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What Really Happened At Rubashkin? 1/11 Issue Of The Jewish Star

thejewishstar.jpgArticle by the Jewish Star: Khal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ) fired AgriProcessors, the world’s largest producer of kosher meat and poultry, as a client last week, announcing that it would withdraw its kosher certification as of April 16.

The rabbinate of the venerable German-Jewish community based in upper Manhattan, and a second well-known kosher certifier, Rabbi Menachem Meir Weissmandl, of Nitra-Monsey, were unable to find common ground on issues of kashruth control in the company’s plants. AgriProcessors’ founder Aron Abraham Rubashkin, Dr. Eric Erlbach, the president of KAJ, and Rabbi Weissmandl, each confirmed that version of events in separate telephone interviews on Monday with The Jewish Star.

“We tried to reach some kind of an understanding which would have given us control over the Aaron’s part of the shechitah, not the Supreme, which is Rabbi Weissmandl, but we were unable to reach any kind of agreement,” Dr. Erlbach said.

In paid advertisements and prepared press releases, AgriProcessors, of Postville, Iowa, which produces kosher meat and poultry under the Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Best and Supreme Kosher brands, among others, had said that the company was consolidating its kashruth certifications for “marketing reasons.”

KAJ, together with the Orthodox Union, certifies the Rubashkin’s Aaron’s Best brand. Supreme Kosher carries the Nitra-Monsey hechsher. All meat and poultry slaughtered in AgriProcessor plants, in Iowa, Nebraska, Chicago, or elsewhere, on or after April 16, 2008, is to carry that hechsher. Rabbi Weissmandl said the two brands would be consolidated and a joint label, Aaron’s Best/Supreme Kosher, phased in by mid-April.

“The [KAJ] demands were unacceptable,” said Rubashkin, who founded the company in 1953. “So what should I do? They had an understanding with Rav Weissmandl and they worked together. They had a disagreement about some gelatin or casings, but it had nothing to do with us.”

“They were going to produce casings in an outside plant and our rabbonim felt that they would be unwilling to give a hashgacha on that product and Rabbi Weissmandl was,” Erlbach said. “I’m not in a position to tell you who was right, but even if Rabbi Weissmandl was right it was an indication that we were not in a position to control what was going on.”

The disagreement over the casings boiled down to money, Rabbi Weissmandl suggested; a $35,000 annual kashruth fee versus considerably lower costs for the original product, also produced outside the plant, he said, under less reliable supervision. A minor issue, he emphasized, in any event.

“The basic demand was that they wanted a rabbi in place who reports only to KAJ,” Weissmandl said. “[It’s] completely not practicable with shechitah, with a staff of 70 people, to have two controllers, one working behind the back of the other.” Additionally, he charged, the supervisors the KAJ wanted to put in place at the Postville plant lacked the necessary experience.

A decision was ultimately made to bring in a plant kashruth supervisor from Israel. Rabbi Chaim Leizer Meisels was recruited, at great expense, from a top position with the Edah HaCharedis. Nitra and KAJ signed a contract to jointly pay him, but before that arrangement could take effect the relationship between KAJ and Rubashkin unraveled. Rabbi Weissmandl confirmed that it was the KAJ that decided to pull the plug.

“Definitely, it was not Rubashkin that fired them,” Weissmandl said. “Mr. Rubashkin pays kashrus fees for certifications that he doesn’t have anymore — rabbis who are too old to provide certifications, but he pays them their fees. He’s a very, very loyal person.”

Erlbach, of KAJ, emphasized that there is not, and never was, a problem with the Rubashkin hashgacha, although he demurred when asked if he, personally, would eat the Rubashkin brands after April 16; he cited uncertainty about the nature of the future kashruth supervision. The KAJ community is actively seeking another source of kosher meat, he said.

Efforts to portray the parting of ways as a simple marketing decision by AgriProcessors persisted into Monday when a kashruth industry newsletter, Kosher Today, neglected to mention that it was KAJ’s decision to end the relationship. The editor, Menachem Lubinsky, told The Jewish Star that he had not heard that. He strongly denied that his paid work for Rubashkin, crafting the press release that announced the breakup, had played any role in his editorial decision. The article did not mention his paid role with AgriProcessors, but Lubinsky said he stood by his story as “balanced.” He has written in the past about the “number of hats” he wears as a kashruth industry expert, he said, and “I don’t have to say it every day and every time.”

KAJ’s Erlbach believes his community’s way of doing kashruth business tends not to lend itself to potential conflicts of interest.

Most hashgachas consist of a slaughterhouse, let’s say, which hires a rabbi to do their certification and that rabbi certifies it for them. They pay that rabbi for it. As a result this is a relationship based on mutual profits. I don’t mean this in a negative way,” he stressed.

“Someone who does this is entitled to be paid. [But] our congregation is different. None of our rabbis who do this get paid [by the client]. They are paid by the congregation and are under no undue pressure, so to say, to help out the owner. You’re more likely to get a kosher product if the profit motive isn’t there.”

A principal in one of the major Five Towns-area supermarkets, who asked to remain anonymous, said KAJ is a brand name hechsher often sought out by consumers, particularly by consumers of German descent. “Come Pesach time, there are people who are very machmir about their parents’ hashgacha,” he said. “Also, baalei teshuva,” he added. “Someone told them that KAJ is the best hashgacha and that’s what they buy.”

Rabbi Weissmandl spoke admiringly of the KAJ community’s respect for its leaders. “Most of the members of the KAJ board probably disagree with this decision [to end the relationship with Rubashkin],” he said. “[Still,] it’s a known tradition to the German community to give respect to a rabbi till the very end. Whatever a rav says, they raise their hands. There is a level of respect that the KAJ community has for a rabbi — it is probably the only place today where you see that.”

(Note: The Jewish Star covers the Five Towns and other orthodox communities of the South Shore of Long Island, and Far Rockaway.)

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