a brawl, no matter who started it.
Instead, Sholom Mordechai simply pointed to the video camera on the wall and said, “Calm down. You know everything gets recorded here. You don’t want to get solitary confinement, do you?” Eventually, the furious inmate let go of him.
Several days later, however, the emotionally disturbed prisoner again became enraged to see his cellmate davening. When he started to beat him, Sholom Mordechai instinctively picked up his hands to protect himself from his assailant.
This was the precise moment a certain someone was waiting for—it is unclear who exactly. Someone had obviously been observing them from outside, and the guards came rushing into the cell. “He hit me!” the non-Jewish inmate yelled. “What did you say?” Sholom Mordechai asked incredulously. “Review the video tape and you’ll see who hit whom!”
Much to the relief of Rubashkin, the guards removed the mentally ill prisoner. It was only several hours later, when Sholom Mordechai was on a conference call with his lawyers, that a guard walked in with a cynical smile on his face. “You were involved in a fight, weren’t you? You’re going to solitary confinement. ” Rubashkin protested vehemently and proclaimed his innocence, but the guard cut him short. “Here you go into the ‘hole’ first, and then you make excuses.”
The “hole” is the worst holding place the prison has to offer. It is exceedingly small, and prisoners placed there are stripped of the few privileges they had before. It wasn’t so hard for Sholom Mordechai to get used to being alone; after all, he was by himself in his former room until the other inmate arrived. The lack of a TV was also no issue for him.
He did have difficulty with the fact that he wasn’t allowed to have his tallis and tefillin. Neither was he allowed to have any of his sefarim, which pained him deeply. He sat there, trying to learn by heart, or just talk to his Creator, but the wild shrieks emanating from the other cells distracted him.
Sholom Mordechai tried to fight this injustice by writing protest letters to the prison management. Fortunately, he wasn’t aware of how this incident was being portrayed in the media, for that would have broken him even more.
“Rubashkin in Jail Scuffle Over TV Volume” one headline declared. A different media source proclaimed, “Sheriff: Rubashkin Involved in Fight with Another Inmate.” The consensus of all media reports was: Rubashkin was behaving just like any other common criminal in prison. This was but another attempt to blacken the name of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin.
For nearly a week, Sholom Mordechai sat in solitary confinement. On Friday just before the onset of Shabbos, a guard suddenly appeared and ordered, “Get out. You are being called in for an interview.”
Sholom Mordechai told the guard that Shabbos was coming in five minutes and he would prefer not to go now.
“You better come if you know what’s good for you,” the guard replied curtly.
Sholom Mordechai was led to a different wing of the prison. A high ranking lieutenant was sitting at the table, a grave expression on his face. Before him lay a pile of papers, including the letter Sholom Mordechai had sent.
The lieutenant asked the Jewish inmate to recount the episode that had occurred. Sholom Mordechai proceeded to describe everything he had been forced to endure from his cellmate and concluded that he was certain the video cameras would confirm his version of the story.
“You are actually right,” the lieutenant informed him. “We have reviewed the surveillance cameras and found no sign of any physical violence on your part. But since you never reported that you were being threatened and physically assaulted, you have only yourself to blame for your days in solitary confinement.”
The prison authorities shamelessly dodged their responsibilities by placing the blame squarely on Rubashkin, ignoring the fact that he had actually lodged several complaints about the abuse.
When Sholom Mordechai returned to his cell, he found the place in a state of chaos. While he had been outside, the guards had entered his cell and conducted a thorough search. His papers were strewn across the floor and many of his defense documents had disappeared. When Sholom Mordechai lodged a protest against this treatment, the response was, “You had too many papers.”
No Way to Keep Track of Time
Many people wonder why Sholom Mordechai is incarcerated in such a jailhouse under such difficult conditions. The answer is quite simple: the jailhouse was not constructed to serve the needs of long-term prisoners. It is a prison where people are held for, on average, several days, and a maximum of several weeks, until their families are able to come up with the required bail to get them released.
In fact, that is the reason why county jails in general are considered the worst jails in the country. Since they are built for short-term prisoners, they do not supply the inmates with more than the bare minimum. In the US, that defines the difference between a jail and a prison. A jail is, in general, a place where people are held for the short term, and a prison is meant for prisoners who are serving long sentences.
The Linn County Jail is a tall building, seven stories high with several small cells where the prisoners are held all day without getting any fresh air at all. The closest the inmates get to seeing the outside world is through small windows built high into the walls. The only view they can get is of the sky above them. The building is not surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, since the prisoners are never allowed outside anyway, except for when they are being led to trial and are accompanied by an armed sheriff. The only outward signs that this building houses a prison are the many tiny windows on every floor.
There is, however, one advantage that comes with the fact that this jail is geared for temporary incarceration. Every cell is provided with a telephone in order to enable the prisoners to be in contact with their attorneys to arrange for their bail etc., a rare privilege in regular long-term prisons.
The telephone is literally a miracle for Sholom Mordechai. There are several hours in the day when prisoners are allowed to make phone calls. Sholom Mordechai utilizes those hours well, calling and speaking with his family at length, since he can only meet them personally with great difficulty, and telephoning his chavrusa for their daily learning sessions. For a while, his chavrusa was Rabbi Pinchas Lipshutz, the editor of the Yated Ne’eman, and they learned Chovos Halevovos together. How ironic that such difficult circumstances have led to such an unusual arrangement. A Lubavitch Chassid and a staunch Litvak befriended each other and proceeded to have a daily shiur together, a shiur that is peppered with Sholom Mordechai’s beautiful, Chassidic explanations and Rabbi Lipshutz’s yeshivishe mussar thoughts.
The telephone also allows Sholom Mordechai to be in contact with his attorneys. One of the motivations behind the prosecutors’ aggressive insistence that Sholom Mordechai remain imprisoned even before he is sentenced was their determination to keep the defendant from being able to form an effective defense against the accusations, something that is indeed difficult to execute from behind prison bars. The telephone, at least, enables R’ Sholom Mordechai to make minimal contact with his lawyers.
The first question Sholom Mordechai asks when he makes a phone call from his cell is, “What time is it?”
He has no way to keep track of time, since the only way prisoners are able to know the time is by turning on their televisions, something that Sholom Mordechai refuses to do under any circumstances. Therefore, he sits in his darkened cell all day, not knowing how fast or how slowly the hours are passing.
In this harsh jailhouse, the television is the only distraction the prisoners have. There is constant bickering among the inmates over which channels to watch. To Sholom Mordechai’s good fortune, he steers clear from all secular entertainment. Merely being religious by affiliation would certainly not have been enough for anyone who finds himself in such formidable circumstances. However, one who has sufficiently cultivated his bitachon is encouraged and strengthened, and of course he has his Torah learning which keeps his spirits up despite his constant travails.
Lobbying to be Released for Pesach
Sholom Mordechai’s challenges at the prison are many. For the first two weeks of his arrest, he literally starved, since he was not provided with kosher food. Intense lobbying was necessary before the authorities finally acceded to requests to allow his family to bring him his meager, unheated, kosher meals.
He has not had a haircut since his arrival at the prison six months ago, and the length of his hair is not merely unpleasant for him, but emotionally painful as well, because he is worried about the hair being considered a chatzitza when he wears his tefillin. He has repeatedly requested that the barber give him a haircut, and his request was finally granted… on Shabbos.
Before Pesach, Sholom Mordechai begged the authorities to arrange that he get a haircut before the holiday. For some reason, the response was again late in coming, until he was finally offered his haircut… on erev Pesach after chatzos when he was no longer permitted to cut his hair, and after Pesach comes sefira.
Sholom Mordechai’s original plan was to get his haircut in his home in Postville. Several weeks prior to Pesach, activists and attorneys began laboring to have him released for, at the very least, the first two days of the Yom Tov, a request that seemed so reasonable that Sholom Mordechai was very hopeful about it, especially since he wasn’t even officially supposed to be in jail since he had not been sentenced yet. As it happens, even inmates who had already been sentenced were occasionally let out to take part in family celebrations. This was not an outlandish request. One prisoner had in fact been allowed to leave to watch a ballgame together with his son.
Sholom Mordechai’s lawyers filed a request with the judge that he be allowed to join his family for Pesach on religious and humanitarian grounds. The attorneys explained in the document that as a religious Jew, the prisoner had an obligation on this holiday of vehigad’ta levincha, that he must be with his children and teach them about the holiday.
When Sholom Mordechai was unjustly incarcerated in the Linn County Jail, following the jury’s guilty verdict in December, his attorneys appealed to the judge to have the defendant released on bail. They offered to post the sum of eight million dollars, an unprecedented amount. As many as 43 homeowners were willing to offer their houses in Iowa and New York toward bail so that Sholom Mordechai would be released until his trial. In addition, the family offered to hire an armed, 24 hour guard at their own expense, as well as arrange for electrical surveillance to ensure that Sholom Mordechai did not flee. Despite the strict and unusual conditions the family was willing to undertake to get their father and husband home, the judge refused to release the prisoner on bail.
Weeks before Pesach, the attorneys offered to have their client commit himself to various difficult conditions in order to allow him to go home for the first two days of the holiday. But inexplicably, the judge again refused the request.
His attorneys appealed the ruling once and then again and then a third time, but to the deep disappointment of Sholom Mordechai’s good friends and supporters, every single court refused to accede to this very reasonable demand,.
The One who Came to Give Encouragement Receives it Himself
It was eight o’clock in the evening when our Zman reporter began wrapping up the conversation with Sholom Mordechai, as had been planned from before, in order to allow him to return to his cell where he would call home and learn with his children.
As the interviewer testifies, it was very difficult to say farewell to this special Jew, whose travails in prison have not broken his spirit. Quite the contrary, it has brought him to greater and deeper levels in emunah and bitachon. Indeed, Sholom Mordechai’s visitors pointed out to him at the conclusion of their conversation that the Ba’al Hatanya once remarked that he had achieved most of his spiritual levels while sitting in a prison cell.
Before being led out of the conference room, our reporter took up the courage to direct one last question at Sholom Mordechai. How does he feel being so isolated and far apart from his family? It was probably the first time during the entire conversation that an expression of profound grief inched its way onto Sholom Mordechai’s face.
“What should I tell you?” he said after a short while. “There are no words to describe it. I do not wish the suffering I am going through on any other human being in the world.”
They had come to the Linn County Jail with the goal of encouraging and strengthening the Jewish inmate, but instead they left with the encouragement he had given them. R’ Sholom Mordechai was singled out and persecuted. His business was closed down, all his possessions were confiscated, and now his freedom is a distant memory. He is being accused in two separate courts on dozens of senseless charges. But there is one thing no one can rob him of: his unshakeable faith in Hashem.
Sholom Mordechai’s visitors attempted to comfort him and relay their sincerest prayers that he be released very soon, and find relief from his continuous suffering. But eventually, Sholom Mordechai himself offered them words of comfort, and encouraged them with his steadfast faith and unfailing belief that Hashem would rescue him.
Sholom Mordechai told his visitors, as an aside, that the prosecutors had offered him a plea bargain of 15 years in prison, which he unhesitatingly rejected, because he didn’t believe he deserved such an extreme sentence for crimes he never committed. He simply placed his hopes in Hashem. He would enable him to successfully fight the unjust charges against him.
When his interviewers expressed surprise at Sholom Mordechai’s unbelievable courage in the face of such trying circumstances, he replied with a story. A well-known Lubavitch mashpia, Rav Mendel Futerfas, z”l, endured 20 years of indescribable torment in the Siberian gulags of the Soviet Union because he was caught committing the “crime” of establishing secret yeshivas to learn Torah with the children despite the dangers involved. Despite the terrible conditions in the Soviet gulag, he was always in a pleasant mood.
R’ Mendel was respected among his fellow prisoners for his obviously deep religious commitment, and many of them would come to seek his advice whenever they encountered any problems. Once, when the prisoners were gathered together, they all turned to him and begged him to reveal the secret of how he always maintained such a pleasant disposition. Like all Jews, R’ Mendel countered their question with a question of his own, asking them why they were always so sad. Stunned that they even had to explain themselves, the inmates’ stories of suffering came pouring out. Many of them related that they had been prominent lawyers, professors and politicians in Moscow before Stalin determined that they posed a danger to the regime, and they were promptly exiled to the wastelands of Siberia. Now, nothing remained of their former careers of glory and luxury.
R’ Mendel listened to their tragic sagas and then replied, “You see? You are broken because you once had prominent careers in Moscow that are now no longer. I am happy because in Moscow I was a Jew and here I am a Jew!”
Loaded with chizuk and hope, the visitors left the jailhouse, got into their car and headed toward Postville, Iowa, where they planned to spend the coming Shabbos.
The Shabbos in Postville turned out to be an incredible experience, something one doesn’t experience on a weekly basis. There, in that small Jewish enclave separated by hundreds of miles from the nearest Jewish community, they witnessed a unique way of living, an unusual friendliness and unity between all Jews who come from all ends of the religious spectrum.
Throughout that weekend, on Friday, Shabbos and Sunday, our Zman reporter traversed the length and breadth of the small town, interviewing many of the people he met in the streets. He spoke to them about Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and Postville, and how the situation in Postville was affected since Sholom Mordechai was arrested. (Unfortunately, the situation is dire, and the community survives on miracles, as will be explained in a later issue, b’ezrasHashem.) To his amazement, he learned that despite having spent several hours in conversation with Sholom Mordechai, he had barely begun to probe the depths of who this extraordinary person was.
The stories told about him, by Jews and non-Jews alike, are incredible. It emerged that Sholom Mordechai, beside being a fervently frum Jew, also possessed a heart of pure gold, and his kindness extended to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike. Sholom Mordechai was the person who held the community together, and was the one everyone admired and looked up to. Since that day when he was brutally torn from his family and friends, the community has had to deal with a tremendous loss that cannot be replaced. No one else possesses the willingness and the ability to finance the needs of the community in the way Sholom Mordechai did.
Throughout the three days our writer spent in Postville, he did not encounter a single person who had something unflattering to say about Sholom Mordechai. Many of the people interviewed got tears in their eyes, when the name Sholom Mordechai was mentioned.
That visit to Postville, and many other fascinating details of the Rubashkin saga that have not yet been publicized anywhere, cannot fit into the constraints of one article. The second part of this article will be published, b’ezrasHashem, in the coming issue, where hopefully we will be able to report that the miracle we are waiting for has occurred: that Sholom Mordechai’s suffering has come to an end, and that he is a free man once again.
The salvation from Heaven can come in the blink of an eye. May Hashem clear the name of Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka and relieve his suffering right way.