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Petition calls for equal justice for Rubashkin

Area Chabad and Young Israel synagogues are encouraging their members to sign a petition imploring the U.S. Justice Department to show evenhandedness with Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of the Agriprocessors plant in Iowa that was the site of a massive immigration raid two years ago.

The petition, hosted at www.justiceforsholom.org and addressed to U.S. Attorney Stephanie Rose in the Northern District of Iowa, states that “Sholom Rubashkin has been treated harshly and vindictively in a prosecution that is likely to go down in history as a shameful permanent stain on American Justice. You have an opportunity today to correct the course that this case has taken by directing that Mr. Rubashkin be treated no differently in the Northern District of Iowa than similar defendants have been treated in other federal jurisdictions.”

The petition had garnered more than 24,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

Rubashkin was convicted in November on 86 out of 91 fraud charges and awaits sentencing. The petition, organized by a committee including members of Rubashkin’s family, alleges that Rubashkin has been singled out for unfair treatment that includes the denial of bail while awaiting sentencing and a harsher sentencing request from the prosecution than for those convicted of similar crimes.

Prosecutors have asked for a life sentence, according to Nathan Lewin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer representing Rubashkin who is not connected to the petition. Agreeing with the petition’s claim, Lewin said his client is being treated differently from any other defendant in these circumstances.

“The prosecutors in Iowa see this as a high-profile case and they can make a career out of it,” Lewin said.

The petition has drawn support from a number of Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Rabbinical Council of America, and Chabad.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, forwarded an e-mail to his membership during Pesach, shortly after receiving a request from Chabad’s main office in Brooklyn. Despite some misconceptions, Simon said, the petition does not argue Rubashkin’s innocence or plead for leniency or to have his conviction overturned.

“It’s saying he should be punished according to the law of the land,” Simon said. “Let him be punished but let him be punished the same as others have been punished.”

That Rubashkin has been denied bail because he’s considered a flight risk to Israel is disconcerting, according to Simon.

“To say that somebody should deserve a different standard of justice because he is a Jew is something we should be concerned about,” he said.

Rabbi Michel Gurkov of Chabad of Wayne said that his members’ response to the petition has been generally positive. A number of people are upset about the circumstances surrounding the case, he said.

“It’s beyond our understanding why the prosecution is demanding such stringent punishment,” he said.

Gurkov also expressed worry that this case could set a precedent for other high-profile Jewish individuals facing criminal charges.

“The thought itself is very disconcerting,” he said.

Repeated calls to the Justice Department’s Office of Intergovernmental and Public Liaison — which the petition directs people to call to voice their concern — were met with either a busy signal or a recording that the office is receiving a high volume of calls.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, cited a handful of immigration raids at Swift & Company meatpacking sites in Colorado that rounded up more than 1,300 illegal immigrants as evidence of the disparity in Rubashkin’s treatment. The leadership of Swift was not treated as harshly as Rubashkin, according to Lerner. None of the company’s leaders was charged and the one union representative convicted of harboring illegal immigrants received a sentence of one year and a day.

“The bottom line is something doesn’t make sense here,” Lerner said. “He committed a crime, we accept that. The issue is the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

Federal authorities launched investigations into the Agriprocessors plant after a May 2008 immigration raid. After a month-long trial, a jury convicted Rubashkin last year on a range of fraud charges, money laundering, and failing to pay his suppliers. A week later, federal prosecutors dismissed all 72 immigration charges against Rubashkin because he had already been convicted of the more serious fraud charges.

“This is not a Madoff story. It’s not somebody who lined his pockets for wealth,” said Rabbi Neil Winkler of Young Israel of Fort Lee, who has not yet distributed the petition among his congregants but plans to speak about it soon. “It’s proper for every Jew to seek equal justice for Sholom Rubashkin, which is what we’re asking for.”

 
 

Kosher clash

Teaneck restaurant at center of OK, RCBC dispute

A kosher restaurant can be made or broken on the quality of its certification. In Teaneck, Ima Restaurant, open for less than a year, has become embroiled in a feud between the local rabbinical board and a national kashrut agency, each accusing the other of impropriety.

Ofira Zaken of Fair Lawn opened Ima in late May with supervision by the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. It occupied the former site of Café Adam, a dairy restaurant that also had issues with certification that eventually led to its closure.

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Ofira Zaken opened Ima Restaurant in Teaneck in May and is now at the center of a dispute between the local RCBC and the OK. Josh Lipowsky

Two weeks after the restaurant opened, the RCBC certificate disappeared from the restaurant’s window. The reason remained largely a mystery. Ima soon came under the supervision of International Kosher Council, a small agency based in New York City. In October, Zaken approached OK Labs, a Brooklyn-based international certifying agency affiliated with Chabad, which granted Ima certification after rekashering the kitchen, changing the locks on the restaurant, and giving the keys to a mashgiach tamidi, a full-time kosher supervisor.

Ima is not the first restaurant in Bergen County to use the OK; the agency also certifies Hamsa in Tenafly and Kosher Express in Fair Lawn. The Teaneck-based Kof-K also certifies Sammy’s Bagels, while Star-K certifies Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s, all in Teaneck. While the RCBC certifies a majority of the kosher restaurants in the area, it respects the decisions of restaurants to seek out other certifications, according to its president, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs.

An e-mail from the RCBC circulated among Orthodox synagogues early last month, however, warned that even under OK supervision, Ima did not satisfy RCBC standards.

“While the OK standards are generally reliable, we regret to say that in this particular instance, its hashgacha does not meet the parameters of the RCBC nor the standards to which our community has become accustomed,” the e-mail read.

The RCBC does not publicly discuss internal issues of kashrut policy, Rothwachs said in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. The issue on Cedar Lane “concerned the working relationship between the store owner, the mashgiach, and the RCBC.”

The RCBC did not object to Ima’s seeking out OK certification, Rothwachs continued. Rather, the RCBC rabbis wanted to make the OK aware of their concerns about the restaurant before it granted supervision.

“Indeed,” Rothwachs wrote, “we were surprised — and disappointed — when we learned that the OK would certify Ima without ever having come to meet with us….”

According to Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, the OK’s rabbinic administrator, the kashrut organization called the RCBC in late October when Ima approached it for certification. The OK offered to meet with RCBC rabbis during the Kosherfest expo in The Meadowlands on Oct. 27 and 28, but the RCBC did not respond, Levy said. Rothwachs said that the invitation came too late to schedule a meeting.

According to Levy, the RCBC explained in phone conversations that the owner of Ima had fired the RCBC mashgiach and acted “chutzpadick.” Levy claimed, in a Nov. 16 statement that was circulated in the community, to have a recording of a meeting between Zaken and the RCBC mashgiach that contradicts the RCBC position that Zaken acted inappropriately. The statement also challenged the RCBC to reveal the standards, mentioned in its initial e-mail, that Ima does not meet.

In a Dec. 6 e-mail to the Standard, Rothwachs maintained that a representative of the OK told the RCBC in a phone conversation the first Wednesday of November that it would not grant certification to the restaurant. The next day, however, the OK announced it would certify Ima and that Friday, according to Rothwachs, canceled a phone meeting with the RCBC to explain the reversal.

“Frankly, we find their assertion that our concerns are without merit to be highly offensive and condescending,” Rothwachs wrote to the Standard, adding that relations between the organizations are “clearly strained.”

Rothwachs would not comment on OK allegations that the issue at Ima had to do with the salary of the mashgiach or Zaken’s behavior, but he dismissed rumors that the certification removal was to avoid competition with Sababa across the street.

The feud has caused confusion among area kosher consumers.

Rabbi Barry Schlesinger of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom spoke of the dispute during a Shabbat sermon after Thanksgiving.

“The bottom line is nowhere did the RCBC say the OK hechsher is not a good, reliable hechsher,” the Conservative rabbi told the Standard. “So if one can eat in another OK restaurant in Bergen County, nobody sees any reason not to eat in another restaurant [certified] by the OK.”

Schlesinger has had discussions with some RCBC rabbis about Ima but has not yet heard what Ima can do to reverse the RCBC position, he said. The RCBC has not been forthcoming in answering questions about the circumstances of its withdrawal and that lack of information is what his congregants are questioning, he said.

“I would assume that to go into a restaurant that has the OK on their letterhead and on their window shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “That’s what I try to encourage people to do, to be discerning consumers.”

The debate has also split loyalties.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck and a member of the RCBC, has told the OK that he sides with the local group.

“I trust Rabbi Rothwachs implicitly,” Simon told the Standard. “I know him, I respect him, he’s a friend. If Rabbi Rothwachs and the other members of the RCBC came to the conclusion that they came to, they have my trust.”

Rabbi Berel Zaltzman of Cong. Bris Avrohom in Fair Lawn, the Chabad synagogue that Zaken attends, questioned the RCBC decision. Zaltzman initially referred Zaken to the OK and vouched for her character.

“[The RCBC] sent a letter to all the communities saying OK is not good,” he said. “It’s very not nice what they did.”

The Orthodox Union, the largest kosher-certification agency in the world, generally will not provide certification to businesses in areas with an established rabbinical board, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s kashrut division and religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Shomrei Emunah. While he would not comment on the situation in Teaneck, he said OU policy is to certify a restaurant in an area with an established va’ad only while working in conjunction with the local board.

“They know their community better,” he said. “They’re also Johnny-on-the-spot in terms of getting to [restaurants]. Our idea is to promote kashrut, so we are generally there to promote and protect local va’adim.”

Any time a restaurant approaches the OK for certification and it had previously been under another certification, standard procedure is to call the previous supervising agency, Levy said. The OK has tried to reach out to the RCBC, he said, but to no avail.

“In this case as soon as [Zaken] called us up, we called the va’ad and asked them to tell us the kashrus problems,” he said.

The OK has since invited RCBC rabbis to its Brooklyn offices, according to Levy, while Rothwachs told the Standard that it is too far away to coordinate a meeting with North Jersey rabbis and the RCBC’s offers to hold teleconferences have been rebuffed.

“I am positive that had they come down to the office at that time we would have convinced them that they were wrong or they would have convinced us that we were wrong,” Levy said. “The statement that they’re making that we refused to meet with them is completely false.”

The organizations are now at an impasse and are seeking mediation.

“The OK has stated emphatically that they will not meet with us unless a third party mediator is present,” Rothwachs wrote on Tuesday. “We maintain that is unnecessary … but we agreed to that proposal in good faith nonetheless.”

For her part, Zaken would like to put this fight behind her.

“I want peace with everybody,” she said. “The community here over six months asked me to do something about the certification. I hope that the community … will accept our restaurant and the OK organization by supporting us. I want everybody together, no exceptions.”

 
 
 
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