She described how Sholom Mordechai had been targeted by forces bent on destroying a kosher slaughtering plant, and how government officials had singled him out for unusually cruel and harsh treatment.
They took minor infractions by the company and artificially inflated them into a “massive fraud,” she said. Laws never used to prosecute anyone before were utilized to convict Sholom Mordechai and increase his punishment.
The persecution culminated in a 27-year sentence for offenses for which others in similar situations have been given very short prison terms, or have merely paid a fine.
“How ironic,” said the speaker, “that as America celebrates Independence Day on July 4th, a Jew is being wrongly deprived of his liberty by officials who manipulated the law to destroy him.”
A BITTER ODYSSEY
Mrs. Gourarie revisited the beginning of the bitter odyssey, marked by trumped-up charges about drugs, weapons and worker abuse inside Agriprocessors, and the government-staged media circus photographing Sholom Mordechai in leg shackles and handcuffs.
She spoke of how he was denied bail for two and a half months before trial, deemed a “flight risk” because he is Jewish and the State of Israel has a “Law of Return.” The unfair denial of bail continued for seven months after the trial until his sentence was imposed two weeks ago.
Sholom Mordechai was stripped of all his property and assets so that his family became impoverished and he was left with no money to afford legal counsel, the audience learned.
“The person who had once taken care of the tzorchei tzibbur of a great portion of Postville, who had quietly distributed millions in tzedakah to mosdos and people in all kinds of trouble, was now in dire straits himself,” Mrs. Gourarie said.
“If not for a modern-day Pinchos, who like the Pinchos in this week’s parsha rose up to prevent a disaster, Sholom Mordechai would have been doomed, chas vesholom,” she noted.
“Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, who had never met my brother, believed in his innocence and threw himself into preventing a mageifah. He became Sholom Mordechai’s friend and most devoted advocate. He rallied others to the cause of defending a Jew who was being scapegoated.”
The growing support of thousands of Jews has been the Rubashkin family’s lifeline, Mrs. Gourarie said. How fitting, she added, for someone like Sholom Mordechai, who sees the tayerekeit in every Yid, and who never made distinctions between Jews, to be the catalyst for Yidden coming together b’achdus.
‘NOT AN AMERICAN PROBLEM’
The audience heard about a “show trial” in which improper tactics by the prosecution received the judge’s sanction. They learned of the harassment to which Sholom Mordechai has been subjected by certain prison authorities and inmates, for clinging to the mitzvah of tzitizis, and for insisting on wearing a yarmulka, and davening with tallis and tefillin.
One of the participants in the Bais Brocha event, speaking by phone to Yated, described the growing sense she and others had that Sholom Mordechai is not “an American problem that we in England can simply read about and turn the page.
“We began to see the issue with a broader lens. This case has implications for Jews everywhere. The world is watching as a Jew in a free country is being persecuted, under the pretense of legality. And this is happening in America, the land of civil rights!”
Mrs. Gourarie described an extraordinary series of events that followed Sholom Mordechai’s sentencing two weeks ago.
Prison guards removed Sholom Mordechai from his cell, and following protocol when a defendant is sentenced to a lengthy prison term, placed him under “suicide watch.” He was stripped of his clothing and given nothing but a thin sheet to cover himself, with a guard posted in the cell to monitor him.
He was denied access to a phone. He had been whisked away by prison guards immediately after the sentence was passed down, without being granted even a moment to say a few words to his family. Completely in the dark about the bizarre developments that ensued at the prison, the family grew intensely worried when many hours passed without any word from Sholom Mordechai.
When a call finally came from Linn County Prison, Leah Rubashkin rushed to answer. But it wasn’t Sholom Mordechai. It was one of his cellmates who had overheard an exchange by prison guards about where they were taking Sholom Mordechai.
“They’re putting him on suicide watch,” the inmate said. “He would want you to know.”
“Suicide watch!” Leah froze.
“Don’t worry. It’s standard. He seemed fine. No need to be worried. He was dancing in the cell when he first came back from court.” the inmate said.
“Yeah, like he had just gotten good news. I said to him, ‘You crazy or something?’ He didn’t answer. He just danced a few more steps.”
Later, released from “suicide watch” and returned to his cell, Sholom Mordechai told his family that just two weeks earlier, following his dramatic acquittal of state-labor charges, he had been so elated after returning from court, he had danced in his cell.
“And now, here I was coming back to this same cell, but in such a different state of mind. I had to remind myself that everything comes from the same Source. The acquittal… the sentence… It’s the same Ribono Shel Olam. He’s in charge. I know he’ll get me through this.”
“But your cellmate said you were dancing…?” Mrs. Gourarie asked.
He was quiet for a moment. “Yes… it’s hard to explain. My neshama just felt it had to.”
THE TOOLS TO SURVIVE
In the bleakness of the prison, where the frosted-over windows block one’s view of the trees and sky, and garish lighting wipes out all sense of time, “Sholom Mordechai celebrates Shabbos with a simcha that many of us who live in freedom don’t experience,” Mrs. Gourarie told listeners.
She quoted from a letter she had received from an inmate with whom Sholom Mordechai has shared a cell in the Dubuque prison, before being transferred to Linn County.
The letter was in response to one Mrs. Gourarie had written thanking this cellmate, a non-Jew, for befriending Sholom Mordechai and protecting him from a second cellmate who ridiculed and taunted him when he davened.
“Leave him alone. Let him pray if he wants to!” the man would growl at the hostile cellmate. “I wish I knew how to pray. I wish I was a believer.”
“I’m actually envious of your brother,” the letter writer wrote to Mrs. Gourarie. “He has a wife he can pour his heart out to. His family is devoted to him. My wife divorced me when I came to prison. My kids wrote me off. But there’s something else about him I envy…
“You should see him when he’s getting ready for ‘Shabbos’ before the sun sets on Friday,” the letter went on. “He sings a little song and even dances to it. I even know the song myself by now. Shabbos is coming, we’re so happy….”
Mrs. Gourarie went on to describe a phone conversation she had with Sholom Mordechai when he called from prison one Erev Shabbos to wish her a good Shabbos.
“You sound upbeat, but how are you really?” she asked him, knowing he takes pains to hide his tzaar from his family.
“I’m fine, boruch Hashem. I’m getting ready for Shabbos.”
“What are you doing?”
“Well, I just took a shower and laid out my new Shabbos clothes,” he said.
“Shabbos clothes? What are you talking about, Sholom Mordechai?’”
He had received a clean set of prison clothes that day, he told his sister. And it made him happy that he had something fresh and clean for Shabbos. Those were his ‘new Shabbos clothes.’
“For such a warm, hartzige Yid, being in a prison in such an environment Shabbos after Shabbos with no one to talk to… how could it not be gehennom?” Mrs. Gourarie wondered. “Without bitachon, it wouldn’t even be survivable.” She said her brother’s faith strengthens the entire family.
Audience reaction to the talk was electrified. Instead of concluding after the 40 minutes she had been allotted, Mrs. Gourarie was urged to continue.
“She was not only giving us the inside story on the Rubashkin case, she was talking in general about faith in times of adversity. She was infusing the room with chizuk,” said one of the participants, Mrs. Bassie Itzinger. “She told us, ‘If I didn’t believe with all my heart that the ending will be good, I wouldn’t be here.’”
Mrs. Itzinger said that the Bais Brocha event caused “aftershocks” in the community, as husbands discussed their wives’ intense reactions to the event in shul the next morning after davening. A parlor meeting to raise funds was assembled on very short notice, graciously hosted at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Yanky and Esty (Gruenberg) Frankel.
“I don’t know the family personally, but Rubashkin was a household name in my family when I was growing up,” Mrs. Frankel told the Yated. “They’re known for their chessed, their hachnosas orchim… I was more than happy to do something to help.”
“We just laid the groundwork at this meeting,” she added. “Hopefully, with follow-up over the summer, a lot more can be done.”
Mrs. Gourarie said she received two calls from women in Switzerland who had heard about the Bais Brocha event and wondered if, before returning to the United States, she could find time to travel to Switzerland to share her story with women in the community.
ECHOES OF HISTORY
As the case receives increasing attention in Jewish communities overseas, concern is growing about how U.S. government officials were allowed to make Sholom Mordechai the scapegoat for a massive, unwarranted raid that destroyed a town and shattered the economy of Northeast Iowa.
By pretending that he orchestrated a massive fraud that precipitated the collapse of his father’s company, prosecutors were able to make him responsible for the vast economic fallout triggered by the raid.
That included million in losses suffered by a bank that had loaned Agriprocessors a substantial amount of money.
Prosecutors further twisted the knife by driving off potential buyers of the plant after it declared bankruptcy, virtually guaranteeing that the bank could not recoup its loan.
The amount of loss was then grossly exaggerated by prosecutors with the aim of raising the “offense level” by which a federal prison sentence is calculated. All this in order to make an outrageous 27-year sentence for low-level offenses appear “justified.”
Hearing the full dimensions of the story prompted one of the participants at the Bais Brocha event to comment on its chilling parallel to events in European Jewish history.
“Look at the broad outlines of what happened here. How different is it from what historically would happen after a pogrom, when the town’s Jewish residents were blamed for the damage caused by their attackers, and forced to pay outrageous amounts for the destruction of public property? After all, they had ‘incited’ the rabble. It was their own fault, they were told.
“The echoes of history are hard to miss when you’re standing on European soil listening to this sordid tale.”