An entire generation of young Jews might be affected by the criminal charges filed last week against the largest kosher meat packing plant in the United States.
So said Hillel Jewish University Center Executive Director Aaron Weil as he reacted to the charges brought by the Iowa attorney general against Agriprocessors, makers of Aaron’s Best kosher meats
“This landmark decision has the potential to forever change our definition of what is kosher,” Weil said.
As legal charges and additional claims by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are being raised against the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, Jews living and working in Pittsburgh’s collegiate community shared their thoughts regarding a questionable future for the kosher meat industry.
Iowa’s attorney general has charged the owner of Agriprocessors, Aaron Rubashkin and his son, Shlomo, together with three other human resources employees, with more than 9,000 counts of child labor violations. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union, has suspended all involvement with the plant until new management is hired.
While some inside the North American Jewish community claim anti-Semitism as a main reason for the charges, Weil disagrees.
“When non-Jews document 9,000 counts of child labor, plus numerous documented violations including sexual abuse of workers, unsafe working conditions and abuse of animals and even the Orthodox Jewish Community is calling for a change — this is clearly not anti-Semitism,” Weil said.
Regarding the fact that the plant is owned and managed by the Rubashkin family, he says “this is not an isolated incident nor are the Rubashkins being treated as a scapegoat for someone else.”
As the High Holidays approach, Weil thinks the Rubashkins could use this as an opportunity to make things right.
While many are affected by the closing of the plant, the food ordered for Hillel and the students of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University does not come from the Postville plant; they are catered by the Aaron and Avi’s Grill restaurant in Squirrel Hill.
“Aaron and Avi Grill have guaranteed Hillel JUC of Pittsburgh that all meat products are ‘Rubashkin-free,’” Weil said. “Furthermore, starting next month, all kosher food supplied to Pitt and CMU will also be Rubashkin free.”
“This is not a boycott,” Weil emphasized, “but rather the result of student demand that meat be purchased from companies with better records of ethical treatment toward workers, and animal slaughters as consistent with Jewish law.”
According to Steve Zisman, unit manager for Market Central, Pitt dining services, all kosher food supplied to the students comes from the local Milky Way and Southside kosher distributor Sampo restaurant. Zisman has been in charge of supplying kosher food to Pitt for the last four years.
The reaction of the Orthodox Union following the charges against the plant has raised an issue on how the O.U. and the Jewish community here define kosher.
“I believe it is a great opportunity for us to follow the direction of the O.U. to draw a direct line between what Halakha says about Jewish slaughter and what Halakha says about ethical treatment of workers,” Weil said.
Jesse Hervitz, 22, of Harrisburg, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, is aware of what has happened in Postville. “It really stops and makes you think about what kosher really means,” he said.
Hervitz does not buy his meat from that plant.
“Usually the meat I get now is from [a] Baltimore butcher,” he said. “I don’t get my meat from Agriprocessors. I think it depends on how the Jewish community responds. If the community does take responsibility then there is going to be some big changes to take place — it should change Judaism in a positive way.”
Aaron Siebzener, co-owner of Aaron and Avi’s Grill and the next door Milky Way, said the decision by the O.U. constitutes a significant change by the kosher certification authority.
“Until now, it has been about kosher being a definition of product only,” Siebzener said, “It shows hashgacha (Kosher supervision) has been catching up to modern times.”
(Alon Melamed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)