Friday, August 17, 2007

Ramah Campers Visit Postville

The Conservative Movement has undertaken the task of creating a "righteous certification" a Hechsher Tzedek for the production of Kosher food. Kashrut is central to the life of the Jewish people. The following is taken from the work of Camp Ramah this summer in its teaching about Kashrut and Hechsher Tzedek and what it means to be an informed Jewish citizen.

Zachary Silver

This summer I arranged a trip exploring American Jewish communities for tenth graders from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Using the state of Iowa as our canvas, I sought to have the campers explore their identities in all of the various arenas of which they are a part — Jewish, American, teenage, gender, aidah (age group) and camp. Nowhere did the questions of overlapping identities arise more than in the community of Postville, the first stop on our whirlwind tour throughout America’s heartland.

Before the trip, many of the chanichim (campers) read Steven Bloom’s book Postville, a journalistic account of the struggles between the Iowa natives and Hassidic Jews centered around the Agriprocessors meat plant. Rabbi Morris Allen of St. Paul, Minn., also came in to speak with the aidah about his various experiences with the Postville community, largely, but not exclusively, centered around his efforts with the new Hechsher Tzedek initiatives. The campers and staff had an intellectual idea of what they were getting themselves into, but only on that level.

We began by having a panel discussion with several members of the Postville City Council, as well as two recent graduates of Postville High School. For us, it was a chance to hear about the actual interactions between native Iowans and the Jews of Postville, which the panel universally claimed were fine. Sure, City Clerk Darcy Radloff can’t understand why the Jewish community doesn’t mow its lawns, but other than that, only positive interactions; Mayor Bob Penrod is personal friends with the Rubashkin family, who owns Agriprocessors. The one Jew that goes to Postville High has integrated like any other kid in the class.

Merle Turner, who has been in Postville since 1944, pointed out, though, that no matter how “positive” the interactions may be, that as long as they were unable to get together around food, the relationships would only go so far. And as Merle said, food is a central part of Jewish life, so not to be able to join them in any locations but their houses was quite difficult for general integration. If you can’t go out to coffee with your neighbors, what can you do?

While Steven Bloom portrays a story of polarities in his 2000 book, the members on the panel were insistent that this story simply was not accurate — people overlap inherently in their interactions. To portray two cultures colliding, as Bloom does, sensationalized the town for the purposes of selling books, according to members of the panel. As they pointed out, the picture on the front of the book, of three elderly men sitting on a bench watching a stereotypical Hassid walk by, is not a photograph at all, but rather a painting. That picture never actually happened, but certainly does look like the stereotypical vision that would fit the polarity version of the story.

More than the influx of Jews into the society, we learned that Postville’s integration of the Hispanic population is the real story for the now-famous small town — 900 of 2000 residents are Hispanic workers at Agriprocessors. This has led the community to develop what seems to be a model for bi-lingual education, one which the two students on the panel said was simply a sociological reality of what they had, so it was normal for them. Hispanics go to school and so do native-Iowans; at this point, they would find it weird for this not to be the case.

As for Hechsher Tzedek? Tears came to Merle Turner’s eyes when I mentioned the effort, spearheaded by Rabbi Allen and the Conservative Movement. “I would really appreciate your efforts,” said the woman who tutors Hispanic school-children multiple times a week. For everyone else, though, they see the conditions as being part of tough factory life, like it is everywhere, whether it involve clothes, plastics or foods.

Just how tough factory life is became painfully clear right when we walked into Agriprocessors, our group collectively looking like a pack of Ooompa-loompas, wobbling along with over sized white coats, hard hats and foot booties. We were in the building for a total of about an hour, and walked through the process of kosher chicken slaughter, from seeing a full truck of chickens pull into Agri, to the slaughter all the way to the industrial-sized boxes of chicken being stacked in the warehouse (though not in that order).

Two things still directly stick out, one month after going through the factory — I saw white faces in two situations. One was when we got to where the USDA inspectors stopped us and made sure that our entire party was wearing hair nets, and the other was the 15-ish rabbis who were making the cuts to the chickens’ necks. Hispanic man held the neck, rabbi sliced, pass on the chicken, repeat.

The other fact dawned on me over the course of the three minutes I was standing in one location, as I watched one man open up boxes and throw them over to the conveyor belt. I looked over, and a group of people sliced extra fat off of the chicken breasts across the room. All of this, continual, for what is probably eight-hours per day. And that is the life of a factory worker — repetition over hours. If that includes tools which cut chicken cartilage, so be it. That’s factory life.

Before we went in, the girls from our group implored us to put on two pairs of foot booties — the hat wasn’t necessary, but GET EXTRA BOOTIES! Inside, liquid of all kinds flows across the concrete floor, some red, some water-like, some unidentifiable. Yes, thank you girls for the advice.

After our “tour” and a mincha service (afternoon prayers) in the quasi-shade of our WisconsinTours bus, we went to the open hall, across the street from Postville’s Kosher Community Grocery. On the menu? General Tsao’s Chicken and Pepper-Steak. Mordy doesn’t have a Chinese apprentice in the kitchen, but wow. Small-town Iowa doesn’t get Chinese food like this. The campers now knew where they got their meat from — every piece that they would eat in the Midwest.

What to do now? It’s an open question in my mind. Certainly we suggested that supporting Postville’s workers is of the utmost important. So now it is figuring out how to do that. Which is where we are now. Whether it be the tyrannical government of Burma or the business practices of Agriprocessors, I’m convinced that boycotting is not the answer, but rather visiting the place and educating as many people as possible about the situation. And so we continue this process in Postville, one that by definition is not a “Presto” kind of event, but one that presses people to think and act throughout their lives. It’s a community that needs and wants help. That’s where we come in.

Camper's Comments:

When I think about walking through the Meat Plant, I think about boxes of meat and machines. I was shocked to see the openness of the factory, for Kosher reasons. I mean anyone could just touch the chickens. Somethings in the factory did bother me, how the treated the animals, and the conditions of the way the treated the workers.

I am also very much for the Kashrut seal that Rabbi Morris Allen talked about because us Jews, and the reasoning behind “kosher” is to treat the animals with respect. I liked going to the slaughterhouse because that’s where the meat that I buy at home comes from. So I like seeing how it was done. (B.C)

Something that I leared from this experience even though we are all Jews we do not all agree with each other’s institutions. (J.D.)

As I was walking through Agriprocessors I was surprised at the amount of garbage and meat on the ground. I had expected it to be very clean and dry. The group was covered with water, blood, organs and meat. The cleanliness or rather the lack of cleanliness was very disturbing. While walking through the factory I noticed how close we were to the food which was also bothersome. I felt that anyone could easily spit, sneeze or touch the food therefore contaminating it with germs that could infect the food and hurt a person who eats it. At the end of our tour, we were allowed to the actual shechting (killing) of the chicken. The killing was very quick, but even more upsetting was the absence of respect for the workers.

The workers in the Agriprocessors plant work in harsh conditions. They are at high risk for having limbs cut off because of the machinery and work in freezing conditions. There was probably no interaction between the workers and shochets. It was as if the workers were less superior. I had hoped for at least some sort of relationship but a saw only indifference. (D.S.)