Open Orthodoxy

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Rabbi Pesach Lerner's unedited response

update (7/28/08): It's interesting that Rabbi Pesach Lerner's criticism of Uri L'Tzedek Executive Director Rabbi Ari Weiss lecturing at a Young Israel, converges with a news release that states,
The National Council of Young Israel is coordinating and leading a mission of several dozen Jewish community and rabbinic leaders representing major Orthodox Jewish organizations and large Jewish cities to the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa on Thursday, July 31.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is quoted,
This mission is meant to provide Jewish leaders from across the United States with a factual perspective of the true situation at the Agriprocessors plant, untainted by the rumors and innuendos that have been circulating in many circles. As one of the major producers of kosher meat in the U.S., the success or failure of Agriprocessors is an issue that will directly impact Jewish communities that purchase kosher meat and poultry across the country. The situation warrants that we approach this with an open mind and obtain a first-hand account of the situation so that we can draw our own conclusion for the betterment of the American Jewish community.
This may be one reason why Rabbi Lerner is "embarrassed" -- A Young Israel congregration announces that they're hosting a leading critic of Agriprocessors while NCYI announces that they're leading a delegation, that one might infer, is biased towards supporting Agriprocessors. I give NCYI a lot of credit for leading a delegation with "several dozen Jewish community and rabbinic leaders representing major Orthodox Jewish organizations and large Jewish cities". That seems to be one visit more to Postville than any of Uri L'Tzedek's leaders.

From my back/forth email dialogue with Rabbi Pesach Lerner it is apparent that Rabbi Pesach Lerner's original intention was for me to publish his unedited response to Uri L'Tzedek leader to lecture at Young Israel.

After I posted Rabbi Pesach Lerner Responds, Rabbi Lerner emailed me, "You have added words, phrases to indicate things I did not say or possibly mean. You could have put up my response w/o your commentary—" I then edited my original article with clarifications based on his criticism.

I wrote Rabbi Lerner that "I am more than happy to still post your complete response to me. Please just let me know. The reason I did not do so was because your tone appears scathing and incendiary in a way that I couldn't imagine you would want to be published 100% verbatim."

Rabbi Lerner responded, "I have no problem for you to post my original. I made some honest statements and asked some basic questions."

Rabbi Lerner is the executive director of a national Jewish organization and the Jewish community deserves to hear his thoughts on this matter. Since I solicited a response from Rabbi Lerner, it is only fair that I post his unedited response to ensure that his comments were not taken out of context, especially if that is his desire. As one can see from my comments above, I was hesitant to publish Rabbi Lerner's response, as-is. Hence, I wanted to doubly confirm that it was acceptable to publish his complete response. Some of Rabbi Lerner's "strong" comments were included in my blog post, Rabbi Pesach Lerner Responds. However, I (hesitantly) included certain comments of Rabbi Lerner's only after accepting his criticism of my original article.

If Rabbi Ari Weiss would like to respond to Rabbi Lerner's questions and comments, I would be happy to post his unedited response at my blog. Although, I think that is a generous offer considering that Ari Hart, Director of Uri L'Tzedek has not answered follow-up interview questions that I emailed to him and questions I published in my posts Uri L'Tzedek, an Exposé and Agriprocessors still not "kosher" enough for Ari Hart .

Here is Rabbi Lerner's unedited response:

I feel embarrassed for the membership of the young Israel of Stamford.

If they want to be lectured to by a young man with limited knowledge of ethics, of kashrut, of the totality of Judaism, by a young man who has limited experience in life in general, in Judaism more specifically, I guess that is their prerogative.

Ethics is not just a buzzword, it is real. One must earn the right to discuss the ethics of something. Let the members of YI of Stamford decide if this young man has earned that right.

Does he have direct first hand knowledge of what he speaks? Ethics or kashrut?

Does his ethics dictate to him to harm other Jews?

Does his ethics dictate that one not give another person the benefit of a doubt?

Is his ethics applied to everything he does?

I am just wondering—

There are so many experienced, educated individuals ---starting with the Young Israel of Stamford’s new rabbi, who impressed us with his breadth of knowledge and presentation ---within the synagogue, the Jewish community of Stamford and greater Jewish community, who can speak on a myriad of Jewish and general topics. It is a shame that they are not asked to share their knowledge.

Sept 13 is two weeks before Rosh Hashana, there are so many people to invite and so many relevant topics to discuss. Sept 13 is two days after Sept 11, an event that carries with it so much memory, discussion, introspection.

I am sure that many members of the Young Israel are embarrassed by this topic and speaker; I feel for them.

The National Council of Young Israel has access to so many wonderful speakers on so many topics.

We share this information to our branches, all over the country. We are happy to assist the Young Israel of Stamford as well.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rabbi Pesach Lerner Responds

Updated: 7/27 Based on Rabbi Pesach Lerner's feedback, I have updated this article.

In my previous blog post I discussed that Rabbi Ari Weiss, Executive Director of Uri L’Tzedek (a social justice organization) and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah musmach (ordainee) is scheduled to lecture at the Young Israel of Stamford, CT about “Ethical Issues and Kashrut”. I wondered what the Executive Director of the National Council of Young Israel, Rabbi Pesach Lerner thought about this speaking engagement since from several newspaper statements Rabbi Lerner appears to be an Uri L’Tzedek detractor. I contacted Rabbi Lerner via email and received a timely response from him on 7/25, which I appreciate. He stated to me via email that he "feels embarassed for the membership of the Young Israel of Stamford" and that he is "sure that many members of the Young Israel are embarrassed by this topic and speaker; I feel for them". However, Rabbi Lerner also stated "that it is their prerogative" to have Rabbi Ari Weiss lecture.

Rabbi Lerner’s criticism can be distilled to one key statement he wrote to me, “Ethics is not just a buzzword, it is real. One must earn the right to discuss the ethics of something." Rabbi Lerner continued, "Let the members of YI of Stamford decide if this young man has earned that right.” It was apparent that Rabbi Lerner does not believe that Rabbi Ari Weiss has "earned that right", stating that Weiss is a "young man with limited knowledge" of the lecture subject matter and the "totality of Judaism", as well as has "limited [Judaic life] experience". Based on that criteria it seems that Rabbi Lerner would not approve of other individuals from Uri L'Tzedek lecturing at a Young Israel, since their backgrounds appear to be similar to Rabbi Weiss' (see YCT Alumni and The Uri L'tzedek Leadership Team).

Rabbi Lerner provided examples of "experienced" and "educated" lecturers one might expect at a Young Israel:
There are so many experienced, educated individuals ---starting with the Young Israel of Stamford’s new rabbi [Rabbi Naftali Wolfe], who impressed us with his breadth of knowledge and presentation ---within the synagogue, the Jewish community of Stamford and greater Jewish community, who can speak on a myriad of Jewish and general topics.

Sept 13 is two weeks before Rosh Hashana, there are so many people to invite and so many relevant topics to discuss. Sept 13 is two days after Sept 11, an event that carries with it so much memory, discussion, introspection…The National Council of Young Israel has access to so many wonderful speakers on so many topics. We share this information to our branches, all over the country. We are happy to assist the Young Israel of Stamford as well.
I noticed that the Stamford YI presents themselves as being affiliated with with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. I wonder what Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union thinks about this, especially since Uri L'Tzedek was attacking Agriprocessors, a kashrus customer of the OU. I emailed him this blog post, requesting a statement. We'll see if he responds.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Uri L'Tzedek leader to lecture at Young Israel

The Young Israel of Stamford, CT appears to be thumbing their noses at Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Executive Director of the National Council of Young Israel. On Sept. 13th, Rabbi Ari Weiss, Executive Director of Uri L'Tzedek is scheduled to lecture there about "Ethical Issues and Kashrut". That's very interesting, since Rabbi Lerner blasted Uri L'Tzedek for their "ethical kashrut" activism against Agriprocessors. In Forward, Rabbi Lerner chastized Uri L'Tzedek's boycotting efforts against Agriprocessors by stating "'we’re a bunch of idiots' to be Jews boycotting other Jews". Rabbi Pesach Lerner "described Uri L’Tzedek’s organizers as being 'young kids who need something to put them on the map' who are taking advantage of Agriprocessor’s current problems".

Another concern might be that Rabbi Ari Weiss (class of '07) is a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah since it appears that the National Council of Young Israel is not very fond of YCT students. It has been speculated that the NCYI targeted Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduates in its tightening of rabbinical candidate requirements to weed out YCT candidates. I wonder if that covers speaking engagements as well - especially ones that are potentially controversial.

I have contacted Rabbi Lerner for a statement. We'll see if he responds.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Native American Judaism

Rabbi Gershon Winkler is a controversial figure who is the founder of the Walking Stick Foundation which is “dedicated to the restoration and preservation of aboriginal Jewish spirituality, occasionally sharing events with teachers indigenous to Native American and other earth-honoring traditions.” In an article titled Times of transition, written a little over a year ago by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduate Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, there are parallel themes. Rabbi Kleinberg has presented many controversial views in his writings, however this has to be one of the strangest things to originate from Kleinberg: He discusses his experiences at a Native American "bar mitzvah".

When Kleinberg refers to the “bar mitzvah boy” I am not completely sure whether Kleinberg is referring to a Native American lad or an actual Jewish bar mitzvah boy partaking in a Native American ritual. It appears that Kleinberg is referring to a Native American boy as the “bar mitzvah boy”. My cognitive dissonance may be due to the fact that I am hesitant to believe the more idiotic of the two asinine options - that Kleinberg would repeatedly refer to a coming-of-age Native American male as a "bar mitzvah boy" and bizarrely integrate Jewish motifs such as the "young warrior" was prepared for the "day he would be called to the Torah and join his tribe alongside his elders." Regardless, it’s stuff like this that delegitimizes Open Orthodoxy, and makes others wonder what YCT's criteria for smicha (rabbinical ordination) is. Here’s the article:
Anyone that has ever been to a shvitz will know how cleansing it can be to sit in a room at extreme temperatures. One of my fondest memories from living in New York City was making my too-infrequent visits to the Russian/Turkish Bath House on 10th Street in Manhattan. And so, I recently jumped at the opportunity to experience a Southwestern-style shvitz.

The difference here was that I was not only cleansed from the inside out, but I was also replenished with a spirit of connectedness from the outside in.

It was my great honor to attend a "warrior initiation" ceremony for a young man about to join his elders as a bar mitzvah.

The ritual we shared began with a Native American prayer-chant accompanied by the rhythmic beating of a drum. The song, although in a foreign language, directed my senses to what was to follow.

Following the chant, 12 men and two not-yet-men (the bar mitzvah boy was accompanied by his younger cousin) got onto their hands and knees and crawled, one after the other, into the cramped hut. The diameter of the hut was no more than 15 feet and was no greater than five feet at its highest point. Just as the Mishna describes how the courtyard of the Temple expanded, as it were, on Yom Kippur to allow for the people to bow down during the service, so too, as the ritual continued and the intensity grew, it seemed as if the hut was expanding around us.

The ceremony consisted of four separate rounds inside the small willow-ribbed hut commonly known as a sweat lodge. In the first round, there were seven "stones," or coals, brought in to heat the enclosure. In each subsequent round, another seven were introduced in the ritual manner, totaling 28 stones by the fourth round. As each round got hotter, so too the intensity of the experience increased.

For the next two or more hours, I participated in one of the most moving and meaningful rite-of-passage ceremonies I have ever experienced. Once inside, the doorway closed, enveloping us in darkness, the smell of herbs rose from the pit in the center and the temperature increased. Each of us shared with the bar mitzvah some insight from our own journeys in life and offered with it a blessing for his.

I listened to a grandfather's sense of connection to a grandson named after his own deceased father; a stranger's blessing of wisdom and meaning in life; and a father's tears of joy and hope for his son's future.

As well as prayers and blessings for our "warrior," we also offered prayers for loved ones in need of healing and for a world in need of fixing. And with the passing of each of the four rounds, we concluded with a traditional Hebrew song, or a Native American chant or a good, old bluegrass sing-a-long.

By day's end, after the sun had dropped below the horizon - appropriately drawing our attention to times of transition and transformation - we crawled back out of that hut not only cleansed, but also spiritually replenished by our experiences with each other and by the knowledge that we had appropriately prepared our young "warrior" for the day he would be called to the Torah and join his tribe alongside his elders.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Big Questions

Big Question: Which Yeshivat Chovevei Torah alumni does YCT currently endorse?
Big Answer: All of them!

In previous blog posts I discuss how YCT explicitly and implicitly endorses their alumni. One simple example is that every graduate is proudly listed on the YCT Alumni page. Some graduates receive recognition above and beyond the alumni page and are featured in other YCT media. For example, Rabbi Josh Feigelson was recently featured by YCT on the "IN AND ABOUT CHOVEVEI" Alumni News page in the latest edition of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah newsletter for his project:
Rabbi Joshua Feigelson (YCT Class ‘05), Rabbi of the Northwestern Hillel, has launched AskBigQuestions, an initiative to bring people together for “conversations about questions that matter.” The initiative consists of a website ( as well as a print media campaign and faculty-student discussion series.
The AskBigQuestions site presents “Big Questions of life that all human beings wonder about” and that anyone can answer. The selection of questions appears to be very limited and very deliberate since the questions are ultimately controlled by AskBigQuestions, not its consumers. AskBigQuestions asks profound questions such as "Can you be religious and queer?", "What are you addicted to?", and "Can you ever really be just friends?"

Are those questions "big enough" to be topics of YCT shiurim? I wonder if any YCT rabbis have been inspired by their fellow alumnus to pose those same questions to their respective congregants.

There are some very informative links on the "Want to go further?" section of the Can you ever really be just friends? page, such as "Crushes & Friends: One lesbian's reflections", and "Friends, Fun and Sex: Writer Jay Michaelson’s thoughts." As Rabbi Feigelson might say, “This is good stuff.”

Some previous items of interest about Rabbi Feigelson are:
- Feigelson has stated that it's ok if Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) is fictional (Pesach: Celebrate or Cancel)
- Feigelson has praised Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's Jewish Renewal-oriented book on Tehillim (Weeping for Psalms)
- Feigelson has praised Norman Fischer's Buddhist-oriented book on Tehillim (Weeping for Psalms)
- Feigelson is rabbinic advisor for a Shira Hadasha-style congregation (Open Orthodox congregations)

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah certainly appears to tacitly accept Feigelson and his efforts. It seems obvious that an Orthodox rabbinical seminary like YCT would be conscientious to only publish people and news stories they approved of, or otherwise provide a disclaimer if those views did not reflect YCT’s.

Big Question: Who and what won't Yeshivat Chovevei Torah endorse?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Open Orthodox congregations

The Yeshivat Chovevei Torah alumni page promises, "BRINGING OPEN ORTHODOX RABBINIC LEADERSHIP TO A COMMUNITY NEAR YOU!" YCT appears to be making good on that promise.

Rabbi Josh Feigelson, a Yeshivat Chovevei Torah alumnus, is the recently installed rabbinic advisor of the Kol Sasson congregation. The home page states:
At Kol Sasson, women lead kabbalat shabbat, pesukei dezimrah, the Torah service, and fully participate in the Torah reading. This is done in the context of a traditional minyan with ten men and a mechitza. For a detailed discussion of the halakhot surrounding women's participation in Torah reading and in leading some parts of the service, please visit the links on our site.
Rabbi Feigelson's congregation seems to be exactly like a Shira Hadasha egalitarian prayer congregation. I wonder if there is any difference? Rabbi Feigelson has been featured on this blog before:
- Pesach: Celebrate or Cancel
- Weeping for Psalms

Here is a previous blog post that descibes another, now defunct Open Orthodox congregation, Kidma: Open Orthodox rabbis further radicalize left-wing Orthodoxy

Monday, July 21, 2008

Shabbos for everyone!

In my second blog post, I discussed a controversial Pesach Haggadah project that Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow (a Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduate) was involved in. We now see Rabbi Katz Orlow in a YouTube video giving a brief dvar Torah about Pesach, stating that the liberation of Pesach (from ha lachma anya) means “that we say we’re the hosts”. Rabbi Orlow translates this idea into practicality by stating how wonderful it was for him to participate in a recent “interfaith Shabbat” (e.g. hosting others) and that he had the “distinct pleasure and honor of doing a learner’s service”.

Who knows what exciting interfaith encounters are on the horizon for future YCT graduates! Maybe partnering with a Messianic congregration on Yom Kippur? Here's the video (at 2 minutes he discusses the "interfaith Shabbat"):

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Chicken hugger, chicken killer

In the recent edition of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah newsletter there is an article titled “Animal Instincts: Student Seeks Insight Through Sh’khitah [ritual slaughter] Training”. The article was probably written with genuine solemnity, but instead is hilarious. I don’t think I’m being insensitive at all. Everyone I have read selected passages to has burst out laughing. (Or, maybe we’re all just insensitive.) To preface, I’m not a vegetarian. In fact, writing this blog post made me hungry for some BBQ chicken. I’m sure that PETA could have a field day with this:
Andy Kastner, a second-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, spends a lot of time thinking about animals. He believes all life is sacred and every living creature deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.

The slight, curly-haired rabbi-to-be looks and sounds like a young man who wouldn’t hurt a fly. And yet, on a rainy afternoon in late February, he stood in the backyard of a Scarsdale synagogue, holding a knife to the throat of a six-week-old chicken. Moments later, Andy’s borrowed white butcher’s coat was stained with the animal’s blood and the chicken was dead.

Andy says he believes his love of animals sparked his interest in sh’khitah [ritual slaughter]. “When I was exploring my role as a rabbi, I realized this was [a] project I could take on,” the 28-year-old student explains. “I wanted to feel the fear of taking an animal’s life out of this world to sustain myself. I wanted to reconnect with the sanctity and fragility of life.”
Let me get this straight, Kastner kills animals because he loves them and wants “to feel the fear of taking an animal’s life out of this world”. That's just creepy. Since it seems like he has a bad case of being born under the sign of Mars (Shabbos 156a), I guess it's better that his predilection is for animals.

Kastner states, "The first time I performed sh’khitah I broke down in tears—I was inconsolable, it was an incredible feeling to watch an animal leave this world at my hands". While Andy was experiencing the "euphoria of the kill", was the chicken blubbering too?

Leslie [Andy’s wife] says Andy has learned a great deal throughout the training process. “He has a deep sense of kavannah when doing sh’khitah,” she says. “I still remember his first time. He called to tell me the details and we both had so many emotions. The meal we ate that evening—his first chicken—was very meaningful. We felt a deep connection to the food we were putting into our bodies.”
Just beautiful. I wonder if that's a new YCT pastoral counseling technique to strengthen spousal intimacy - "slaughter therapy".

Kastner says, "I’m a little afraid this is going to become a circus or a novelty act and people will just want to see it, it’s not the kind of thing most Jewish boys learn how to do.” Why not allow others to "feel the fear of taking an animal’s life out of this world" and experience the "incredible feeling to watch an animal leave this world at [his] hands"? I can't wait to see what Andy kills next!

Kastner’s goal is to create a kosher meat brand called “Tikun Harvest” that “provide[s] a holistic eating experience that invites spirit and God to the table”. It sounds like a marketing ploy to sell expensive meat to guilt-ridden carnivorous chicken hugging vegan wannabees.

I have some serious commentary on Kastner’s and YCT’s agenda, but this whole thing is just too ridiculous to be serious.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rebbetzin role-models

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a rabbi (who was a Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduate) of an “Open Orthodox” congregation. One topic we discussed was that his rebbetzin was not aligned with some principles of tznius (Jewish modesty laws). The Rebbetzin wore pants, shorts, short-sleeved mid-riffed shirts and most importantly did not cover her hair except maybe when attending shul. Using hair-covering (a tznius requirement for Orthodox Jewish married women) as a basic guideline, I asked the rabbi how could married women who adhered to a stricter standard of modesty than his wife be expected to view his wife as a role model for themselves. Why should they attend a shul where they felt they were more observant than the rebbetzin? I’m certain that the rabbi wanted his shul to be “open” to everyone, but realistically an entire segment of practicing Orthodox Jews were inherently alienated by this inconsistency. The rabbi understood my viewpoint, but his bottom-line response was that it was his wife’s choice.

In the most recent issue of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah newsletter it is encouraging to read an article about a couple of “YCT rebbetzins” who are concerned about being role-models for other Jewish women. Both rebbetzins cover their hair and wear skirts in public. Toby Goldfisher Kaplowitz the wife of a YCT musmach states, “It’s very complicated for me because I have a real leadership role in the community, I think a lot of how my decisions will be viewed by other people.” Gabi Gelman the wife of an honorary YCT alumnus relates, “When I grew up, I wore pants but I don’t anymore, I am concerned about how people will view me – they’ll feel like I’m not observant because I wear pants.”

Some right-wing Orthodox Jews might take issue with the degree of hair-covering being done, or that the rebbetzins' tznius motivation appears to be driven by the perception of others, but please give some credit where it is due.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Agriprocessors still not "kosher" enough for Ari Hart

Ari Hart, co-director of Uri L'Tzedek was recently interviewed by The Jew and the Carrot blog.

First, let me say that I commend Hart that he acknowledged (whether intentional or not) a couple of key points that I raised in my article Uri L'Tzedek, an Exposé by stating “[Uri L'Tzedek] recognize[s] that Agriprocessors provides a critical service to the industry in supplying kosher meat to far-flung locations where there would normally be no other options.” and “There are bigger, more systemic questions to ask around industrial-beef in general.” I don't necessarily agree with Hart's questions, but at least his statement somewhat acknowledges that Agriprocessors problems aren't merely a Jewish one.

Ari Hart also makes statements that I find troubling,
Given everything that has happened at Agriprocessors, I personally doubt the holiness of the intentions of the owners of Agriprocessors, and I doubt their ability to produce the kosher meat that I would feel comfortable eating at my personal Shabbat table. Because of these issues, in addition to the recent deceptive, mean spirited, and divisive PR campaign recently run by Agriprocessors’ PR team where they impersonated a rabbi, bought up Uri L’Tzedek domain names, and used other nasty tactics, I am not comfortable supporting the company.
Hart's statement is correct that 5WPR (Agriprocessors PR firm), has acted "deceptive" and "mean spirited" by impersonating real people in the comments section of web sites that have been critical of Agriprocessors. On the other hand, maybe Hart can explain why he is accusing 5WPR of buying the UriLTzedek .com and .org domain names. I haven’t seen any evidence yet proving they’re responsible, and FailedMessiah who broke this story is fairly thorough.

Concerning Uri L’Tzedek’s domain names, how incompetent can Uri L’Tzedek be? The inception of Uri L’Tzedek was over a year ago! Why didn't they register their domain names in the past fourteen months? It takes two minutes to do. Did they even bother to trademark their name?

It's interesting that Hart states there was a "consensus among the Uri [L'Tzedek] leadership" to end the public Agriprocessors boycott, and yet feels compelled to be vocal that he is still continuing his personal boycott by making a conscientious decision to not eat Agriprocessors products because he "doubt[s]" the "holiness of the intentions of the owners of Agriprocessors", "doubts [Agriprocessors] ability to produce the kosher meat that [he] would feel comfortable eating at [his] personal Shabbat table", and because Agriprocessors PR firm has acted "deceptive, mean spirited" and "used other nasty tactics". Of course Ari Hart doesn't have to purchase Agriprocessors products. That's his right. But, his dual position of ending the public boycott and being aggressively outspoken that he is still maintaining one privately seems not only inconsistent but "wussy". From a diplomatic perspective, if Hart truly felt that ending the public boycott was justified, he might have either kept his personal thoughts to himself or chose innocuous verbiage. Or, Hart might be expressing his personal feeling that the public boycott ended prematurely.

Hart discussed Uri L'Tzedek's efforts with Agriprocessors over the past two months,
Our one struggle as [the Uri L'Tzedek] leadership team was that since the end of May, we’ve had to shift almost all our organizational energies into this [Agriprocessors] project at the expense of the other issues we’ve engaged with this year, such as the rights of domestic workers, health care, racism, and others.
How much "energy" has Uri L'Tzedek expended with Agriprocessors activism in the last two months or the past eight months for that matter? From my interview with Hart it appears Uri L'Tzedek has accomplished very little concerning Agriprocessors. How has Uri L'Tzedek been spending their time that they "had to shift almost all [their] organizational energies" into Agriprocessors?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Who leads Uri L'Tzedek?

update 7/20/08: Looks like the leadership link is back up.

There is a curious update on the Uri L'Tzedek web site main menu. Within the last two days, the link to their "Leadership Team" page has disappeared.

Here's a snapshot of the menu before and after:
The Uri L'Tzedek leadership team page is still available at Uri L'Tzedek leadership team. Here is it's contents:

From left: Aaron Finkelstein, Shmuly Yanklowitz, Ari Hart, Tsufit Daniel

From left: Ari Weiss, Ari Hart, Shmuly Yanklowitz

If Uri L'Tzedek's leadership has changed, maybe Uri L'Tzedek can issue a press release? Or, maybe the removal of the leadership team link was a mistake, in which case they should immediately put it back. Since Uri L'Tzedek is a non-profit organization collecting donations from the public, the public has a right to know who is currently running Uri L'Tzedek.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Uri L'Tzedek, an Exposé

Last week via email, I interviewed Ari Hart, Co-director of Uri L'Tzedek about their activism against Agriprocessors. I then sent him a draft review copy of the following article. I stated, "If you would like to provide a response to go with [my article], I'll post that too." I also asked him to provide factual corrections as needed. I have not received any response from Hart since last Thursday. I was waiting about 5-7 days to hear back from him before publishing my article.

How interesting that today, I just saw the following headline on JTA: Orthodox group [Uri L'Tzedek] drops meat boycott and also a statement by Uri L'Tzedek. Ari Hart gave me no inkling in my interview that they were even considering dropping the boycott a mere five days later.

The JTA states, "On Tuesday, the group said it was suspending the boycott because the company "is beginning to take significant steps towards directly addressing the concerns" raised about treatment of its workers."

I praise Uri L'Tzedek for dropping the boycott. Kudos to them! It's the right thing to do for the kosher consumer. It looks like they removed the link to Establishments in your area that use non-Agriprocessors meat on their main menu.

It is very interesting that because of "early signs of reform, Uri L'tzedek is no longer calling for the community to abstain from purchasing Agriprocessors' products." The Uri L'Tzedek boycott of "less than a month" was certainly short-lived. Hmm...I wonder if my impending article had anything to do with with their decision to suspend their boycott? Maybe, maybe not, but I won't ever know since it appears that Ari Hart has decided to not respond to me. It looks like Hart is following the Avi Weiss public relations handbook that the best way to respond to criticism is to not respond. If that's so, why should Agriprocessors or any of Uri L'Tzedek's future activist "partners" (as Ari Hart labeled Agriprocessors) respond to Uri L'Tzedek?

I am still publishing my article with the hopes that Uri L'Tzedek truly commits itself as a positive vehicle for activism instead of one centered around on-line petitions and boycotts. In the eight months that Uri L'Tzedek has been targeting Agriprocessors, this is the first "positive" Agriprocessors activism I have seen from Uri L'Tzedek:
There are still matters of great concern in Postville: shattered families left without wage earners, mothers unable to find jobs to pay for basic necessities, children thousands of miles from home living in fear of another raid, a broken Postville economy, and deeply flawed federal immigration policy. Addressing these larger issues is integral to our work as activists. Uri L'Tzedek leadership has helped raise significant funds for the families deeply hurt by the raids...
I hope that Uri L'Tzedek knows exactly where the donation money is ending up and what it is being used for.

I hope that Uri L'Tzedek is more deliberating if they choose to institute a boycott in the future. The following statement alludes to future boycotts, if Uri L'Tzedek deems it necessary,
If Agriprocessors does not implement Mr. Martin's recommendations or demonstrates that it is not committed to full compliance with all laws regarding worker safety, pay, and rights, then we will once again raise our concerns with Agriprocessors and with the community of kosher consumers.
I also think that Shmuly Yanklowitz owes Agriprocessors an apology for labeling their conduct as "atrocities".

With Hart's consent, at the end of my article, I include our brief interview in its entirety.

It's been over a year since my last blog entry. That hiatus shouldn't be construed as though there hasn't been any Open Orthodox news. Quite the contrary. The Open Orthodox world has become more vocal with Rabbi Avi Weiss forming a new liberal rabbinical fellowship to accommodate YCT (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) graduates who have been shut out of the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America).

Another recent project Weiss’ YCT students (Shmuly Yanklowitz, Aaron Finkelstein, and Michael Schultz) have been involved in is the creation of Uri L’Tzedek, a “social justice” organization. The primary focus of that new organization has been criticizing Agriprocessors (Rubashkin's) kosher meat processors for various ethical “violations”. I requested an interview with the founder of Uri L’Tzedek, Shmuly Yanklowitz. Ari Hart, YCT student and co-director of Uri L’Tzedek, initially refused to grant me an interview stating the following in an email:

Thank you for your request. Since Uri L'Tzedek does not represent, is not an agent for, or act under the supervision of, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, we feel that an interview with your publication would not be productive at this time.

Co-director, Uri L'Tzedek
I explained to Hart that “I have prepared questions exclusively related to your organization [Uri L’Tzedek] and the Agriprocessors affair. My questions have absolutely nothing to do with YCT.” After not hearing back from Ari in a day’s time, I wrote Ari and informed him that I was going to release an article I had just completed. Hart then sent me the following communication:

I'm sorry I wasn't able to respond. Things have been very, very busy. Can I send you a response tomorrow afternoon? It might be better actually to talk on the phone if you have a few minutes. Are you free tomorrow in the afternoon?

I requested that we communicate via email, which Ari Hart graciously consented to. Initially, Hart stated to me that he would not grant me an interview because “Uri L'Tzedek does not represent, is not an agent for, or act under the supervision of, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah”. The fact that he chose to grant me an interview, implies that Hart felt that Uri L’Tzedek does have a connection to YCT and Open Orthodoxy. That connection makes Uri L’Tzedek relevant to this blog. I also believe that connection provides insight as to how Uri L'Tzedek operates.

There are other connections between YCT and Uri L’Tzedek. The three founders of Uri L’Tzedek are or were students (Michael Schultz graduated this year) of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. I have stated my reasoning in a previous blog post why musmachim (those ordained) of a rabbinical school inherently represent the yeshiva they were ordained from. In the case of rabbinical students the representation is even more overt since they're still directly linked with the institution.

The news media seems to think that the YCT connection is relevant. In multiple news stories and blog articles Uri L’Tzedek is linked with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah:

- The founding of Uri L'Tzedek was funded with “award money” that Shmuly Yanklowitz received from a Yeshivat Chovevi Torah award.
5th Annual Lieberman Award Ceremony
Shmuly specified the recipient of the award money - that it would be a new and innovative initiative that he and Mike Schultz (last year's recipient) are creating. We believe that there needs to be a central body for social justice within the Orthodox movement. Our intended name for such a central body is Uri L’Tzedek...
Here’s a picture of him accepting his award at the YCT podium:

- Rabbinical Students Launch Social Justice Group
This is why this fall, three rabbinical students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Aaron Finkelstein, Mike Schultz, and Shmuly Yanklowitz, founded Uri L’Tzedek, a network that enables Jews to learn about and take action on social justice issues. “[We address] social justice issues that our community chooses to ignore,” Finkelstein explained.
- Agriprocessors boycott commences
Uri L'tzedek, an initiative started by students at the liberal Orthodox rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York City, set Monday as the date it would stop patronizing Agriprocessors if the company did not agree to abide by certain ethical labor standards.
- Social Justice — An Orthodox Cause?
Another vocal proponent of social justice in the Orthodox world is Shmuly Yanklowitz, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah who, in May 2007, founded Uri L’Tzedek, a non-profit that educates the American Orthodox community regarding pressing social justice causes on a global scale.
The news links were found at the Uri L’Tzedek in the news web page.

Uri L’Tzedek has been one of Agriprocessor’s harshest critics. I believe that there are significant issues with Uri L’Tzedek‘s approach of the Agriprocessors affair. I’m not going to defend Agriprocessors nor will I discuss their issues here. There’s enough public information on that matter. It must be said that news stories like the following portray Agriprocessors very negatively and are extremely troubling to read: Agriprocessors escapes big fines for violations and Postville plant paid to settle fraud case, and many other news stories.

And yet, Uri L’Tzedek appears to be unfairly biased against Agriprocessors by making them their exclusive “target” in the meat industry. Agriprocessors is a small player in a much larger meat industry with widespread problems. See Blood, Sweat, and Fear for general criticism of the meat industry. Uri L’Tzedek purports to be a general social justice group but has failed to recognize the broader scope of the issue.

For at least eight months (see An Uri L’Tzedek Report 11/9/2007), Uri L'Tzedek has been targeting Agriprocessors and no other meat processor. In fact, Agriprocessors has been Uri L’Tzedek’s main social issue. Almost half of the links on their in the news page are focused directly on Agriprocessors. Also, it’s the only social issue that has an exclusive link, Information on the Agriprocessor’s Effort, on their web site’s main menu.

Via email, I asked Ari Hart, co-director of Uri L’Tzedek, about their Agriprocessors bias and he did not directly address it. An indirect answer from Hart was "We believe that there is a large segment of the kosher buying population that is...concerned about the yashrus of ethical practices in addition to the kashrut of the meat." I asked Hart, "What percentage (and actual numbers) of genuine adherents to kashrus consider 'yashrus' as a requirement of their kosher meat?" He did not respond directly, but did state that "2000 kosher consumers have signed on [the Uri L'Tzedek petition letter against Agriprocessors]." and "We have received hundreds of letters, phone calls, and emails from Orthodox Jews who are deeply concerned about these issues". I don't think that either of those sources are quantitatively or qualitatively legitimate in determining that "a large segment of the kosher buying population that is...concerned about the yashrus of ethical practices", or that those respondents are Orthodox Jews, observe kosher meat laws, and even more so, are Agriprocessors' customers.

A simple response to the criticism that Uri L'Tzedek has only focused on Agriprocessors might be that (some believe) that Agriprocessors is a "poster-child" for what's wrong with the meat industry and an example should be made of them. Another simple response might be that kosher meat should be held to a higher standard. Another potential retort is that Agriprocessors is in Uri L'Tzedek's own “Jewish backyard” and that is why Uri L’Tzedek is specifically scrutinizing them. It makes a stronger impression when a group is criticized by one of its own, a “cultural whistleblower”. However, social justice is not exclusive to Jews, as Uri L'Tezedek knows very well with their Free Tibet activism. Uri L'Tezedek's exclusive focus on Agriprocessors is even more conspicuous considering that the "issues [Uri L'Tzedek] featured in the past were largely external to the Jewish community" as Finkelstein stated. It makes sense that Uri L'Tzedek would at least provide some broader context around Agriprocessors issues - if only to be culturally sensitive and merely illustrate that Agriprocessors problems are not exclusively a Jewish problem.

One way to understand the Uri L’Tzedek agenda is that its founders are protégés of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Rabbi Avi Weiss. The Weiss agenda has revolved around self-promotion in conjunction with social activism. When one thinks of Rabbi Weiss, they see the "trademark" image of him protesting some issue, wearing a tallis, chained to something, being escorted away by the police. For example, see Photo Essay: For Zion I will not be Silent. US Rabbis Arrested, it has everything but the chains. Weiss certainly has accomplished some good for the Jewish community with his social activism, however, it is clear that Weiss’ self-promotion via activism has also been instrumental in obtaining support for projects that are important to him, such as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

Agriprocessors is hot in the news. Jews criticizing Jews makes a much better headline then Jews criticizing anyone else; at least in the Jewish media world, where it gives them the best chance of obtaining publicity that would be relevant to a Jewish seminarian’s career. In fact, as of 7/8/08, twelve out of twelve news articles linked on the Uri L’Tzedek In the News web page are from Jewish media sources, and as stated before, about half focus on Uri L'Tzedek's Agriprocessors activism.

One might intonate that Uri L’Tzedek’s members are utilizing this forum of “social justice” as a stepping-stone resume item for a prestigious synagogue pulpit, or lucrative “not-for-profit” career. Case in point, director of Uri L’Tzedek Shmuly Yanklowitz:
Yanklowitz’s goal is to become a pulpit rabbi at the helm of a synagogue “known for serious social change,” as well as a university professor (he’s currently a Ph.D. student in epistemology and development psychology at Columbia).
- 36 Under 36: The Next Wave SOCIAL JUSTICE & GLOBAL CHANGE
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel "described Uri L’Tzedek’s organizers as being 'young kids who need something to put them on the map' who are taking advantage of Agriprocessor’s current problems". The opportunism of Uri L'Tzedek's leaders would be palatable if their message and methodology concerning Agriprocessors didn’t appear so disingenuous and incredulous.

The United States government was investigating Agriprocessors’ long be Uri L’Tzedek was involved. The government is still involved and becoming further involved. In fact, there are dozens of federal inspectors already monitoring the Agriprocessors plant! It's obvious that either Agriprocessors will comply with government mandates, or go out of business. Jim Martin, Agriprocessors newly hired compliance officer and former U.S. attorney indirectly acknowledges this by stating that "he has zero tolerance for any wrongdoing and that anything it takes to bring [Agriprocessors] up to where they’re supposed to be he’s going to do."

Because Agriprocessors issues are already being addressed in a highly-scrutinized legal forum, it seems that Uri L’Tzedek is accomplishing nothing meaningful for the public or Agriprocessors’ workers - that leaves only themselves. Even the militant animal rights activist group PETA has more credibility than Uri L’Tzedek concerning Agriprocessors. They have been active in a hands-on investigation of the Agriprocessors’ plant since 2004, albeit they were more concerned about the animals than the workers.

Uri’ L’Tzedek does believe they are accomplishing something, as Hart states, "partnership" with Agriprocessors “to improve conditions at the Agriprocessors' Postville plant and restore consumer confidence in the Agriprocessors' brand”.

Agriprocessors representatives did meet one time with Uri L’Tzedek in New York. I believe Agriprocessors acquiescing to that meeting was a grave public relations mistake. Agriprocessors believes the same, as Agriprocessors consultant Menachem Lubinsky suggested, "if [Agriprocessors] representatives had anticipated that Uri L’Tzedek would report to the media about the meeting, they would not have agreed to meet." Agriprocessors should have followed the Avi Weiss public relations handbook: the best response to critics is no response. Throughout the entire criticism of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah from the Yated newspaper and other sources, Rabbi Avi Weiss nor has YCT ever officially responded to criticism. The Weiss tactic has proven to be very successful. The proof is that YCT has been successfully moving full-stream ahead with no indication of slowing down, as one might infer from the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah web site and newsletter.

If Agriprocessors has issues then they should proactively fix them while working with government officials. From a corporate standpoint, they should be in the driver’s seat as to how to handle their public relations. If they work with Uri L’Tzedek, then why not PETA, or any other militant activist group that has a grievance with them? They will spiral into the domain of activist gehinnom. However, because of the broad bad publicity (which may or may not go away and is at least a perceived chillul Hashem) Agriprocessors should consider establishing a web site to address concerns that have been raised by legitimate media sources.

Uri L’Tzedek has spearheaded a boycott against Agriprocessors. There is an emotional do-gooder aspect of boycotting Agriprocessors that I completely understand and might want to agree with...but, ultimately it is illogical and wrong. From a policy standpoint a boycott will have zero affect on Agriprocessors. Any Agriprocessors’ policy changes that occur will be the result of the extreme government scrutiny and intervention which is already underway. It's Agriprocessors right to work within the framework of government regulation, not what Uri L'Tzedek deems is "just". If Uri L'Tzedek genuinely wants to do something that has a chance of being effective, they would pressure the government for information and any necessary resolution, not Agriprocessors. That makes sense, since the government has more clout with Agriprocessors than Uri L'Tzedek has. If Uri L'Tzedek believes that government regulations are unjust, then they should protest the government not Agriprocessors. The only potential affect a boycott against Agriprocessors might have, if successful, would be to hurt kosher consumers while Uri L’Tzedek further reaps the benefits of Agriprocessors publicity.

Ari Hart states, “I don't understand how some kosher consumers not buying a product will hurt other kosher consumers.” His comment is very surprising. One typical goal of a consumer boycott is to affect change by hurting a company’s bottom-line. Why else should a for-profit company care about bad publicity? If a boycott is punitively effective, then a boycotted company will lose profits - resulting in the likelihood of higher prices and the removal of products from the marketplace. Yanklowitz must think that a boycott against Agriprocessors is punitively effective, as he states “A lot of Hillels and restaurants around the country are changing their meat [from the Agriprocessors brands]."

Consumers who still want or need a successfully boycotted company's products are collateral damage. (Or, maybe boycotters think that non-boycotters are bad apples for not joining the boycott.) In the case of Agriprocessors, the most victimized consumers of Uri L’Tzedek will be adherents to kashrus living in small Jewish communities where the main supply of reasonably-priced kosher meat is from Agriprocessors. Rabbi Lerner states, "I’ve been eating their meat in places where no other company gets to, and for that the Jewish community owes them a debt of gratitude and at least the benefit of the doubt."

There is already concern that due to the Agriprocessors affair there will be a shortage of kosher meat in certain regions of the US. See: Weeks after raid of Agriprocessors, kosher meat in short supply, Agriprocessors fallout still affecting local kosher shops, Kosher meat shortage? It depends, and Nashville Jews face shortage of kosher meat. When Agriprocessors is not doing well, it truly is the individual kosher consumer that suffers. If Agriprocessors were to close today, the free market would eventually fill the vacuum...but when?

One might say that it's the right of consumers to decide whether or not to purchase a product based on market information, such as a boycott. However, it appears to me that Uri L'Tzedek is focused on pressuring large (e.g. commercial) consumers of kosher meat to use sources other than Agriprocessors. From an organization perspective, why be labeled as "socially unjust" or worse if they are able to purchase non-Agriprocessor meat instead? Fortunately, I do not believe that a boycott by Uri L’Tzedek is going to compound Agriprocessors problems for the short or long-term. I believe that the main customers of Agriprocessors will continue to purchase Agriprocessors' products regardless of Uri L’Tzedek. My point is that Uri L’Tzedek appears to be only concerned about their agenda and not about the potential ramifications of their actions. Or, maybe Uri L’Tzedek really believes their boycott is punitively ineffective but that it still is an effective vehicle for publicity, which it certainly has been.

I asked Hart the following questions, "Has anyone from Uri L'Tzedek actually visited Postville or the Agriprocessors plant or interviewed any actual workers who are claiming harm? If not what are you basing your social justice information concerning Agriprocessors?" Hart's response was, "We are not an investigative team, nor do we claim to be. We rely on the following sources for our information." Hart then listed five web news stories. Afterwards, I noticed that a news article (not provided by Hart) stated, "the group [Uri L'Tzedek] has taken some action regarding the issue of domestic workers. Its members recently interviewed workers at Rubashkin’s Kosher Meat Plant in Postville, Iowa." Aaron Finkelstein, co-founder of Uri L'Tzedek appears to be the main source for that article. I then sent Hart follow-up questions, including, "Did a delegation of Uri L'Tzedek members ever visit Postville and/or conduct interviews or not?" I have yet to hear back from Hart.

Hart's original response and lack of follow-up leads me to believe that after at least eight months of activism against Agriprocessors, it appears that no one from Uri L’Tzedek's leadership (Yanklowitz, Hart, etc.) has actually travelled to Agriprocessors in Postville to protest or meet with anyone claiming to be wronged. Has anyone from Uri L’Tzedek's leadership even communicated with a single alleged Agriprocessors "victim"? Postville, the location of the Agriprocessors plant, is not in Tibet, where one might be better suited to investigate or protest by proxy. Postville, Iowa is a cheap, quick plane ride away from Uri L’Tzedek headquarters in New York. It would seem that a main criterion of activist credibility is to be on-site and hands-on, as Rabbi Avi Weiss has done concerning the desecration of European Holocaust sites.

Uri L'Tzedek's main Agriprocessors activism has been via an on-line petition. The web can be a powerful tool for activism, however it appears that Uri L’Tzedek has dehumanized the most humane part of activism – actually dealing with live victims - and Uri L'Tzedek certainly believes there are victims. While I believe (and I could be wrong) that Uri L'Tzedek's protesting and boycotting is and will be ineffective, Uri L'Tzedek might still be effective by directly assisting those they believe to be wronged.

I found one web site from almost two months ago that states the following, "Ari Hart, one of the leaders of Uri L’Tzedek, has been in contact with people on the ground, and he found this church, St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which is working very hard with the families in town. However, the church’s resources are stretched thin, and they need donations." How did Ari get in touch with this group? What has Uri L'Tzedek accomplished with the “people on the ground”? I would be interested in knowing, if Hart would respond to me.

At the Uri L’Tzedek web site there is no “heart-warming” information on any of Uri L’Tzedek's work with Agriprocessors employees, families of Postville, or contact with anyone providing local Postville support. Uri L’Tzedek's Information on the Agriprocessors effort is completely fixated on a petition, boycott, Establishments in your area that use non-Agriprocessors meat and How restaurants can join the effort. It is ironic that Uri L’Tzedek's punitive efforts may ultimately be responsible for “the families in town” losing their Agriprocessors jobs and further the suffering of local small business owners, if those efforts are successful. Adolfo Lopez's hand was amputated due to a horrific on-the-job accident at Agriprocessors and afterwards still continued to work at the plant because he needed the job. Apparently Uri L’Tzedek knows better than Agriprocessors workers (whether illegal aliens or not), that no job is better than working at Agriprocessors.

For an organization purporting to be rooted in Orthodoxy, Uri L’Tzedek appears to be acting less than such. Yanklowitz’s states:
We don’t need to wait for a verdict. There are hundreds of interviews that have already happened exposing atrocities and past charges over many years that have not yet been addressed. Also, we are not a court of law. We are concerned consumers. We have lost faith. Faith of a consumer can not wait for verdicts. It must respond to the hundreds of pieces of evidence.
-Agriprocessors: Presumed Innocence
Yanklowitz attempts to justify his perspective within a religious context:
The mitzvah to issue tochecha (rebuke) to a sinner that will respond is very clear in the Talmud (Yevamot 65b, Shabbat 55a). How is it justified to lead so passively and wait for secular legal certainty on all accounts when the dignity of hundreds of human beings is at stake? Do not our Torah’s halakhic requirements demand more in cases of chashash for an issur d’oreita of oshek (serious concern of the Torah law against worker oppression)?
- And Yanklowitz…
A simple response to Yanklowitz is that the government is a valid source for determining whether abuses have occurred or not, and they’re already intervening. If Uri L’Tzedek was genuinely interested in justice, they would follow the lead of the Orthodox Union (OU) who has taken a wait-and-see approach. One might criticize the OU as being too cautious and deem their approach as biased since Agriprocessors is their customer. I have another terminology for their approach: “Socially Just”. The allegations against Agriprocessors are disturbing and extensive and I believe that it is a reasonable knee-jerk response to want to punish them. On the flipside, Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America makes a level-headed observation, "The ethical offense [by those boycotting Agriprocessors] I see here is a different one. It violates something not only rooted in Judaism but part and parcel of American jurisprudence and respectable journalism as well. It is called the presumption of innocence." Avi Shafran has a back/forth exchange with Yanklowitz about the ethics of rebuke concerning Agriprocessors. Yanklowitz's statements above were part of that dialogue. See the end of this article for links to their complete exchange.

It is shocking that Yanklowitz labels Agriprocessors alleged conduct as "atrocities". Even if the worst allegations against Agriprocessors are true, they're not "atrocities". The word "atrocity" has an obvious association with the Holocaust, and to label any Agriprocessors conduct as such is insulting to the Jewish people. His statement, "We don’t need to wait for a verdict...Faith of a consumer can not wait for verdicts." is something you might expect to hear from the leader of a lynch mob.

Another criticism of the Uri L’Tzedek approach is the attempt to combine non-related ethical elements of meat production with Jewish slaughter rituals. Ari Hart states, “We are not trying to impose any type of mandatory anything - hasgacha, etc.” But, I have hard time believing that mandatory "ethical certification" of kosher food products is not a goal of Uri L’Tzedek. Hart makes a direct correlation between Glatt Kosher, a genuine halachic (Jewish legal) standard for kosher meat, and Glatt Yoshor, an ethical standard for kosher meat that is not a halachic qualifier for whether meat is defined as kosher or not. Hart states, "We [Uri L'Tzedek] believe that there is a large segment of the kosher buying population that is, as Rav Breuer zt'l famously put it [see "Glatt Kosher — Glatt Yoshor], regarding food, concerned about the yashrus of ethical practices in addition to the kashrut of the meat." Hart's equation between kashrus and yashrus certainly gives the impression that “ethical hashgacha” is on their radar.

If Agriprocessors or any other kosher butcher or kosher meat processor wants to see a real boycott, regardless of consumer consequence, that will put them out business, the only thing they need to do is adopt an “ethical hashgacha” as a condition of kashrus.

The two main Yated articles criticizing Yeshivat Chovevei Torah:
- Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: Is It Orthodox?
- Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Continuous Assault on Judaism

Also see:
- Rhyme and Reason By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

I highly recommend the following back and forth exchange with Avi Shafran and Shmuly Yanklowitz:
- A missing ethic - Avi Shafran - 6/22/08
- Agriprocessors: Presumed Innocence - Shmuly Yanklowitz - 6/23/08
- Rabbi Shafran Responds - Avi Shafran - 6/25/08
- And Yanklowitz… - Shmuly Yanklowitz - 6/26/08

This is a politically incorrect, but humorous perspective on Uri L'Tzedek...
- Uri L’Tzedek Cashes in for $60,000 for Blackmailing Kosher Meat
- Blackmailing Uri L’Tzedek Wankers Call Off Fake Boycott of Agriprocessors
- Shut the Hell Up: My Petition to Ari Hart and Uri L’tzedek
- Uri L’Tzedek Wankers Threaten to Begin Eating Kosher Meat for Kosher Boycott

This is interesting: The True Story Of Postville

Here is the list of email questions that I sent to Ari Hart:
1) The US government was investigating Agriprocessors (Agriprocessors) long before Uri L’Tzedek got involved. Why get involved with the Rubaskin's affair?

2) From all the materials I have read about Uri L’Tzedek you have been exclusively focused on Agriprocessors concerning meat processing plants. Why focus exclusively on them? It is clear that they are a small fish in a much larger industry of meat processing with alleged worker violations. Unlike many of those companies, Agriprocessors is now under heavy government scrutiny. Wouldn’t your time better be focused on investigating companies (whether kosher or not) that aren’t currently under government scrutiny but there are rumors/reports of violation? Uri L’Tzedek promotes itself as a general social justice organization, so it would seem reasonable that you would focus on issues where you would have the most impact.

3) Has anyone from Uri L'Tzedek, actually visited Postville or the Agriprocessors plant or interviewed any actual workers who are claiming harm? If not what are you basing your social justice information concerning Agriprocessors? Do you have any information beyond hearsay?

4) Why aren’t you taking an approach like the OU? It seems not only very reasonable but a fairly religious dan l'kaf zchus [benefit of the doubt] approach?
- Business as usual after Rubashkin raid
- Agriprocessors fallout still affecting local kosher shops

5) Uri L’Tzedek has called for a boycott against Agriprocessors. If a boycott is successful than it would seem that the person really getting hurt is the kosher consumer, especially kosher consumers in small Jewish towns. A boycott might be reasonable if the ends justify the means. However, what change of Agriprocessors policies do you think will be accomplished with a boycott that won’t be accomplished through the legal processes in motion? Is there any benefit to a boycott beyond what the government is already going to accomplish concerning Agriprocessors policies?

6) In summary, what has Uri L'Tzedek accomplished concerning the Agriprocessors affair?
Instead of responding to me point-for-point, Hart responded with this:

I've tried my best, and I believe the statements and information I've included below will answer all your questions.

1) We believe that there is a large segment of the kosher buying population that is, as Rav Breuer zt'l famously put it, regarding food, concerned about the yashrus of ethical practices in addition to the kashrut of the meat. Please read the following essay by Rav Breuer for an introduction into our way of thinking:

Glatt Kosher — Glatt Yoshor
The conscientious and minute observance of the laws of Kashruth belong to the sacred obligations to which we are to live up if our Jewish houses are to rise in purity before God and His Torah. Supplying our families with totally reliable foods is one of the major tasks a Kehilla has to fulfill.We may note with satisfaction that the supervision of our meat products from the time of Shechita until they reach the customer meets all the requirements of total Kashruth. This enables our Rabbinate to assume full personal responsibility for the reliability of our Kashruth.The concept "Glatt Kosher" refers to certain situations when an animal is rejected because of an existing "Sha'aloh" generally involving the lung — even if the halachic decision would be favorable. Just as all ethical strivings should extend beyond the prescribed boundaries — "lif'nim mi'shuras haDin" — so the practice should be adopted to declare only such meat as kosher that has not been involved in any kind of "Sha'aloh" (comp. Chulin 37b). Such practice would indeed deserve the title of "Glatt Kosher."

A further comment: "Kosher" is intimately related to "Yoshor." God's Torah not only demands the observance of Kashruth and the sanctification of our physical enjoyment; it also insists on the sanctification of our social relationships. This requires the strict application of the tenets of justice and righteousness which avoid even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life.

God's Torah not only demands of us to love our neighbor in that we concern ourselves with his welfare and property, but it insists further on a conduct of uncompromising straightness ("Yoshor") which is inspired not only by the letter of the law but is guided by the ethical principle of honesty which, then, would deserve the honorable title of "Yeshurun."

"He fears God who walks in uprightness" (Mishle 14:2).
We would welcome a campaign to link a drive for "Glatt Kosher" with an equally intensive one for "Glatt Yoshor." This objective is given hopeful expression by the Prophet Zephaniah (3:13):
"The remnants of Israel will not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth."

We are not an investigative team, nor do we claim to be. We rely on the following sources for our information. Please read.

- Postville, IA - Supervisor Under Investigation For Selling Used Cars And Favors At Rubashkin Plant Fled To Israel
- Postville, IA - Workers: Problems Persist at Agriprocessors
- Milwaukee - Orthodox Rabbi Raises Halachic Question, Rubashkin Meat Kosher To Eat, But Not Kosher To Buy
- Iowa meat plant taken to task for abusive practices
- 'There's something bad in this town'

Regarding your questions of what we hope to accomplish:
Uri L'Tzedek and Agriprocessors are currently taking concrete steps to improve conditions at the Agriprocessors' Postville plant and restore consumer confidence in the Agriprocessors' brand. At a June 11 meeting between company representatives and Uri L'Tzedek (who were representing 1300 petition signers), Agriprocessors executives agreed to produce a document that explained Agriprocessors' worker protection policies and to detail the role of Jim Martin, the former U.S. Attorney hired by the company as a compliance officer.

"We've been in touch with Mr. Martin and are impressed with changes he is going to put in place, such as a tip line for employees to report potential compliance violations anonymously," said an Uri L'Tzedek spokesperson. "This is a positive step. In the interests of fully restoring consumer confidence, we have asked that the company be transparent about Mr. Martin's findings, recommendations, and new policies instituted. We are also looking forward to receiving the document that Agriprocessors has promised to provide that will detail Agriprocessors' policy towards the rights of its workers. Provided that Agriprocessors supplies the information that it has promised to provide and is willing to make Mr. Martin's reports and conclusions available to the public, we are hopeful that we can resolve these issues positively for the workers at Agriprocessors, the Rubashkin family, kosher consumers, and klal yisrael."

My reply to Ari Hart:
Hi Ari,

I've already seen all of the news information that you offered below. I believe that you did not answer many of my questions. I would appreciate if you read my responses carefully and respond to them directly.

- You stated "We are not an investigative team, nor do we claim to be. We rely on the following [internet news] sources for our information." Do you think it's credible to base social justice policy based on the sources you provided? Most of those sources describe the Agriprocessors situation in terms of allegations, not facts. Would those sources presented as-is be credible in a bais din or even a court of law? PETA at least has some credibility since they have sent investigators to Postville firsthand (albeit their focus was animals). Is it credible to be an "arm-chair" activist?

You admit that your organizations actions are based completely on the testimony of others, and your organization has done no first-hand investigation. The sources you presented are based on allegations [which MAY very well be true], not established facts. Yet, you have already criticized Agriprocessors, based on allegations and you have already taken punitive action against Agriprocessors by leading a boycott.

Please explain if you feel that dan l'kaf zchus is not applicable here and why you are not taking an approach like the OU's wait-and-see approach. How is it fair from a halachic or ethical perspective to even consider commencing a boycott when the facts are still allegations?

Shmuly Yanklowitz stated: "We don’t need to wait for a verdict. There are hundreds of interviews that have already happened exposing atrocities and past charges over many years that have not yet been addressed. Also, we are not a court of law. We are concerned consumers. We have lost faith. Faith of a consumer can not wait for verdicts. It must respond to the hundreds of pieces of evidence."

Aside from appearing to be a non-halachic attitude, by labeling Agriprocessors actions as factual "atrocities" rather than alleged, Yanklowitz comments seems to be ethically defamatory. Isn't Yanklowitz being presumptuous?

You stated, "Agriprocessors executives agreed to produce a document that explained Agriprocessors' worker protection policies and to detail the role of Jim Martin, the former U.S. Attorney hired by the company as a compliance officer."

In your email to me you make it seem that your relationship with Agriprocessors is amicable and they are capitulating, however this news article linked at your web site shows otherwise: In Heated Meeting, Orthodox Activists Spar With Kosher Meat Company

So far, Agriprocessors has given you nothing tangible. Since you did not receive the document, you decided to commence a boycott (Agriprocessors boycott commences) - a boycott, for issues that will be resolved anyway since the Government IS at the plant first-hand and commencing a broad investigation. It is probably the most governmentally scrutinized meat processor in history. Please explain how you are going to accomplish more than the government? Besides potentially hurting kosher consumers with a boycott, again, what are you really accomplishing?

- You state that you believe that "there is a large segment of the kosher buying population that is...concerned about the yashrus of ethical practices in addition to the kashrut of the meat." Do you have empirical evidence (e.g. such as scientific survey) to back your statement up? What percentage (and actual numbers) of genuine adherents to kashrus consider "yashrus" as a requirement of their kosher meat? Actual numbers are a fair questions, since it appears that you are attempting to impose a mandatory "ethical hashgacha", which certainly right-wing Orthodoxy would never accept.

- I will review your Glatt Yoshor philosophy in more detail.
Thank you for your time.

Best Regards,
Ari provided a final response to me:

A few points, this may or may not answer all your questions, but with the time that I have this is all I can give to you relating to this matter. Thank you for your understanding.

1 - I don't understand how some kosher consumers not buying a product will hurt other kosher consumers.

2 - We are not creating any kind of policy. We have made a simple request as consumers - we would like to see that Agri is committed to maintaining the minimum threshold of worker safety, pay, and rights as defined by US law. We made that request three weeks before any action went into effect. Agri had a choice whether or not to capitulate to that request. We met with Agri reps the week before the action was supposed to go into effect. We left that meeting under the impression that we were going to work together, based on mutual agreements made at that meeting. We are still waiting for Agri to fulfill their end as they promised.

3 - I don't know what an "arm-chair" activist is.

4 - I don't know what a "non-halachik attitude" is. If you are accusing us of violating halacha I could respond, but I don't know what a non-halachik attitude is.

5 - Regarding our relationship, we had hoped that they would be in the spirit of partnership, but if it appears to you that they are not, so be it.

6 - What are we accomplishing? 2000 kosher consumers have signed on the letter. We believe that there are very few, if any, voices in the orthodox community speaking out on behalf of these consumers and their concerns. We believe that there are very few, if any, orthodox leaders expressing concern workers and the immigrants who are suffering. We are speaking out on behalf of the over a dozen children between the ages of 13-17 who were arrested for working at the plant on May 11 (fact). I know you may not think like I/we do, but there is an orthodox constituency who is concerned about these issues.

We have received hundreds of letters, phone calls, and emails from orthodox jews who are deeply concerned about these issues and thankful that an orthodox voice is speaking up. I know you will probably say we are not orthodox, or something to that effect, in your article. So be it. We believe this is important and the support we have received from strangers across the country, reaching out to us and telling us to keep going gives us chizuk.

We are not trying to impose any type of mandatory anything - hasgacha, etc.

Mark, this is really all I can give you. Hatzlacha with your piece. I know we all feel passionately about this stuff, but the more civil the debate the better it will be for klal yisrael.