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Rabbis, Activists Fight to Make Iowa Workers' Conditions "Kosher"

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In Postville, Iowa last week [July 31] Jewish social justice activists and rabbis joined forces with Hispanic immigrants and Catholic priests to protest oppressive work conditions at the AgriProcessors plant, the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the United States. The rally of 1,000 people called on Congress to grant legal status to the plant's undocumented immigrant workers who have been detained following a May 12th raid.

The raid at AgriProcessors, which exposed widespread safety and labor violations has ignited the moral outrage of Jews across the spectrum -- from secular grassroots organizers to rabbis across all denominations who are calling for a reframe of what it means for food to be kosher. Until now, kosher meant separating meat and dairy and prohibiting fish without scales and fins, seafood with shells, and all manner of pork. But a cascading series of revelations about egregious conditions and safety hazards, unveiled and kept alive over several years in the Jewish press and blogosphere, has inspired rabbis and Jewish social justice activists to call for a redefinition what it means to be kosher. For example, just last week Leaders of the Conservative Jewish movement issued a policy statement that sets new standards for kosher food production that include fair wages and safe working conditions.

What is happening is Postville and the powerful response is a harbinger of things to come in the Jewish community. While Jews have been prominent in many social movements throughout the 20th century, major Jewish organizations have been reluctant, when problems arise, to challenge Jewish business owners about the way they pay and treat their workers. Into this void, starting in the 1990's, new Jewish organizations started springing up with an explicit agenda of social and economic justice. These groups -- mostly small, grassroots, and on the margins -- struggled to attract members and money. But they survived and in the last five years, as documented in our report Visioning Justice, a number of them have grown exponentially and have brought a bold alternative Jewish voice to the public square.

Today, Jewish social justice groups are out in front on issues ranging from genocide in Darfur to the rights of hotel workers in California, from Hurricane Katrina to health care reform.

With the emergence of alternative Jewish voices has come a new narrative about Jewish values in a global community. This alternative agenda moves beyond the perils of anti-Semitism, Israel's vulnerability, and the pernicious rise of fundamentalism. It focuses on what Jews can and should do to protect the rights of all, to ensure that people are able to live with dignity, and to build a more just society.

These values are not new but are as old as Jewish tradition itself. The convergence of activism in Iowa is not a blip; rather, it is a reflection of a budding Jewish social justice movement. This movement is resonating with and mobilizing Jews across denominations and generations and shaping what it means to be Jewish in America in the 21st century.