A debate over the treatment of workers in kosher factories has some Jews expanding their views of the dietary laws.
By Pamela Miller, Star Tribune
Last update: June 17, 2007 – 10:48 PM
The defining moment in Rabbi Morris Allen's campaign to improve conditions for immigrant laborers at kosher slaughterhouses came during a talk with a veteran killing-floor worker.
"He said, 'For 10 years, I've worked next to rabbis who watch what happens with the animals. But never once has one said, 'What's it like for you to work here?' " said Allen, the rabbi at Beth Jacob, a Conservative synagogue in Mendota Heights.
U.S. Jews who keep kosher "have been so concerned about the proper cut on an animal's neck that they've forgotten about the dignity of the laborers," Allen said. He argues that the kosher designation should reflect Jewish ethics as well as adherence to rules about ritual slaughter.
The argument gained attention beyond Jewish circles after a May 19 New York Times story. Reform and Conservative Jews have been receptive, but Orthodox Jews, who traditionally have overseen kosher processes, consider the effort wrongheaded and misguided.
The drive has sparked conversations among Minnesota's 45,000 Jews about what standards should prevail when it comes to defining kosher -- and beyond that, about what it means to be an observant Jew.
Identifying with immigrants
For Jews, who are steeped in a history of exodus and rejection, immigration issues, including those surrounding undocumented workers, resonate deeply, Allen said.
In early 2006, he visited Agriprocessors, a kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa, to lobby for expanded, less expensive kosher meat choices. The discussions went well, he said, but he noticed "that the work was getting done on the backs of Hispanic migrant workers."
That nagged at him, and when the Jewish newspaper the Forward published a critical piece on Agriprocessors in May 2006, he "realized that all my work looked suspect, as if I cared more about the consumers of kosher products than I did about workers in the plants that provide those products."
Agriprocessors denounced the Forward story as inaccurate and unfair, saying that it follows all applicable laws on pay, safety issues and working conditions. But Allen says that it and other plants could do better, and that many workers keep quiet about legitimate concerns because they fear immigration authorities.
In the wake of the Forward story, Allen proposed a "hechsher tzedek" -- a justice certification for kosher products that would let consumers know if workers were treated fairly.
In August 2006, he led a team to Agriprocessors. While it was not able to verify all of the Forward's claims, "we witnessed some things that went against the dignity of workers, such as training conducted in English for people who had just arrived from the mountains of Guatemala," he said. It was during this trip he talked with the veteran killing-floor worker, who was brought in from a unionized plant in another state by union representatives trying to organize Agriprocessors.
This spring, the Rabbinical Assembly, a national group of Conservative rabbis, endorsed the hechsher tzedek in principle. Morris and his supporters are now working on standards involving wages, benefits, safety, training, environmental effects, animal welfare and corporate transparency where compliance would lead foods to receive the hechsher tzedek.
The goal is to have the mark on all kosher products. "I think people would pay 2 or 3 cents more if they knew workers were being treated fairly," he said.
Allen's argument that kosher standards should address issues beyond adherence to religious ritual has struck a chord in his own congregation.
"It's given me a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish," said Jeanine Lange, of Mendota Heights. "It gives us something to grab onto that could truly improve the lives of our fellow human beings."
Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, a social-justice group based in St. Paul, is among those working with Allen.
"We see Minnesota as a great testing ground for this concept," he said. "Here we have a rabbi leading the effort and a community in the heart of the nation's bread basket."
The Orthodox view
But the campaign distresses Orthodox Jews who see it as more about politics than religion. Rabbi Asher Zeilingold, of Adath Israel in St. Paul, calls Allen's claims about Agriprocessors "deceitful," arguing that his inspection team of "amateurs" had presuppositions planted by union activists, such as the worker Allen talked to. Zeilingold said his own investigation did not uncover anything illegal or unethical.
He acknowledged that he is paid by Agriprocessors to oversee kosher standards at the plant but said that has not influenced his arguments.
It is not the place of religious organizations to create standards in such areas as wages and safety, which are dictated by law, Zeilingold said.
"All this will do is drive a wedge between Jews," he said. "Yes, working conditions are in the realm of what it means to be kosher. But this takes away from the religious element."
Allen said he doesn't see a hechsher tzedek standard as diluting the faith. It's a movement that only could have originated in the Conservative tradition, he said, combining the Orthodox reverence for ritual with the social-justice emphasis of the Reform tradition.
"This is a demonstration that a religious community can impact the larger culture in a constructive way," he said.