Hours after U.S. President Donald Trump commuted his prison sentence, Sholom Rubashkin returned to New York and a hero’s welcome from the local ultra-Orthodox community on Wednesday night.
The former head of the largest kosher meat company in the United States, Rubashkin had served eight years of a 27-year sentence for 86 counts of financial fraud, before being released in what thousands of boisterous Haredim hailed as a Hanukkah miracle.
The epicenter of the celebrations was 770 Eastern Parkway, headquarters of the worldwide Chabad movement. Rubashkin himself led the evening service there using songs usually reserved for Rosh Hashanah, said one member of the Chabad Lubavitch movement present, and recited the prayer thanking God for his redemption.
Rubashkin traveled from Otisville Prison in upstate New York to his family’s home in nearby Monsey, New York, and then made his way to 770. After leaving there, he went to his parents’ house in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, from where he addressed the assembled crowd.
So many people were packed onto the staircase outside his parents’ home that the railing broke, sending several people tumbling. In speeches to the crowds at each location he visited, Rubashkin thanked his supporters for their prayers and God for his redemption.
Rubashkin’s release created a festive atmosphere among the local ultra-Orthodox community, especially on the streets of Crown Heights. A local liquor store gave out free shots to religious revelers in the streets, some of which were closed off due to Haredim dancing in them.
At 770, “the joy and celebration were palpable,” said Rishe Groner, a local resident who stopped there in the early hours of Thursday morning. When she spoke with Haaretz at 5 A.M. Brooklyn time, Groner had not yet gone to sleep. Comparing the scene to a holiday that is famously raucous in Crown Heights, she compared Wednesday’s celebration to Simchas Torah, “but with live music.”
However, not everyone was celebrating. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, sent out a series of tweets critical of Rubashkin’s commutation. “What he did was horrific,” she wrote. “He violated many laws, both American & Jewish, regarding the treatment of workers, theft, fraud, etc. He deserves to be punished. The commutation of his sentence is a cynical move meant to kiss up to the Jewish community (a small part of it) & to reinforce that this administration is anti-immigrant, anti-worker.
What would more appropriate punishment for Rubashkin be? Maybe many long years of working hardest job at his factory. Doing crap work for a workers' rights or immigrants' rights org. (taking suggestions for other punishments that would push him toward teshuva).— Jill Jacobs (@rabbijilljacobs) December 21, 2017
“And there are thousands of people in prison for far less serious crimes (or even violations that shouldn’t be crimes) who deserve to have their sentences commuted much more than Rubashkin,” she added.
Rubashkin, 57, is a member of the Chabad Lubavitch movement and has 10 children, something Trump noted in his commutation. His family was known in the past for making major donations to political campaigns. Rubashkin himself also contributed thousands of dollars to political campaigns, mostly on the Republican side.
While Wednesday’s commutation came as a surprise to many, those seeking his release had worked intensely in recent weeks, gathering signatures of Congress members from both sides of the aisle in support of Rubashkin’s liberation.
Earlier this year, four attorneys general wrote to Trump, asking that Rubashkin’s sentence be commuted because his sentence was excessive and he was a first-time, nonviolent offender.
One of Rubashkin’s lawyers, Alyza Lewin, told Haaretz, “Rubashkin’s commutation has been years in the making.
“My father, Nathan Lewin, and I visited many Senate and House offices, and spoke directly to senators and congressmen to get the congressional letters on which President Trump relied, and my father lobbied top past Department of Justice officials to write letters and to sign the joint letters that had been urging a reduction of the sentence,” she said. “In addition, my father argued Sholom Rubashkin’s appeal and our law firm worked on Sholom Rubashkin’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Rubashkin’s troubles began in 2008 when U.S. immigration authorities raided the Agriprocessors factory – which the Rubashkins owned and ran in Postville, Iowa – and arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants working there. There had been some serious injuries on the job, authorities found, including some suffered by underage employees working there illegally.
Related charges were dropped, however, and ultimately Rubashkin was prosecuted for defrauding a bank and misappropriating funds to the tune of $26 million. He fabricated invoices and other documents to maintain a $34 million bank credit line, and used some of the money to fix up his house and buy jewelry.
From the day he was imprisoned in 2009, Rubashkin was seen by his community as “a captive in need of redeeming.” A major fundraising and support campaign began, with videos by Hasidic musicians and speeches by his wife and at least one of his daughters.
“People from all over the world are celebrating his release,” said one local Lubavitcher, who was praying the afternoon service at 770 when the news came in on Wednesday. There were celebrations in at least 20 branches of the Chabad movement across the United States and around the world.
Outside 770, a large blue and white Trump banner was visible at the Chabad headquarters. Rubashkin was Trump’s first presidential commutation. That is different than a pardon, though. Rubashkin’s conviction stands, as do the terms of his release and the restitution he is still required to pay.
“The president’s review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case and commutation decision were based on expressions of support from Members of Congress and a broad cross-section of the legal community,” the White House said in a statement.
Many people were involved in the efforts to free Rubashkin, whose sentence was widely regarded as disproportionately long for the crime. Beyond his lawyers and representatives of Chabad Lubavitch in Washington, representatives of the Satmar Hasidic community were also involved in his release, said Gary Schlesinger, a Satmar Hasid.
“If we are beachdus [together] and fight for issues that affect Klal Yisroel [the larger Jewish community], we can break any type of wall,” he told Haaretz. “It’s an amazing experience.” Schlesinger is CEO of a network of health care clinics.
Agudath Israel of America said in a statement, “The injustice of Mr. Rubashkin’s grossly excessive 27-year sentence was readily apparent to any fair-minded individual who reviewed the facts of the case. That is why so many Congress members from both sides of the political aisle, led by Sen. Orrin Hatch and minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and well over 100 former high-ranking Justice Department officials and other legal luminaries, have been publicly calling for executive clemency.”
Groner said seeing the scene at 770 was “one of the most beautiful scenes of unity and gratitude” she had ever experienced. “There was live music, so everyone was singing together to the same song. There were visitors from other Hasidic groups and Jews from all over the tri-state area. The streets were swarming with people,” she added.
She was critical of some aspects of the way the Chabad community responded to Rubashkin’s conviction and imprisonment, but said she viewed his release as “a miracle worth celebrating.
“There’s so much crap going on these days, and this reminds us we’re seriously not in charge,” she said.
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