Shmarya Rosenberg’s blog Failed Messiah has become a one-stop hub for news and commentary about scandals and all-around unpleasantness in the kosher meat industry, among other foibles in the Orthodox community. With muckraking reporting and critical commentary, Rosenberg has held the feet of many in the Jewish community to the fire while providing readers with invaluable information.
Failed Messiah has been a leading force in the Jewish blogosphere since 2004, but the May 12, 2008, raid at AgriProcessors in Postville, Iowa, was the beginning of a new era. One year ago, government agencies staged the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history, arresting hundreds of illegal immigrant workers and uncovering such diverse problems as child labor and a “meth lab.” Rosenberg claims that Failed Messiah broke the story (although technical difficulties meant that The Des Moines Register posted it online more or less simultaneously). He has stayed in touch with people on the ground in Postville to report about what’s going on from many perspectives, Failed Messiah’s readership jumped to about 15,000 page views on some days, and he became somewhat of a hero when he unveiled the questionable practices of AgriProcessors’ PR company, 5WPR.
Below are excerpts of an interview I conducted with Rosenberg on Friday.
What was your reaction when you learned of the May 12, 2008, raid?
My reaction was shock, even though I knew that there were certainly some illegal workers there—there are in most places. … When I realized that  percent of the work force were illegals and the abuse stories that I heard rumors of started being confirmed over and over and over again by workers that didn’t even really know each other, all telling the same stories and telling the same stories to their attorneys and telling them to the feds and telling them to anybody you can imagine ….
Do you think AgriProcessors was singled out—because of anti-Semitism, prior publicity, or any other reasons—for practices that go on industrywide?
Sh*tty salami! … No, I don’t think AgriProcessors was singled out because it’s a Jewish company. I don’t think there was any anti-Semitism involved. I don’t think they were singled out for any other reason than that they were a very easy target for the Department of Homeland Security, who has been, for the last several years, looking for easy targets. They were very, very, very easy. They’d been warned about social security numbers not matching. You see from the indictments file, and from some things that people have already pleaded guilty to, you see that they knew there was a raid coming, that they were trying to cover as many workers as possible with different fake documents so that it would be harder for the feds to identify them as illegals. … They couldn’t let the entire plant go. They were trying to cover the ones that were the most exposed, I think—either that or the ones that were the most important to them and the ones they’d get the most money out of, I’m really not sure.
Overall, are you pleased with the response of the Jewish community?
No, but I’m very rarely pleased with anything, so that has to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt. No, I’m really not. I think you have two basic reactions, actually three, and the reactions are split along affiliation. The more on the Orthodox scale you are in terms of religious observance, the more likely you are to say that AgriProcessors didn’t do anything wrong or didn’t do anything that any other company doesn’t do, that there’s a lot of anti-Semitism, [and] that the goyim are out to get us. …
Then you have the other side of the divide, which is the non-Orthodox Jewish community, which of course varies everywhere from the most secular to the most traditionally Conservative. And there you have, by and large, a response that is a cross between apathy and “it’s a shonde for the goyim, so we shouldn’t really be talking about it.” People talk amongst each other … but you didn’t find concrete action taken or much indignation in a publicly expressed way.
On the other hand, you have a minority amongst that segment of the Jewish community, whether you’re dealing with Rabbi [Morris] Allen and … Magen Tzedek [formerly known as Hekhsher Tzedek]. And they’d been working on that before the raid anyway, but you have a group of people around that who showed interest—some simply because it fit their agenda, some because the raid was a shock to them and the treatment of the workers was a shock to them and they truly wanted to right a wrong. Some, like Rabbi Allen, whom I … have dealt with before, and he’s a straight guy. He’s doing what he’s doing because he believes in it and he wants to help people. He has concern with much greater than just [Magen] Tzedek. He’s one of the better examples of what could be done. The problem is that there are very few Rabbi Allens, and there are a whole lot of others who are either self-serving or ridiculous. And some of the people who are self-serving also do a hell of a lot of good. …
Some people did a lot of good. Some people thought nice things and did a little bit. Most people did nothing or were completely supportive of the Rubashkins [the family that ran AgriProcessors].
Do you think that the kosher meat industry is better today than it was a year ago—for workers, for animals, or for ethical business practices?
No. No, I don’t think that there’s a significant change—only in the sense that AgriProcessors, which was a major abuser, is unable to abuse as it did before the raid. They’re only doing poultry slaughter, so probably the animal welfare issues are relatively contained. But who knows?
For the rest of it, they had all these workers that were making $13 an hour, and they fired them all and then rehired some of them—most of them. But they rehired them at $9 an hour … they fired them at 12:15 and then at 12:18 they rehired them.
How have the kosher meat scandals of the last few years affected your dietary habits and your outlook?
I became a vegetarian [although he did eat fish and is no longer vegetarian because of a personal health problem, he later clarified] from, basically, the moment I saw the PETA video [of the original AgriProcessors investigation] in 2004. And it wasn’t because I was grossed out by the blood or anything—I had worked in kosher slaughter before. I knew what it was. But the treatment of the animals was so poor, and the slaughter was so bad. It was nothing like what I’d ever seen done before. When I saw kosher slaughter done—I didn’t work as a shochet, I worked as a mashgiach and in other capacities—but when I saw shechita done, and the shochet didn’t know I was watching, the animal was down and out in 15 seconds. There was no visible pain. … It was as close to painless as you could get killing something. And Rubashkin is the exact opposite: [a] slower, more painful, torturous process. … It’s better than it was, clearly, that they’re not ripping out the throat with a meat hook, but it’s still bad.
Your own personal health complications aside, do you think that in light of the kosher meat industry’s current state, Jews should be vegetarian?
I certainly would not be eating any poultry or red meat. That would be for kashrut reasons and also just because, for me, if I can eat and be comfortable and be well and not have to inflict pain on something, not have to deprive something of its existence in order to eat, I’m happy with that. But then you also get into the eggs issue and how eggs are processed and the incredible cruelty that goes on with killing all the male chicks and all the other stuff, and that’s not pleasant either.
You start looking at … the way factory-farming is today, and the breeding for it and the handling of it and everything. You get to a point where you’re left … either you’re a vegan, or you’re raising your own chickens, or something. But you’re not walking into a store and buying the average egg ….
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to emphasize that the most disappointing thing for me was the reaction of the Orthodox community to all of the AgriProcessors issues.