Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Magen Tzedek: The Sham Behind The Shield

A new “ethics” certification by Conservative rabbis that sponsors say will soon appear alongside familiar kashrus logos, threatens to undermine the integrity of kashrus in America. The so-called hechsher was devised by a Conservative clergyman, Rabbi Morris Allen of Twin Cities, Minnesota. Magen Tzedek will certify companies that meet ethical requirements in their treatment of workers, animals and the environment—with the ethical standards determined by Allen and Conservative colleagues, aided by labor and environmental experts. Because this program grew out of the smear campaign that brought about the destruction of Agriprocessors, the origins of Magen Tzedek and the saga of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin are inseparable.

At the height of a full-throttled campaign by the labor unions to unionize Agriprocessors, Rabbi Morris Allen entered the picture. The story of his infiltration of the meat-packing plant, collaboration with the labor unions, and the relentless Rubashkin-bashing that catapulted him into media limelight and boosted his career, has yet to be told.


Like a pit bull refusing to release its quarry, Allen continues to slur both Agriprocessors and Sholom Rubashkin, proudly building his new “ethics” program on the ashes of the company he did so much to destroy.


Most recently he appeared on a national TV program, American Greed, with labor consultant and fellow opportunist Avram Lyons of New Jersey. Stringing together lies, fantasy and doctored up history, both men pitched the program’s message to millions of viewers, vilifying Sholom Rubashkin as an evil, greedy criminal who ruthlessly exploited poor immigrant workers.

‘I Was Sickened’

“The ranting and lies were so patently false, I was sickened,” said former city councilman Aaron Goldsmith in an interview with Yated. Goldsmith had met Lyons and Allen previously while accompanying Sholom Mordechai and another Agri manager in 2007 to a meeting in a Minnesota, at Allen’s request.


Weeks later, Goldsmith says he was visited by Lyons while the labor consultant was trying to break down Agriprocessor’s resistance to being unionized.


“Avram Lyons would come to the office and talk about how he could help revamp Agri’s image,” Goldsmith recalled. “What was absolutely clear to me from his comments was that the company’s issues to him were basically problems of image not ethics. There was no mention of abuse of workers, filthy work conditions, and the like. 


“Yet he had the audacity on national TV to invent a completely different narrative. He described the plant as a ‘cesspool within a cesspool,’ citing stories of assault, exploitation and major injuries. He had the gall to paint Sholom Rubashkin as cruel, heartless and greedy when he knew how far this was from the truth.” 


Incitement in Postville


In addition to participating on American Greed, Morris Allen also stars in a recently released documentary about the Postville raid, in which he is portrayed leading a demonstration against Agriprocessors for its inhumane treatment of immigrant workers, and denouncing Sholom Rubashkin for terrible labor crimes.


The occasion was the first anniversary of the Postville immigration raid which had prompted residents to protest the devastating law enforcement action that destroyed the town and surrounding region. Allen turned that event into an anti-Rubashkin demonstration, busing in hundreds of people, including youngsters from the Conservative Movement’s Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.


Allen first attended an assembly in a church, afterwards playing to the cameras as he threw a protective arm around a young boy whose father had been deported in the 2008 immigration raid, promising to forever care for him. He then led demonstrators from the church down the street to the entrance of Agriprocessors.


Allen never retracted or apologized for his accusations after Sholom Mordechai was fully acquitted in the state labor trial. He continues to downplay the acquittal, and to pounce on every opportunity to promote his “Shield of Righteousness” program by casting the now defunct Agriprocessors as a house of horrors and the kosher food industry as plagued by “systemic abuse,” in dire need of the ethics regulation he stands ready to provide. 


While Sholom Rubashkin languishes in jail, facing a 27-year sentence, and amid intense efforts in the Jewish community to win him a fair trial, Morris Allen continues his incitement and slander. At his recent official launching of Magen Tzedek, he talked about the vile impact on the water system the flushing of tons of slaughterhouse waste products produced in Postville.


“As Jews, we have to be stewards of the earth,” he intoned.


Allen was apparently counting on the fact that few in the audience would have any clue that Sholom Rubashkin built a state of the art $10 million water treatment facility in Postville that rendered the affected waste water so clean as to be drinkable.


At this launching event, Allen was asked by a participant why he felt the need to continue maligning Sholom Rubashkin. Startled, Allen responded curtly, “I’ve moved on from there.”


Perhaps Allen realized it wasn’t good for his ethics business to continue bashing a beaten man, torn from his family, stripped of all his possessions and demonized by the world.


Early Experiments at Tampering with Kashrus 


The Minnesota-based clergyman tried for a number of years without success to launch his program. He pitched his notion of food-industry ethics to the American Jewish public as emanating from the Torah, and holding the same binding authority and sanctity as kashrus laws. He originally called it Hechsher Tzedek, Al Pi Din.


Allen had been campaigning for several years to win adherents to his self-styled notion that kashrus is defined not only by halachic criteria, but also by social justice criteria. How can kosher can’t be truly kosher, he scoffed, if workers are not getting decent pay and benefits, if the industry environment is being polluted, or if animals at kosher slaughterhouses are not treated humanely? 


Allen’s attempt to redefine the halochos ofkashrus along social justice and labor platforms rendered him irrelevant among Torah-observant Jews. But Hechsher Tzedek had targeted a much broader constituency, including all streams of Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated American Jewry. Here, too, the program flopped. 


In the public mind, “kosher” is equated with cleaner and healthier food, and the present hechsherim such as OU have won the public trust. People were simply not interested in a new kashrus certification that had no track record. Others were concerned about Allen’s motives.


Attacking State Laws


The JTS-ordained rabbi had been trying for several years to win entry into kashrus supervision in his home state of Minnesota. Blocking his efforts were stringent state laws that made kashrus supervision in Minnesota the exclusive province of the Orthodox rabbinate. Allen and his colleagues, following the example of Conservative clergymen in other states, found a way to remove these roadblocks.


Over the past two decades, Conservative leaders have worked to change the kosher laws in states where exclusive authority was granted to Orthodox rabbonim to define and regulate kashrus. The Conservative clergymen enlisted the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) which readily filed lawsuits on their behalf, complaining that the states’ kosher laws constituted government interference in religious matters.


In almost every case, the courts agreed that the existing laws favored the Orthodox rabbinate, and overturned them. The net effect was to remove kashrus regulation from the domain of Orthodox rabbonim.


The laws that once safeguarded kashrus now only require that establishments advertising themselves as kosher disclose their hashgacha, so that the consumer can determine which denomination–Orthodox, Conservative or Reform–is behind it. 


Allen and his colleagues succeeded in 2004 in implementing these same changes in Minnesota’s kosher laws. With the old kosher laws struck down, the way was clear for him to launch his own Conservative hashgacha to local companies.


Consumers Reject Hechsher Tzedek


Emboldened by success, Allen set his sights even higher, promoting his Hechser Tzedek as a vehicle offering something wonderful and revolutionary to American Jewry. “No one in the Jewish world has ever really tried to marry the laws of how we treat workers with the laws of how we should eat,” he wrote proudly on his blog site.


He presented his program as a landmark innovation, a hybrid “hechsher” mixing kosher laws with ethical requirements.  When Hechsher Tzedek abruptly fizzled out, the message was clear. Consumers were not interested in digging deeper into their pockets to pay for a superfluous, tag-along hechsher angling for a piece of the pie. [The kosher food industry is a $250 billion business accounting for about 40% of all packaged foods in the country, making hashgacha a profitable enterprise.]  


Still determined to crack open the market, Allen tried a different tack, now taking pains to recast his new-old hashgacha as a supplement to kosher standards, rather than a replacement for standard hechsherim. The Conservative rabbinate, the Rabbinical Assembly, gave him a boost by adopting the initiative, arranging press releases and public relations blitzes to pump up Magen Tzedek as the Conservative Movement’s most exciting and promising initiative.


Ethics Talk Seen as a Foil


Those who suspect the “ethics” talk is merely a foil for the movement’s true designs to gain a foothold in the kashrus industry, point to Magen Tzedek’s own web site. The slogan for Magen Tzedek is “Kashrut for the 21st Century.” In a pitch to manufacturers, the site defines Magen Tzedek “as the gold standard of kashrut.”


The site, in facts, solicits contributions with the line: “Built on the principle that ethics must be an intrinsic component of our ritual observance of kashrus, Magen Tzedek is already changing the kosher food industry.”

“The Conservative movement’s ethical kosher initiative may not have been intended as a wedge into the Orthodox monopoly over kosher supervision,” writes JTA. “But the planned rollout this summer of Magen Tzedek, coincides with…growing activism in the Conservative movement around the issue of kashrut. The Conservative rabbinate seems to be moving into the kashrut business like never before.”

“Our rabbis are as knowledgeable about kashrut as their Orthodox colleagues, and care about it as much as they do,” asserted Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s main rabbinical group.

A look at Magen Tzedek proposals quickly reveals the opposite is true. The author is either grievously misinformed or intentionally twists the meaning of Biblical and rabbinic texts to suit his obvious agenda, pompously affirming them as “al pi din”.

One example out of dozens:  In an attempt to invoke Torah authority for imposing industry standards on company’s pay policies, the author cites a number of talmudic and rabbinic sources to suggest that Jewish law requires providing benefits to workers based on what is customary in a given locale.

Yet he ignores the fact that this is only true in the absence of an articulated understanding between employer and employee.

Ridiculing Halacha

Although the Torah establishment has been slow to react to the Conservative leadership’s newest bid for legitimacy, the historically established danger in singling out the kosher industry for special scrutiny and standards should sound an alarm here.

Those who have led the assault on kashrus in the past have ridiculed Orthodox adherence to halachic minutiae, just as Allen does, while preaching that the value of Jewish dietary laws lies in their ethical values.

Allen’s original Hechsher Tzedek web site sums up this skewed thinking with the following pronouncement: “If we don’t connect kashrut to the world and the values we hold, then we fail to take kashrut at its core level.”

What exactly is the “core level” of kashrus? To Torah-true Jews, the core is a direct communication from G-d to the Jewish people to scrupulously uphold the timeless, eternal mitzvah of kashrus in all its sacred minutiae.

For Allen, the core is apparently akin to what Paul, one of Christianity’s founders, might have had in mind when he called for the abolishment of kashrus, urging Jews to “Worry not about what enters your mouth – but with what comes out.”

Here is Allen in a recent interview with a local Jewish paper voicing his disdain for the stringencies of halacha:

“In recent years we’ve seen kashrut essentially be hijacked by people who are much more concerned about infinitesimally small bugs living on broccoli than about the purpose of the rules in the first place, and that’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

Unnecessary and Divisive 

“In my conversations with dozens of kosher manufacturers, retailers, and consumers of all backgrounds, the message is clear,” said Menachem Lubinsky of Kosher Today. “Magen Tzedek is unnecessary, divisive, and a collective indictment of an entire [kosher food] industry.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union, said he and other officials at the OU restated their long standing position that social justice issues are amply covered by government agencies and do not require a new certification.

He recalled that the Magen Tzedek certification was launched on the ruins of Agriprocessors, commenting on the tragedy of the company’s demise and calling the 27-year sentence for its CEO, Sholom Rubashkin for bank fraud “a travesty of justice.” 

 In a 2010 article in the Jewish Week, Rabbi Genack harshly criticized the government’s handling of the case, calling attention to the pattern of “overreaction” throughout the prosecution and trial. “They destroyed a company. They destroyed the economy of the region. … Asking for a life sentence was an absolute outrage. I think the one that should be in the dock is the U.S. Attorney. That’s where I think there’s an ‘ethical outrage.’ What they called justice is more reminiscent of Soviet jurisprudence.”

Built On Fraud

One of the most perceptive commentaries on Hechsher Tzedek/Magen Tzedek comes from a Minnesota-based rav, Rabbi Asher Zeilingold of Adath Israel. 

Responding to a July 2010 query from Steward Ain, a staff writer for the Jewish Week, Rabbi Zeilingold questioned the Conservative leadership’s denial that the new ethics “hechsher” was designed to compete with standard hechsherim already in place. 

Rabbi Zeilingold graciously shared his letter to the Jewish Week with Yated.

Dear Mr. Ain,


One of the major problems I have with Hekscher Tzedek is that the Conservative Movement is very obviously promoting the seal as a kosher insignia. I do not have to read further than the title of the session at the Rabbinical Assembly convention, “Moving Magen Tzedek in the Marketplace: How the Conservative Movement is Seating Itself at the Kosher Table.” 


It seems to me that the Conservative Movement is talking out of both sides of its mouth. 

You asked me why I stated that the Hekscher Tzedek was “born and bred out of the pain and anguish of an innocent Jew.”  Let me make the following statement:  The Conservative Movement announced a boycott of all Rubashkin meat products, and strongly promoted this boycott among its constituency. 

Further, the Conservative Movement organized public demonstrations against Rubashkin/Agriprocessors.  In August of 2008, there was a demonstration in Postville which had been called to protest the US government’s policy on immigration. 

The Conservative Movement turned that demonstration into a protest against Rubashkin. They brought in busloads of people from the Twin Cities and Chicago, as well as busloads of children from Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  They all marched from a Postville church to the Agriprocessors plant. A Minnesota rabbi, standing outside the plant, addressed the crowd and told them of the “atrocities” that he claimed went on at the plant.   

On several Sabbaths at Twin Cities’ Conservative synagogues, the rabbis distributed pamphlets telling of their recent trip to Postville where they had interviewed Agriprocessors workers at the labor union offices. They spread horrible stories of abuse — including sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation of workers. 

Thousands of our people were deeply troubled, and I know for a fact that many who had been keeping kosher, stopped doing so because the only kosher meat available to them was Rubashkin’s. 

The Conservative Movement claimed that what had to be done now was create Hekscher Tzedek.

My intention in writing last week’s article was not to proclaim Sholom Rubashkin’s innocence. The verdict in Iowa had already done that. My intent was to proclaim that the Hekscher Tzedek is built upon fraud. In my opinion, it is nothing more than a symbol of the most unethical and contemptible standard of human behavior.

Therefore, I say that the Conservative Movement needs to be honest and search for true tzedek.

With best wishes,

Rabbi Asher Zeilingold

Adath Israel Synagogue

St. Paul, Minnesota 



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