The miraculous freedom of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin was the result of years of dedication by numerous individuals and organizations.
On Monday evening in Spring Valley, a reception was held to honor these devoted advocates, particularly three distinguished former legal officials who played a major role in securing the commutation of what many legal scholars had condemned as a wildly disproportionate sentence.
The honored guests were: Philip Heymann, who has served in a number of positions in the State and Justice Departments, including assistant attorney general and deputy attorney general, and who traveled to Spring Valley from Massachusetts, where he is a professor at Harvard Law School; Michael B. Mukasey, former chief judge in the Southern District of New York and U.S. attorney general, who came in from Manhattan with his wife Susan and son Marc, himself a distinguished attorney at the Greenberg Traurig law firm; and Prof. Larry D. Thompson, former deputy attorney general and general counsel at Pepsico, who flew in with his wife Brenda from Georgia, where he is a professor at the University of Georgia Law School. Prof. Thompson also serves as the corporate monitor for Volkswagen AG in their plea settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for the diesel-emissions scandal.
The reception was held at the home of Mr. Ben and Mrs. Chani Philipson, close friends of the Rubashkin family, who have assisted the Rubashkins in numerous ways during the past few years. Earlier in the evening, a private dinner was held at the home of Mr. Sholom Mordechai and Mrs. Leah Rubashkin for Mr. Heymann, the Thompsons, and the Mukaseys, to meet the extended Rubashkin family; as well as a small group of dedicated activists and friends, including the Philipsons; Rabbi Zvi Boyarsky, director of Constitutional Advocacy for the Aleph Institute; Mr. Rubashkin’s attorney Gary (Chaim Yosef) Apfel; and Yaated Ne’eman editor Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz.
All the evening’s honorees provided their services over the past few years on an entirely pro-bono basis.
The theme of the evening was hakaras hatov to Hashem for performing this miracle, and to His devoted messengers for their dedicated hishtadlus.
“Poschin b’chvod achsanya — we begin by honoring our host — Hakadosh Baruch Hu,” Mr. Philipson said in his remarks that opened the evening’s program. “A lot of hard work went into making this happen — but it was great mercy from G-d that He directed us to these wonderful messengers of G-d who made this happen.”
Mr. Philipson asked the audience to give a standing ovation to Mr. Apfel, a partner at the Pepper Hamilton firm in Los Angeles, who nearly five years ago gave up his lucrative law career to focus solely on pro-bono advocacy on behalf of one client: Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. Mr. Apfel has spent much of the past few years flying between the east and west coasts, and many places in between, in his tireless advocacy to rectify an injustice.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the turning point in this case for Sholom Rubashkin was the day that Gary Apfel decided to take on this case,” said Rabbi Boyarsky. “It was an absolute dream to have the lawyer who led the restructuring of General Motors and had 500 lawyers working for him, and was sought out by the government to be a corporate monitor in many cases, who literally dropped his practice and worked 18-hour days for four and a half years, took the financial burden and worked b’lev uv’nefesh.”
“I know that for Gary, the payment is not a 10-digit check; it’s seeing Sholom and Leah and the kids happy, which is worth a lot more.”
Though, through the years, people told Mr. Apfel that he was wasting his time and that there was little hope, “he was never discouraged, and never took ‘no’ for an answer,” said Mr. Philipson.
Indeed, the project to free Mr. Rubashkin at times seemed hopeless to all but those most dedicated. Mr. Apfel recalled how one generous donor commented that while he’s giving money, “I think you’re insane.” To which Mr. Apfel responded, “I may be crazy, but I’m not insane!”
Mr. Apfel noted that while we are not supposed to rely on miracles, we must recognize them when they occur. He recounted just a few of the miracles that occurred on the road to Sholom Mordechai achieving his freedom: Donald Trump, a businessman with no political experience, being elected president; Alan Dershowitz, a liberal Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton yet became a confidante of President Trump, and is credited with finally pushing the Rubashkin commutation over the goal line; Sholom Mordechai received the one commutation President Donald Trump has signed; the fact that it occurred during his first year in office, rather than just before the end of his term; the president signing the commutation despite no political benefit, but simply because it was the right thing to do.
Rabbi Boyarsky, who was not yet 30 years old when Mr. Rubashkin was arrested yet is the man largely responsible for assembling the legal all-star team, noted how the evening’s prestigious honorees are giants in the fields of law and public policy, but were utterly devoted to one man.
Noting that Moshe Rabbeinu, a shepherd, became leader of Jews after he left the flock to go after one sheep that had wandered away, Rabbi Boyarsky said, “Leadership is not just about policy changes that change the trajectory of the country; it’s about caring for every individual.”
“Tonight we thank leaders who’ve given of themselves to help a particular family — and it does change the entire country.”
A short documentary video was played, recalling the past eight years: the horrifying images of the massive federal raid on the Postville meat plant, with immigrant workers being led away by law enforcement; testimonials by Agriprocessors’ employees describing Mr. Rubashkin’s generosity; images from the trial and of the Rubashkin family during those uncertain years; and, finally, of the commutation, which set off celebrations in Jewish communities across the world. Men at Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, bachurim in yeshivah, little boys in cheder, dancing to “Didan Notzach,” the Chabad victory song; dancing and meetings and speeches in Kiryas Yoel, Skver, Brooklyn, and many other cities, with Rebbes, Rabbanim, and Roshei Yeshivah.
It was truly, as Mr. Philipson noted, “a dream come true,” not only for Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and his family, but for the “entire klal Yisrael.”
Mr. Apfel noted that in addition to the evening’s three honorees, there were many others, beginning with President Trump himself, who played a large part in freeing Mr. Rubashkin, including: Sen. Orrin Hatch; Rep. Nancy Pelosi; Iowa attorney Steve Locher; Scott Steinberg, an attorney who played a critical role in helping resolve claims by the bankruptcy trustee; Yated Ne’eman editor Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, who championed Sholom Mordechai’s cause from an early date and raised millions of dollars for his legal defense; Prof. Alan Dershowitz and former FBI Director Louis Freeh, both of whom were out of town and unable to attend the event; and the late Hon. Charles Renfrew, a former federal judge who worked tirelessly on the case but passed away just days before Mr. Rubashkin’s commutation.
“We remember Judge Renfrew fondly, and we know he is looking in and we know he is happy,” said Mr. Apfel.
The many people and organizations that had raised money for the legal defense, including the Crown Heights Committee and Committee for Klal Yisroel Fund, were also acknowledged, as was all of Klal Yisrael for their heartfelt tefillos over the past eight years.
The three honorees each received a beautifully engraved tzedakah box from Mr. and Mrs. Rubashkin.
Mr. Apfel, a Kopyczynitzer Chassid who is also close with Chabad, also received a special gift from the Rubashkin family: a Tanya that was once owned by the Kopyczynitzer Rebbe, Harav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, zy”a, presented by the Rebbe’s grandson, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Heschel.
According to a Rubashkin family member, the sefer was part of a private collection belonging to the present Kopyczynitzer Rebbe, shlita, who had inherited the Tanya. When the Rubashkin family contacted the Rebbe saying that they want to give Gary something that belonged to the Kopyczynitzer Rebbe, the Rebbe graciously gifted this valuable sefer as his own expression of gratitude towards Mr. Apfel.
In introducing the evening’s honorees, Mr. Apfel cited three quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which Mr. Thompson had recently cited during an MLK Day speech in the Department of Justice’s Great Hall.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”
Mr. Apfel said that these three qualities are among those shared by all of the evening’s honorees. He went on to say that “of all their qualities, the one that impresses me the most is their humility despite their greatness.”
The honorees each delivered brief comments.
Professor Heymann said that “It is an honor to be here tonight, to see the happiness of the family. It is a joy to know that there are people like Gary Apfel and Zvi Boyarsky, who are prepared to spend their lives … answering the phone, on behalf of somebody they feel is innocent and deserves to be treated as innocent.”
Judge Mukasey noted the importance of recognizing how unjust and rare the Rubashkin case was, and that we are fortunate to live in a free country.
“We are here principally because we are celebrating the undoing of a great injustice. But it’s an injustice that is not characteristic of the country in which we live. We live in a great country,” said the judge, to loud applause.
Judge Mukasey said that the many legal and political officials who worked hard to rectify this injustice “are characteristic of the system that we all arose to vindicate … So please remember that this is something that should not have happened, and in the ordinary course doesn’t happen … because of the nature of the country in which we live.”
Prof. Thompson said that in nearly 45 years of practicing law, “this case is perhaps the most satisfying, and certainly one of the most important, cases in my career.
“And it’s satisfying for the simple reason that a very serious and shocking injustice was righted. And tonight, being in the Rubashkin home, is something I will never, ever forget, watching this wonderful family be reunited.
“This case is also very important to me because it has taught me a lot about things much more important than the law. Judge Mukasey and I were talking about how unusual a case like this, to be resolved like this, occurs — it’s very unusual. And over the course of [the time] that I’ve been involved in the case, and working with Rabbi Boyarsky, he’s had a tremendous impact on me personally. And when I think about what happened in this case, I think we lawyers, we had some human intervention, and what we did was very important, but at the end of the day, this case was a miracle, resolved by G-d.”
Finally, Sholom Mordechai spoke, expressing his thanks to Hakadosh Baruch Hu and His messengers.
“Tonight is not about me; it’s about G-d’s miracle, and G-d showing what we can accomplish through our unity — getting together and praying together, of believing in G-d, trusting in G-d to right an injustice.
“I always had faith and trust in G-d … I never realty felt alone. I always knew that everything that is happening is from G-d; that’s what we were taught in school, and that’s what I lived by. I was going down a difficult dark time, I didn’t know what’s going on. I was wondering what this part of my life was going to be — I’d enjoyed a very rich part of my life and now I was going to a very poor part of my life: I was wondering how I was going to serve G-d in that part of my life, and I took it on with faith and trust in G-d that he will right the injustice, because I knew it was unjust.
“Like Judge Mukasey said, what happened here is uncharacteristic of this country, but when it does happen, people have to stand up and point it out so that it never, ever happens again to anybody.
“Thank you G-d for sending us such wonderful emissaries — G-d does His wonders through good and righteous people — there is no greater compliment that one can get than to know that G-d is using him to make this world a greater place.”
The festivities concluded with musical entertainment led by Mordechai Ben David. The joyous dancing continued late into the night: Justice officials, attorneys, askanim, community members, dancing with and embracing the man whom they had worked so hard to free, for so long, to rectify an injustice, to believe once again in a great and free country.