One year after a federal raid on the nation's largest kosher meat-packing plant, the Jewish community is rightly engaged in constructive dialogue about just what it means to be kosher.
The May 12, 2008 raid nabbed 389 undocumented workers at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa. The owners of the plant face charges of labor violations, money-laundering and immigration fraud.
The revelations about the unsanitary and exploitative working conditions at the plant sparked an uproar in the Jewish world. It spurred renewed activism on immigration reform and gave legs to what had been a fringe movement known as "ethical kashrut," extending the concept beyond the way food is prepared to applying ethical standards for employment practices.
It's too late for the Agriprocessors workers, most of whom have already been deported back to Guatemala and Mexico.
It is ironic that just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that undocumented workers who use phony identification can't be considered identity thieves unless they knowingly use I.D. numbers from real people. Among those arrested in Postville, 270 were charged with identity theft. Fearful of a harsher sentence for that crime, they accepted plea deals in which they agreed not to fight deportation.
And it could be too late for Postville itself, a small town that once boasted 2,000 where a vibrant Chabad community had sprung up, drawn to employment at the kosher plant. Now the community -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- has been decimated.
But following the shock and dismay, the ethics of kashrut has taken on a life of its own. "Kosher food and kosher-food production has been a hot topic of conversation, even among those who never kept kosher before," says Sue Fishkoff, a veteran journalist who is working on a book about kashrut and the kosher-food industry.
The signs are encouraging. In New York, Fishkoff reports in JTA this week, an Orthodox social-justice organization awarded its first seals of approval for ethical business practices to six kosher restaurants and a kosher supermarket in Manhattan. Uri L'Tzedek, founded by rabbinical students at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, timed its announcement to the anniversary of the Agriprocessors raid. The seals recognize fair wages, safe work environments and overall good treatment of workers.
The Conservative movement has spawned its own social-justice program for food manufacturers. And among Reform Jews, the movement's youth organization has proposed focusing on ethical Jewish eating as its yearlong study project for next year.
Keeping kosher has always forced adherents to think differently about the food they eat. Last year's scandal takes it one step further, enabling us to think about kashrut in a broader way.