Maybe next time I’ll order the “kosher” ham!

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I know. Pork is never kosher. But today I had an epiphany.

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I attended a breakfast meeting sponsored by Workers Interfaith Network, a faith and labor organization in the Twin Cities of which I am a member. One of the speakers at the event was a local rabbi who has been active for many years in the kosher foods movement. Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights has been promoting kosher eating practices within his Conservative Jewish tradition for years but two years ago began to be concerned about rumors he heard about working conditions at a kosher meat packing plant in Iowa. So he and a fellow Jewish social activist went to the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, IA to check out this kosher meat-producing facility. What they discovered was very disturbing and they came to the realization that morally and ethically they needed to consider more than how the animals were slaughtered – they needed to also recognize how the workers were treated. Since this facility had hired many immigrant workers from Guatemala, it became quickly clear that they were being exploited in the process because they were vulnerable to ICE sweeps and harassment. The company used that vulnerability to keep the workers from organizing as a union to protect their rights and have some collective bargaining power.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the immigration raids that resulted in more than 300 arrested at the Postville plant this Spring. It is not clear (to me) if the company called in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or whether they acted on their own –but the result of which was absolutely catastrophic for many of the families of the workers who were arrested and deported, leaving behind children who are now US citizens. No matter where you stand on our presently broken immigration policy, the way these raids have been carried out are designed for fear and intimidation rather than a seeking of justice and righteousness.

Immigration and union issues aside, it became clear to these principled Jewish leaders that their desire to honor their faith tradition by eating kosher-labeled foods was not sufficient if, in the process, there was no ethical treatment of those who produced it. The workers were not trained for their jobs in their primary language (Spanish – although for many even Spanish was a secondary language to their native Mayan dialect) so most were told to “just watch what the worker next to you is doing and follow them”. Bathroom breaks, time off for pre-natal visits for pregnant workers, and other job-site concerns besides danger and injury on the job were concerns voiced by the workers.
After several plant visits and attempts to speak with the management of the plant on behalf of the workers, this rabbi (and others) have been organizing a movement to go beyond normal kosher labeling to insist that God demands justice for the workers as well. Besides the moral question of one’s relationship with God in relation to how an animal is slaughtered, there is the ethical question of how the workers who produced the food are treated. Are they receiving just and fair wages, are working conditions humane, are vulnerable workers being exploited? The late Abraham Heschel, a noted Jewish scholar and activist (and one of my personal heroes) noted that the idea of kosher has to go beyond just the butcher shop but also include banks, real estate offices, … It wasn’t sufficient to forgo eating an egg that had a blood spot in it (forbidden under kosher rules) if the dollars or lira one carried also had “blood” on it.

My family of origin runs a meat packing plant in southeastern Pennsylvania but it doesn’t plan on marketing a kosher line anytime soon since it processes pork! But I found the concept of labeling food as being ethically produced in relationship to how workers are treated to be a fascinating one and I’m encouraging my relatives to look into finding ways to support the concept. I know these Jewish leaders would probably be skeptical about discussing this with PORK producers (!) and a non-union shop as well – but I think this is an important area for my family to explore. I know my family shares some of these concerns for the workers because it has had a profit-sharing plan in place for its employees for more than 50 years.

This movement is called by it’s Hebrew term – hekhsher tzedek (loosely translated as justice certified) and they encourage evaluation of Kosher Food producers in five areas:
1) wages and benefits
2) Health, safety, and training
3) Company transparency
4) Product development
5) Environmental impact

Maybe ham will never become “kosher” but the way pork, shellfish, or other “forbidden” foods are produced and processed have a multitude of ethical issues surrounding them as well. Maybe we non-Jews need to learn more about justice from our Hebrew brothers and sisters so when we do break bread with one another, we can work to make sure it was baked with justice in mind.

More info about this idea can be found at www.hekhshertzedek.org and www.hekhsher-tzedek.blogspot.com