New York – Over the past few years, images of the Rubashkin family have been freeze-framed in our consciousness: The meat plant. The raid. The living room. The courtroom scenes. The rallies…These scenes have been seared on our collective memory. The Rubashkins, though, have chosen to move forward. They’ve relocated and recalculated, adjusting the rhythm and routine of daily life to meet new challenges
In my home, we have a handsome, vinyl-bound blue book of classic children’s tales, pilfered by my wife from her parents’ bookshelf. Hidden in this treasury of life lessons is the Aesop fable The Country Mouse and the City Mouse.
In the story, a haughty city mouse goes to visit a relative in the country, where the host mouse offers him a typical country meal. The proud city mouse scoffs at the simple offering and invites the host back to the big city to sample some of life’s finer things. But the meal isn’t meant to be: the mice’s taste of high society is interrupted by a pack of dogs.
“Country Mouse” has become an idiom, and the phrase plays in my mind as head off to my meeting with the Rubashkin brothers, Getzel and Meir Simcha. It’s our second meeting: last time was nearly two years ago, under a cloudless Iowa sky, standing in grass that reached my knees.
This time, we meet on Crown Heights’ Kingston Avenue, heading up creaky stairs to a small office on top of a sushi shop, a conveyor belt of human activity, noise and equipment all around us. If you’re not a native of the neighborhood, you can feel somewhat claustrophobic from the very Brooklyn-ness of it.
I look at these two brothers and I think of the vinyl-bound book. Country mice in the big city. Except that in this case, they were intimidated back in the peaceful country and they made their way here — to the bustling city — to get away. They’ve come to New York to start anew.
They are as different, to be sure, Getzel’s quiet pensiveness a foil to Meir Simcha’s exuberance and mile-a-minute way of talking. But they are brothers, and their sentences seem to overlap, each picking up where the other stops.
More, they share the same fate: both made the bitter decision that it was time to uproot their families and join their mother and her large brood in their new home in New York. It was time to concede that the Iowa experiment — at times glorious, at times exhilarating, and ultimately very disappointing — was over, decades after it began.
Now they have created new lives for themselves, for their family.
Virtually everyone associates the Rubashkins with Postville. Getzel and Meir Simcha grew up in the improvised shtetl and planned to continue living there. When, I wonder, did they reach the difficult decision that it was time to pack their bags and head east?
“My children were playing with their toys one morning, and I heard them saying, ‘This is the Mommy and this is the Tatty and these are the bad people, trying to get them,’” Getzel responds. “ I realized that, in the wake of the raid and its aftermath, the idea of persecution had entered their lives, to the point of influencing their imaginations, and I didn’t want that for them.
“Sure, we’d had difficult moments in our history in Postville, but on the whole we had enjoyed wonderful neighborly relations with the good people of Iowa for so many years. Now it seemed that was a thing of the past
“So I looked at my wife and I said. ‘It’s time to go. The kids don’t have to grow up with that attitude.’”
What was it like in Postville post-raid? Was there a surge in anti-Semitism?
Meir Simcha looks pained. “Look, people tend to believe the messages that the media feeds them, even if those messages conflict with what they know. Our Iowan neighbors knew that we were good citizens, that we had always been responsible and fair, but suddenly, all the spirit was sucked out of our community. Each day, another family would leave town — with production halted at the plant, there was no need for shochtim — and another home would go vacant, another empty seat in shul.
“My wife would go to the doctor, or sit at the playground — places where we’d always been greeted warmly — and would say her last name and be greeted with narrowed eyes. I don’t know that the people were anti-Semitic, but they were certainly anti-something.”
Meir Simcha experienced the grim new reality firsthand. After the raid, with nothing to do in the plant, he worked to open a local grocery to provide for the needs of what was a vibrant little kehilla. A resourceful fellow, he had a sound business plan and all the optimism in the world.
“But of course, things were rough for our clients as well,” he remembers. “We tried, but then the bank suddenly called in the loan on the property – which was really strange, since we always paid on time. It was their legal right, but it was unexpected. So we reached the same conclusion. It was time to leave Postville.”
The two brothers took one last look at the little town where they’d seen a shtetl grow out of thin air, where they’d gone sledding in the winter and hiking in the summer, and loaded up three Penske trucks and drove across the country, their whole life in boxes.
SHANA RISHONA IN A DORMITORY
For Meir Simcha, in particular, the move was just another chapter in the life of a wandering Jew; his family seems to have been in perpetual motion since sheva brachos. Six weeks after his chasuna, he came home from kollel to his small basement apartment for lunch. As he sat down to eat with his new wife, someone phoned with the news that there had been a raid at the plant and all the workers had been carted away.
“At first we laughed, thinking it couldn’t be,” he remembers. “But I called my father and asked him if he needed an extra set of hands, since he had temporarily lost all the workers on his production line. He told me not to be silly and to enjoy my kollel, shana rishona life. You know, my father was used to that feeling of being overwhelmed; even in his best days, the operation was bigger than him.
“But later in the day, my mother called and said, ‘Iif you really feel like you guys can get away for a bit and help Tatty out, it would a huge favor. There are thousands of pounds of fresh meat that will be garbage if no one takes care of them.’”
So the young couple flew to Postville. “I was excited about being able to help my father: it had always been my dream to relieve some of his load, like he did for his own father.’”
Meir Simcha digresses to fill in the background of that time. “The cornerstone of the speeches that my mother gives all over is the idea of ‘winks and smiles’, how even in an eiss tzara, Hakadosh Boruch Hu drops little hint of His love, reminders that He is working with chessed. I got engaged just a few weeks before Pesach and naturally, we should have gotten married after sefirah. But in Lubavitch, they try to avoid long engagements, and for some reason, both mechutanim agreed to rush the engagement and I got married in Adar.
‘The raid was May 12th, and I can’t even imagine what would have happened if my chasunah would have been after that, once the new reality took over. Who knows if my father would have even been able to come? That, for me, is a Divine smile.”
Back to the story. Meir Simcha and his wife moved in to a room in his parents’ basement. “The basement served as a dormitory for the yeshivah boys in the Postville yeshivah, and we shared the floor with eight bochurim, who’d also come to pitch in. It wasn’t an ideal setting, but we managed: I was leaving to the plant at four-thirty am, where I worked until late at night along with a crew of volunteer bochurim that had come from across the country to help out, trying to minimize the damage.”
Things went from bad to worse after his father’s arrest.
“We couldn’t leave my mother then, after they took my father away. It was then that the whole situation stopped being surreal and started to become very, very real. We got it. This was serious business. There were little children in the house that needed to be dealt with, there was our brother Moishy, who is special-needs. There were lawyers to meet. We knew we weren’t going anywhere.
“My wife and I made a decision. We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s give it our all, help carry the family through this, and then we’ll move on with our own lives.’”
But even now, in their new location in Monsey, Meir Simcha, his wife and two children live in the same house as his mother and siblings.
They aren’t through it yet.
Today, each of the brothers has started a new business — Meir Simcha from his Monsey location and Getzel from his new home in Crown Heights.
What’s it like for people who never had to worry about money to suddenly meet the grim reality of rent and tuition?
They take offense at the question. “We were never ‘rich kids,’” they tell me. “Nothing was ever lacking, but at the same time, we never received allowance, never had more toys or better clothing that all the other kids in Postville, the children of the shochtim and mechanchim. My father would always say, ‘My job is to make sure that you have what you need and your job is to learn well and become talmidei chachamim and chassidim.’
“In fact, he hated when people used the term ‘tachlis’ to refer to making a living. ‘Tachlis is Torah and mitzvos,’ he would say, ‘parnassa is just a means, not the tachlis at all.’ He worked hard to make sure we didn’t think about business, about money.
“Once,” laughs Meir Simcha, “a bochur in yeshiva told me that my father had a million-dollar business. I thought that was ludicrous. ‘If my father was wealthy,’ I replied, ‘do you think he would stay in Postville, Iowa?’
“So sure, we both expected to work for him, but there was never a sense of entitlement, of being more privileged than anyone else. We’re not afraid of hard work.”
With meat-packing no longer an option, what direction have they taken?
For Getzel, the choice wasn’t hard. “I was always fascinated by computers; web-design was a hobby of mine. I used to dream of utilizing technology for kiruv purposes, to harness what might be the most effective means of communication and use it for Yiddishkeit, so even at Agri, I had developed an expertise in computers.
“We moved here, settling in Crown Heights — my wife is a local — and so far, Baruch Hashem, the business looks good. I am doing web-development and enjoying it. My father lives with Chovas Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon, and he encouraged us to learn it as well. There it says that a person should choose a parnassa that is conducive to avodas Hashem, so I feel fortunate to be self-employed, with my own schedule. That’s a luxury I never had at the plant.”
Doesn’t his preoccupation with his father’s case and the campaign to free him from prison make it difficult to establish a new business?
He shrugs and waves off the question, but Meir Simcha jumps in. “Getzel’s being humble: we always need something from him for the campaign, so much of which is technology-driven. He always drops whatever he’s doing when we need him, he’s done all our web work. Of course it’s hard to focus on making a living while this is going on!”
MEAT AND MILK
And what about Meir Simcha, he of the meat production line? It’s hard to imagine a greater break with his old job than…milk.
“In the grocery store in Postville, it always bothered me that a bottle of chalav Yisrael milk — a staple for a growing family — was so expensive. We looked into producing affordable bottles of milk from the neighboring farms, but bottling was a problem, since they were all too big to do a private run; we are what’s called a niche market. A friend told me about a farm that produced organic milk, which means that the cow only eats what it’s meant to eat. There was no homogenization, a process that burns out many of the healthiest components in the milk.
“I never ended up doing it there, but when I moved here, I started to think about providing the kosher market with minimally processed milk, so I’ve been working towards that end, making contacts and setting up a company.”
I am amazed at the resourcefulness of these brothers, not your typical victims who are unable to pick up the pieces and move on. Are they suffering? Sure, but they’re also determined to feed their families with dignity.
Meir Simcha’s business ambitions are on hold, however, as he prepares for the next frontier in the case: the appeal.
He doesn’t mince words. “The lawyers need to get paid, and it’s hard to get work done when my mind is totally focused on June 15th, the final step in the appeal, when the oral arguments will be heard. After that, the federal court of appeals will decide how to proceed — whether to uphold the original ruling, or order a new trial, whenever they want to.
“Of course, we need money, so we’ve just launched a new campaign called Sholom Across America. Everyone knows that we got hold of the documentation preceding the raid, internal memos and letters between the judge and government officials, under the Freedom of Information Act, and there was some pretty revealing stuff in there. What people don’t know is that there were thousands internal emails that were ‘redacted’, which means they are blacked out. We have no idea what those emails say, and we have no way of knowing. Now we have to fight that redaction — our legal right under the Act — and that costs lots of money too.”
The campaign has volunteers going door to door distributing DVD’s detailing the history and development of the case. “We don’t just want people to give money out of compassion, because they feel bad for my father,” Meir Simcha clarifies. “We want to educate them, give them the information so that they themselves can study how the case progressed and form their own opinions.”
The goal is to go across North America, from community to community, getting a suggested donation of thirty-six dollars from each family. This week’s pilot project in Crown Heights has raised close to seventy-five thousand dollars so far.
A VOICE OF INSPIRATION
Conversation turns to the rest of the family — particularly their mother, Mrs. Leah Rubashkin — whose dignity and strength in the face of adversity have marked her as a source of chizuk to audiences everywhere.
Those audiences tend to be more accessible, now that Mrs. Rubashkin has relocated to Monsey, New York. Why did the family choose Monsey? “There were two reasons,” Merir Simcha explains. “The first is that my little brothers and sisters are country kids, not used to city living: they grew up with open, spacious grounds all around them. We thought Monsey, with its rural feel, would be an easier adjustment for them.
“But the main reason my mother relocated the family to Monsey is because Pinny and Chani Lipschutz are there, and they are our rocks. My mother and father and all of us rely on them very heavily. They are one of the Aibishter’s smiles during this difficult time. Thanks to their example, the entire Monsey community has really come together to help us.
‘We pulled in to Monsey just before Rosh Hashana this year, and since then, there is a constant flow of meals and notes. There’s a chassidishe lady, Mrs. Green, who is constantly bringing food. On Thursdays — which is generally the day we visit my father — we arrive home to fresh, hot pizza, and there’s a neighbor, Mrs. Kirshner, who brings a delicious potato kugel every erev Shabbos. On leil Shabbos, we daven at Rabbi Rottenberg’s shul, in Forshay, and he spends some time asking each of the children about their learning.
“When my brother Mendel was bar mitzvah this year,” Meir Simcha relates, “the caterer donated his time and resources, and everyone came together to make it a special simcha.”
Mrs. Leah Rubashkin, in addition to being immersed in the legalities of her husband’s case — itself a full-time job, will often speak in several girls’ schools or deliver several women’s shiurim in one day.
“She sees that as her tafkid now,” her son explains. “She has this incredible ability to share her message of bitachon and optimism in a way that people are really hungry for: everyone needs chizuk. Of course, she would love to be making supper for her husband and spending time with her own children, but she knows that this is her nisayon.”
The feedback has been tremendous. “All kinds of broken people reach out to her, sometimes waiting for hours after her speeches, just to tell her how badly they needed to hear that message: that even in the darkest times, Hakadosh Boruch Hu is with us.”
A CHASSID BEHIND BARS
And, I ask, what about the father: how fares Reb Sholom Mordechai Halevi?
“Well, he’s doing his thing, ever-optimistic and growing,” Meir Simcha tells me. “He loves the letters he gets from people everywhere, especially children, and he reads and tries to answer each and every one. His job in prison is chaplain, the unofficial rabbi. There are eight other Jewish prisoners where he is, and he spends lots of time organizing them and speaking with them. He leads davening and sets up the shul.”
How does he maintain his mental equilibrium?
Getzel answers with a chassidishe vort on the words of Chazal, in their account of how Rabbi Akiva managed to “enter the orchard in peace and leave in peace.” (Rashi explains that he ascended to Heaven by means of a Divine name.) Why, Getzel asks, do Chazal point out that Rabi Akiva was “nichnas b’shalom,” that he entered in peace?
“The idea that if someone comes in a certain mindset or attitude, it’s easier to maintain it,” he explains. “My father went into prison filled with bitachon and chassidus; he was fortified well before he faced the nisayon. So now, even though he can’t do anything, he can’t step out of his room without permission from a guard, he is still b’simcha.”
Meir Simcha shares a memory.
“Two summers ago, or maybe it was chol hamoed Sukkos, there was a sense that we were on the brink, it was just before the start of the trial. We went on a trip, the entire family, to Lacrosse, Wisconsin. It was the last opportunity that we would have for family time, for a peaceful day together. We made a barbeque near the water — it was beautiful — and then my father asked my wife and me to watch all the kids while, he went for a walk with my mother.
“They headed off in to the woods, on a trail, together. They were gone for a long, long time. They came back after an hour and a half or so, and there was this obvious difference in them, a certain tranquility and calm that was visible in their faces. It was as if they had discussed how it was now time to take all the spiritual ideals they’d discussed and implement them, make all the talk of bitachon practical. There was a sense that they had prepared themselves for the journey ahead, and that they were ready.”
PART OF A GREATER WHOLE
As Lubavitcher chassidim, now suddenly swept up in a flow of ahavas Yisroel from Monroe to Lakewood to Five Towns, have the Rubashkin brothers encountered surprises? Have they learned things about their fellow Jews that they didn’t previously know?
Getzel is thoughtful. “First of all, you should know that in our home there were never ‘others’, only Yidden. We had a weekly melave malka with all the shochtim and factory workers, real Yerushalmi Yidden and Satmar chassidim and Breslovers. Everyone was welcome and everyone felt comfortable saying their stories and singing their songs at that table. We were raised to respect all Yidden.
‘With all that,” he continues, “there was a certain disconnect. It’s like when you sit next to an unfamiliar Yid on an airplane, you are polite and friendly and you feel a certain kinship with him, but it’s more intellectual than emotional. Now, after all our family has gone though, it’s become emotional: I acutely feel that every Yid is a brother.”
Meir Simcha picks up the thought. “It’s so silly how much party politics there are when really, we are all one. It’s time for these walls to come down, because we see with our own eyes that the people don’t really want that divisiveness; they just want to be connected to each other, to help each other.”
He personally has been overwhelmed by the good in other kehillos, the gifts of each, and it’s opened his eyes as well.
“Each tzibbur excels in something, and we can focus on what makes each one exceptional. This is what I learned from this whole parsha.
“The group of Satmar askanim literally breathe achrayus and concern for another Yid. They are products of a chinuch system that stresses caring about other Yidden and you see it. It’s awe-inspiring what they’ve achieved; they just have an instinct, a reaction, that’s based on helping others.
“I didn’t really know much about the yeshiva world before this started, but I knew that they took ‘kavod haTorah’ seriously. I didn’t understand the depth of it, however, until just after we moved to Monsey. One of the askanim involved in our father’s case, a man by the name of Yerachmiel Simmins, was marrying off a son, so we went to the chasunah. The chassan’s rosh yeshiva, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel, came in to the hall and there was this surge of respect and reverence, you could touch it. I was blown away — it made such an impression on me, the real and vibrant kovod haTorah of the bochurim.
“So it’s certain that over the last few years, we’ve learned a thing or two about just how special every Yid is, every Yiddishe kehilla is. We’ve seen it with our own eyes.”