On Dec. 20, President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of Chabad rabbi Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, after he served eight years in prison. Rubashkin’s release set off concentric waves of joy and dismay across the Jewish community. Debate over why the release of a convicted criminal was or wasn’t cause for celebration spread across social media and traditional news outlets.
What was behind these disparate responses to Rubashkin’s release?
In the mid-1980s, Rubashkin became CEO of Agriprocessors, a kosher meat-processing business in Postville, Iowa. During his tenure, the business grew to become among the largest of its kind in the U.S.
On May 12, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided Agriprocessors. Almost 400 employees were arrested for possession of fraudulent identity documents, which Rubashkin was accused of helping them obtain.
Then, in November 2008, Rubashkin was arrested on charges of bank fraud. The immigration charges were ultimately dropped, but he was convicted in November 2009 of 86 counts of financial fraud. In June 2010, the 51-year-old was sentenced to 27 years in prison and ordered to pay more than $26 million in restitution to his lenders.
Nathan Lewin of Lewin and Lewin, LLP in Washington, D.C., represented Rubashkin when he appealed his conviction and sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It was the most outrageous criminal case that I have seen in 50 years of practice,” said Lewin. He also said the judge who tried the case “regularly and consistently gives out the longest sentences she can possibly imagine.” Lewin argued in his appeal that the judge, who was revealed to have met with the prosecutors in planning the May 2008 raid, should have disclosed these meetings to Rubashkin's lawyers and recused herself. He also argued that the 27-year sentence was excessive for a first-time nonviolent offender; it even exceeded the 25-year sentence requested by the prosecution.
Not that the prosecution was pulling any punches. In his 50-year career as a white collar criminal defense lawyer, Lewin said he had “never represented someone who was being investigated and ultimately charged where the prosecutor didn’t say ‘OK, we are investigating, and if in fact we decide to charge this person, would you bring him in so he can plead,’ presumably not-guilty, and then the case would proceed.”
Instead, said Lewin, the prosecutors arranged to have photographers in front of the federal court house and sent out marshals to arrest Rubashkin and bring him in handcuffed, “even though they knew he would have come in and pleaded not guilty if they simply told his lawyers he should come in.”
They wanted the picture for the newspapers, he said.
While some supporters blamed the repeated targeting of Agriprocessors and Rubashkin on local jealousies or straight-up anti-Semitism, others pointed to the string of run-ins with federal agencies as evidence of criminality.
“The Torah exhorts faithful Jews to love and help the stranger 36 times, more than any other commandment. Yet too many Jews have one set of ethics for their own kind and another for gentiles,” Columbia University journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman wrote in a Dec. 22 op-ed in the Washington Post. Rabbi Morris Allen of Minneapolis-St. Paul, interviewed by The Forward in 2006 about the conditions he found at the Postville plant, shared in his own Dec. 21 opinion piece for the publication that he stands by his allegations of child labor and exploitation of undocumented workers by the company.
Rubashkin was acquitted of charges of hiring underage workers in a separate trial in 2010, and the 2008 immigration case was dismissed after his conviction for fraud; yet allegations that Agriprocessors violated labor, environmental safety, and animal treatment regulations clung to Rubashkin to this day. This accounted for the pushback to the martyr’s welcome he met from many when released.
Even after his conviction for fraud, however, bipartisan support from legislators and Justice Department officials for his release demonstrated the strength of the argument that something about his case was amiss. Notably, in 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), and Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) all filed amicus briefs supporting Rubashkin′s request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
When news of Rubashkin’s release broke, the celebration hinged almost as much on the reputation of the family as the doubts about the case itself. “The Rubashkin family has been well known for the last 50 years as an exceptionally generous family,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, regional director of Chabad of Maryland. He said Rubashkin’s “complete, 100 percent trust in Hashem that He would bring him out, this is what impressed the whole observant world.”
Rabbi Micha Berger of The AishDas Society had a response that reflected the conflicted feelings others were experiencing. “As someone who believes that derech eretz kadmah laTorah — that the Torah is predicated on ethical behavior — I have a hard time with the miscarriage of justice in freeing someone who risked the lives of so many illegal immigrants for so long for jobs that he underpaid them for,” he said.
On the other hand: “As a Jew, it’s nice to see a brother free.”
Rachel Kohn contributed to this article.
By Dovid Nochshon Albright
Dovid Nachshon Albright is an active member of Chabad of Fairfax in Virginia. A volunteer Talmud teacher at his shul, Dovid is also the owner and founder of Albright IP, an intellectual property research and consulting firm.