Berkeley Orthodox synagogue boycotts Agriprocessors

An Orthodox congregation in Berkeley recently voted to boycott Agriprocessors products because of the company’s alleged labor violations.

The Congregation Beth Israel board of directors decided Sept. 17 that the congregation could no longer, in good conscience, consume Agriprocessors products at synagogue events. The board said the boycott will last until the company provides workers with fair compensation and a safe working environment, and follows dina de’malchutah dina (the law of the land).

“Even though we firmly believe the ritual standards are not in question, the ethical standards are, and the spirit of [kashrut] law has been violated,” said Rabbi Yonatan Cohen.

The congregation is believed to be the first Orthodox synagogue in the Bay Area to boycott the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse.

Cohen decided months before the board’s official vote that the synagogue shouldn’t purchase Agriprocessors’ kosher meat, which is sold under several labels, including Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s. He brought the issue to the congregation at large because “having the community involved in the shul policy was preferable to a top-down decision,” said Juliet Stamperdahl, social action coordinator at the synagogue.

On Sept. 1, about 20 members gathered at the synagogue to learn about the details of Agri-processors, including that the company’s main plant in Postville, Iowa, was raided by immigration authorities this May, uncovering a host of immigration and labor law violations, as well as a number of questionable kosher slaughter practices.

Stamperdahl presented the facts to those at the meeting, after which Cohen shared various Jewish texts with congregants, passages that he hoped would help them gain a broader perspective of what it means to live a kosher life.

Cohen also explained to members that Oakland Kosher Foods and Holy Land in Oakland and Berkeley sells kosher meat other than that produced by Agriprocessors.

Those presentations followed a spirited discussion “that was not very contentious — most people agreed that the Agriprocessors situation was concerning,” Stamperdahl said.

Some Beth Israel members were worried about opposing Agriprocessors when the Orthodox Union had not done so. Still, congregants felt they couldn’t support Agriprocessors if the claims of labor violations are true.

Since the Beth Israel board of directors passed the boycott Sept. 17, the OU has since come out with an ultimatum directed at Agriprocessors, and the Orthodox Rabbinical Counsel of America has also come out pushing the importance of ethical dealings in business.

Beth Israel’s boycott follows numerous other efforts by Jewish organizations to abstain from Agriprocessors meat. In May, the Conservative movement released a statement encouraging its members to “evaluate the appropriateness of consuming Rubashkin products until the current situation is addressed.”

And in June, BBYO teens requested that the organizations’ summer camps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin ban Agriprocessors meat in their dining halls.

In the Bay Area, it’s the policy of Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto to not purchase Agri-processors products. Rabbi David Booth said he would like to support the country’s largest kosher meat producer, but won’t do so until the company can prove the allegations are unfounded or, if they are true, that the company has since improved its work environment.

“Our tradition inspires us to be the best people we can be, both in terms of ben adam l’makom, our relationship with God, and in terms of ben adam l’chavero, our relationship with other humans,” Stamperdahl said.

“We hope that we are able to use our ban to educate and elevate our own behavior and, with any luck, to elevate the behavior of Agriprocessors.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.