Patriarch of Postville's Jewish community, Aaron Rubashkin, dies of COVID-19
Former Iowa meatpacking executive Sholom Rubashkin had his prison sentence commuted on Dec. 20, 2017, by President Donald Trump.
As a teenager, Aaron Rubashkin survived the Holocaust, fleeing from a Hasidic Jewish enclave in his small Russian hometown to Austria and then Paris.
As a young father, he weathered immigrating to America with little to his name, opening a small butcher shop and then a deli before revolutionizing the kosher meat industry with his multi-million-dollar company, Agriprocessors. The corporation, and its slaughterhouse and meat-packing factory, were based in Postville, a tiny rural community in the hills of northeast Iowa.
The plant would become the largest kosher meat operation in the country before a 2008 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid detained nearly 400 undocumented employees, almost 300 of whom were deported. Although plant manager Sholom Rubashkin, Rubashkin’s son, bore the brunt of the legal consequences following the raid, Rubashkin was fined for labor violations and the firm filed for bankruptcy later that year.
Despite all the challenges Rubashkin overcame in his lifetime, the wealthy patriarch of an empire that also includes textile ventures and real estate holdings could not fend off the novel coronavirus. The 92-year-old’s death Wednesday evening in New York from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, was first reported by Matzav.com, a Jewish news website.
“He suffered persecution in Europe before the war, terrible things where every day it was a question of life and death,” said Aaron Goldsmith, a Postville resident who acts as a spokesperson for the Hasidic community that grew up around the plant. “Then he had more difficult times with the raid, but he went back to work and put his life back together.”
“It’s just unbelievable that this strong, powerful man who helped so many was felled by this nasty, insidious microbe,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
News of Rubashkin’s death hit Postville’s Jewish population hard, Goldsmith said. And the grief is even more pronounced given that the tight-knit community, one known for gathering in times of joy and times of need, is precautionarily quarantined due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We aren’t able to congregate so WhatsApp has become our synagogue,” Goldsmith, also a Hasid, said. “When it comes to having a venue to share feelings, WhatsApp has allowed us to mourn together, to instantaneously and immediately give condolences to the Rubashkin family.”
Rubashkin’s connections to Iowa began in the late 1980s when he purchased a vacant plant on the outskirts of Postville with plans to redesign it to produce kosher meat on scale not seen before.
Previously, Goldsmith said, kosher meats were sold by one-off specialty shops, meaning the product and the supply were uneven. But Rubashkin devised a Ford-like assembly line and distribution system, while ensuring the religious practices of kosher were followed, that allowed his brand of meats to became commonplace.
“His business was the Amazon of kosher meats,” Goldsmith said. “He made them available to any person who wanted to keep kosher or any Muslim who wanted to follow halal.”
Remaining in Brooklyn, Rubashkin sent a few of his sons to Iowa to run the business and, given the level of observation needed to slaughter animals according to kosher tradition, a Hasidic society blossomed more than 1,000 miles from the Big Apple — or "90 minutes from the nearest shopping malls," as Matzav’s obit pointed out.
“He was a legacy in business, in the Jewish community and in Postville,” said Goldsmith. “He was responsible for the Jewish presence in Postville and for all the people that came here and made their lives here and built a community here. That was Rubashkin.”
Despite “anti-religious repression” in the Soviet Union, where Rubashkin was born, his parents raised him and his siblings as “frum Jews,” a Yiddish word for devoted or pious, his obituary said.
Food, and meat specifically, was a part of his life from a very early age. When his family settled in Paris, Rubashkin became a butcher while his father ran a grocery store and his mother cooked at a Jewish girls’ school.
After moving to New York City, he and a partner opened Lieberman & Rubashkin Glatt Kosher Butchers, later renamed Rubashkin’s. A decade or so later, he and his wife, Rivka, opened Crown Deli, which “was described by some as more of a soup kitchen than a business,” according to the obituary.
Although he rarely touted his own good works, Rubashkin was, indeed, very philanthropic, Goldsmith said.
“His house in Brooklyn was like the Holiday Inn for people in need,” Goldsmith said. “He never made anybody feel like they were imposing or losing their dignity if they couldn’t afford to eat or didn’t have anywhere to stay.”
Goldsmith said Rubashkin's generosity extended to Postville, where he gave to members of the Jewish community and nonmembers alike. One particular kindness Goldsmith remembered was when Rubashkin quietly paid for the funeral expenses of an non-Jewish Agriprocessors employee who lost her son in a car accident.
But the Rubashkin family name will always be associated with the Postville Raid. Though the patriarch was never convicted of any crimes, his son Sholom was found guilty on 86 of 91 counts of financial fraud tied to Agriprocessors' books and sentenced to 27 years in prison. After securing that conviction, the government dropped a host of other immigration and child labor violations.
Some of Agriprocessors’ workers alleged sexual harassment and other abuses by leaders in the company, but because Sholom wasn’t tried for any of the other charges, former workers weren't given an opportunity to testify about exploitation at the plant.
The raid not only cratered the economy of the town, but also forced nearly a quarter of its population to go into hiding basically overnight. Some deported workers' families have returned to the area in the decade since that May morning, but others remain too scarred by their experience to come back.
The bankrupt Agriprocessors plant was later purchased by Hershey Friedman, a Jewish Canadian businessman, and reopened as Agri Star.
After a chorus of voices from both sides of the political aisle asked for the release of Sholom Rubashkin, who had no prior criminal record, President Donald Trump commuted his sentence in 2017. "It was time to let the man return to his family," Goldsmith said at the time.
“By divine providence, Sholom had his sentence commuted and the family was united in the last few years of (Rubashkin’s) life.”
A few of Rubashkin’s sons still live in Postville and Goldsmith wasn’t sure if they would be able to travel to New York for the funeral. Shiva, the Jewish period of mourning where friends and relatives gather around the family of the lost, has been deemed “not permissible” due to coronavirus concerns by his sect’s rabbis, Goldsmith said.
Everyone in his community understands this break from tradition is necessary, Goldsmith said, though some are having a hard time coping with this loss on top of all the uncertainties around coronavirus.
But the Jewish people are survivors, he said, and they will get through this.
We will all get through this, he added quickly.
“This disease doesn’t care if you are white, black, Christian, Muslim, Jewish,” Goldsmith said. “This virus doesn’t care how much money you have or how well-educated you are or how fancy your house is; It makes no difference."
"In this fight we are all blood, we are all family," he continued. "And, at least here, we are taking care of each other and helping one another and that, to me, is a shining light in these dark days.”
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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