Five years have passed since a sentence was handed down in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that pierced the collective heart of the Jewish people.
The notion that in the United States of America, a land that prides itself on justice and freedom, it should be possible for a man accused of financial improprieties to receive a sentence longer than that of many people convicted of murder, is in itself an outrage. But the nightmarish saga of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin is so egregious that it drew condemnations from legal experts from across the country and the political divide.
The Rubashkin family and their company, Agriprocessors, did not just make kosher products. They were on a mission to make kosher meat and poultry so affordable that even irreligious Jews should have no compunctions about buying it. It was out of a commitment to this mission that the family patriarch and company founder, Aaron Rubashkin, persuaded his son Sholom Mordechai — a talmid chacham then teaching in Atlanta — to move to Postville, Iowa, to help run Agriprocessors.
Tragically, it was in the course of this mission that Sholom ended up being the victim of a devastating travesty of justice.
As readers will likely remember, the judicial farce of the Rubashkin case started well before he was even put on trial. Details of the long list of alarming actions undertaken by the federal prosecutors and the judge involved in the case — which began with an unprecedented and much criticized immigration raid and numerous ex parte and undisclosed meetings between the judge and the prosecutors, and included initially denying him bail because as a Jew he would be granted citizenship were he to flee to Israel — would likely fill an entire book. It was, however, the draconian 27-year sentence that stunned, infuriated and galvanized the global Jewish community.
No less than 86 legal experts — including six former attorneys general; senior Department of Justice officials; United States attorneys and federal judges — signed a friend of the court brief in this case, stating that the sentence was unfair and unreasonable.
As many have pointed out, Rubashkin’s extraordinarily stiff sentence was largely the result of the district court’s finding that the bank loss incurred by the banks involved in this case was approximately $26 million, though another defendant found responsible in an unrelated case for a similar loss received a sentence of a year and a day.
Prior to sentencing, attorneys for Rubashkin had argued that much of this loss was actually the fault of the U.S. government’s insistence that no member of the Rubashkin family could be involved in any bid for Agriprocessors’ assets. This “No-Rubashkin edict,” coupled with a governmental threat of forfeiture, deterred interested buyers.
Subsequently, new evidence came to light that not only underscored this fact but revealed that the government sought to conceal it from Rubashkin’s lawyers and presented misleading evidence to the court.
A company that had originally stated its intent to buy Agriprocessors for $40 million was informed by the U.S. Attorney’s office that no member of the Rubashkin family or any related entity could have any management, consulting or ownership role in the business going forward. If it was discovered that any Rubashkin was involved in the business, there would be “very bad consequences.” Not surprisingly, the would-be buyer was frightened off by the threat.
In the end, the company was sold for a fraction of that amount, only $8.5 million.
Following the sentencing, many in the community were hopeful — if not confident — that it would be overturned on appeal. New evidence was obtained that shed grave doubts on the judge’s impartiality. It turned out that she was deeply involved in planning the original immigration raid, and the government had concealed this information from the defense.
Even when the appeals court surprisingly rejected the appeal, it was hoped that the Supreme Court would take the case. To the consternation of legal experts and Jews worldwide, that didn’t happen.
Five years later, as Sholom sits in jail, fortifying himself with emunah and bitachon, a group of devoted askanim have continued the legal fight and efforts to end this horrendous injustice.
We in the broader community must do our part as well to ensure that the passage of time does not weaken our commitment to this cause. It is imperative that we let Sholom know that he has not been forgotten, that the global Jewish community stands united at his side, in agony over his plight.
We must redouble our efforts to daven for Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivkah, and do all we possibly can to support efforts on his behalf.
May Hakadosh Baruch Hu listen to our tefillos and speedily secure the release of Sholom Mordechai.
(Reprinted from Monday’s daily Hamodia)