Jewish Year In Review: 2008

A year marked by big changes and bigger scandals.

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MyJewishLearning called 2007 "The Year That Might Have Mattered" for its distinct lack of transformational events.

Well, 2008 could not have been more different. There was nothing minor or understated about the major news events of '08, from a savage election season that lasted ten months, to corruption scandals at the highest echelons of government. What we eat and where it comes from changed, while the economy took a nosedive, leaving millions unemployed, and many charities scraping for cash to keep their doors open.

Everything mattered this year, as we learned how interconnected we are--financially, psychologically, and ethically. This may be just the beginning of more transformations to come in 2009, but for now, let's look back at a year of seismic changes. 

Agriprocessors: Where's the Beef?

On May 12th, federal agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, arresting 389 illegal immigrants. Agriprocessors is owned by the Rubashkin family of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and until the raid, supplied about 60% of America's kosher meat and 40% of its kosher poultry.

Immediately after the raid, many parts of the country suffered from kosher meat shortages as Agriprocessors struggled to get back on its feet amid a constant stream of allegations and lawsuits, from child endangerment, to worker safety, sexual harassment, and pollution violations.

On May 23rd, Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, wrote an open letter to Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin expressing deep anguish over the worker mistreatment at the Postville plant, and calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors meat. The letter was published and passed around the Internet, eventually garnering support from rabbis and communities across denominations.

Meanwhile, the fledgling Hekhsher Tzedek, an initiative of the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to certify ethically produced food, was gaining momentum. Though it was officially launched well before the Agriprocessors raid, it now gained significant support. But the Hekhsher Tzedek had its critics too, including some who believed it would dilute the true meaning of kashrut.

There were also some who believed that the Rubashkin family had been unfairly targeted or, at least, prematurely judged as guilty. In addition to creating a petition of support for the Rubashkins, a group of those loyal to the Rubashkins raised money for the family.

In early September, the Iowa attorney general charged Agriprocessors owner Aaron Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three human resources employees with more than 9,000 violations of Iowa's Child Labor law, and the company was fined $10 million. Almost a month and a half later, on October 30th, Sholom Rubashkin was arrested and charged with knowingly conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants at Agriprocessors. A week after that, Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy.

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