Madoff and Rubashkin: A contrast in two scandals

Why is Bernard Madoff under house arrest while former Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin is deemed a 'flight risk' and denied bail?

When I was chosen this year to serve alongside Queen Rania of Jordan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Richard Branson as one of the judges for CNN's Heroes, I met and befriended an incredible woman named Carolyn Lecroy who runs the Messages Project, which videotapes prison inmates reading bedtime stories and communicating with their children. As I watched Carolyn's work with my own children on the DVD CNN sent me, tears streamed down all of our eyes. We immediately identified with the millions of children who have done no wrong but whose parents' incarceration brings them unending suffering. In this spirit, consider the case of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, the former chief executive of Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, who has been denied bail and is being detained pending trial in the Dubuque County jail where his wife can visit him once a week for 25 minutes and communicate only through video conferencing. She is charged with looking after their 10 children on her own, including their 15-year-old autistic son Moishe. WHAT COULD this rabbi have done that would cause the justice system to be so harsh? To be sure the charges against him are serious, including child labor violations and knowingly employing hundreds of illegal immigrants. But Bernie Madoff allegedly ripped off $50 billion and took scores of Jewish charities to the cleaners, including the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. Yet he's sitting under house arrest at his $10 million East Side apartment! Rubashkin and his wife Leah long ago surrendered their passports to federal authorities, not to mention the fact that he was previously fitted with a GPS ankle bracelet. So why did the judge deny a multimillion dollar bail package offered for his release, with 32 people offering mortgages on their homes to back the bond? In his November 20 decision, federal magistrate Jon Stuart Scoles offered the astonishing and disquieting rationale that Rubashkin is a flight risk because "under Israel's Law of Return, any Jew and members of his family who have expressed their desire to settle in Israel will be granted citizenship." Huh? A federal judge designates 5.5 million American Jews as potential flight risks due to Israel's Law of Return, and the Jewish community responds with silence? It is possible that there are uncharitable motives behind the absence of any Jewish outrage to a ruling with potentially devastating consequences to our community's basic rights. Until he imploded, Bernie Madoff was in a business Jews consider sophisticated and noble, finance. He was a secular Jew who made good on Wall Street and even brought the community pride by becoming chairman of Nasdaq. Rubashkin, by contrast, was essentially a glorified shochet and butcher, the country's largest producer of kosher meat. Rubashkin's beard and black hat were enough to unnerve many Jews. But that his missteps at Agriprocessors highlighted what others consider the unsavory sight of Jewish ritual slaughter all but guaranteed Rubashkin's total abandonment at the hands of American Jewry. THIS EXPLAINS why, in sharp contrast to what is developing in the kosher meat industry, there has been no move afoot to establish something akin to "Hechsher Tzedek," a rabbinic certificate of ethical excellence, for financial institutions. After all, how is it that when so many of the people going to jail on Wall Street turn out to be Jewish, the Modern Orthodox and Conservative movements have not immediately launched a campaign, as they are doing with kosher meat, to evaluate firms that invest Jewish money to ensure that they conform to the highest ethical norms in terms of treatment of employees and overcompensation of dead-beat executives? Why is it that only kosher meat is being singled out as being in need of ethical reform? I suggest it is because the Jewish community has an obvious sense of discomfort with ritual observances that the non-Jewish world finds confusing or distasteful rather than the Jewish money machine which, when it works soundly, everyone rather enjoys. To be sure, Judaism commands the highest ethical treatment of animals, including the commandment to feed one's livestock and pets before oneself. Indeed, the whole purpose of shechita is the severing of an animals' carotid arteries leading to death by asphyxiation so that an animal dies without suffering. I for one applaud many of PETA's goals of ensuring humane treatment of animals, even as I decry some of its more radical means, like their comparison of the slaughter of animals to the slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust. BUT LET'S be honest, the hatred that Jewry feels for Rubashkin cannot be completely divorced from his profession as a giant kosher butcher no more than secular Israelis natural scorn for the bearded settlers can be completely divorced from their view of them as religious fanatics who are obstacles to peace. Consider the fact that Israelis have expressed no strong outrage against former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg who recently published a book, highlighted in The New York Times recently, suggesting that "Israeli Arabs are like German Jews during the Second Reich and that the entire society felt eerily like Germany just before the rise of Hitler." Burg adds that "the Israeli government would probably soon pass the equivalent of the Nuremberg laws, with provisions like a prohibition on marriage between Jews and Arabs." Now who is more of a fanatic? The settlers, or Burg who equates Israel with Hitler but is largely given a pass because of his essentially secular bearing (diminutive yarmulke notwithstanding). WHEN I was a teenager at Chabad yeshiva in Los Angeles, my friend Dovid Goldman's sister Leah married a young rabbinical student from a Lubavitch family distinguished for its pedigree and vast philanthropy, including a decades-old soup kitchen in Brooklyn that fed thousands. His name was Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin and there was great chatter in our yeshiva because his wife Leah was a ba'al teshuva (returnee to Judaism). I had never met him but respected him for rejecting some of the sillier ideas inherent in Orthodox courtship, including the fact that those from religious backgrounds do not marry those who are new to Jewish observance. Those who read my columns know that I can be a sharp critic of this kind of Orthodox excess. Still, I have always been extremely proud of my faith, just as I have encouraged my Christian and Islamic brothers and sisters to be proud of theirs. If Rubashkin is guilty, he will pay a terrible price. But our rejection of him as some kind of fiend before he even goes to trial says more about us than it does about him. The writer is the founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. His upcoming book, The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Recreate Desire and Recapture Passion for Life will be published by HarperOne in January.