Orthodox Jews flock to SD, support leader on trial

AP News
Posted: Nov 11, 2009 5:11 AM

In the musty conference room of a South Dakota hotel, Sholom Rubashkin helps a disheveled man in a hooded sweat shirt wrap black bands around his left arm and head. Attached to each is a black box containing inscriptions from the Torah.

"It's on your arm close to your heart, on your head close to your thoughts," Rubashkin, a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community, tells Robert Graham in a thick Brooklyn accent. Graham nods.

For the 50-year-old Rubashkin, and the dozens of Orthodox Jewish men who arrive almost daily from across the country to support him, such spiritual guidance is partly why God led him to his federal trial in Sioux Falls.

The former manager of Iowa kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessors Inc. is accused of defrauding a St. Louis bank and, if convicted, could spend the rest of his life in prison. But for now, he's spreading his spiritual message to people like Graham, a South Dakota Jewish man who was only remotely familiar with the broadest outlines of his religion's traditions.

That devotion and respect for the Rubashkin family is what draws the men to support a fellow member of their Hasidim, a branch of Judaism that translates to "the pious." Its members are easily identifiable in long black coats, fedoras and beards. They know Rubashkin more as the former teacher at an Atlanta Jewish school explaining his faith to young pupils.

"They have a solemn faith it's going to go the way it should," said Graham, a bus driver from Sioux Falls. "Even if it comes back guilty, they would say that's what God wanted."

While they pray in the hotel conference room, a jury of seven women and five men discuss in a courthouse five blocks away whether Rubashkin is guilty of 91 counts including bank, wire and mail fraud. They carry a combined maximum prison sentence of more than 1,000 years.

Rubashkin also will face a second federal trial on 72 immigration charges.

Despite the uncertainty, the conference room is anything but somber. As it has been for weeks, the room is filled with men who have been arriving and departing in waves, about 10 at a time.

At one table sit two Orthodox Jewish men who joined four others in a Dodge Caravan on Saturday night in Brooklyn. They drove in shifts nearly nonstop to Sioux Falls, roughly 1,400 miles away from their New York City borough, stopping only for gas and to pray.

They're smiling and eager to talk about their faith and Rubashkin, a man they had only met once or twice. Although confident that he will be freed, they say any verdict would be God's will.

"We believe everything is by divine providence," said Zalman Levin, 23. "Coming to see him, it's not a religious duty. It's something we should do. We consider the whole community a family. Even if we would have never met him before."

Levin grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., but is studying at a Jewish school in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a large Orthodox population. He and Rubashkin are Lubavitchers, a branch of the Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism. They met once in Brooklyn, when Levin was about 15.

Levin said that because they share a faith, he at least owes Rubashkin a visit. It's difficult, he said, for outsiders to understand why the men have been regularly rolling into this city of about 125,000.

To them, Rubashkin and his father Aaron are the ideal Lubavitchers, men who founded Agriprocessors Inc. in northeast Iowa, far from the lives they knew in New York, and supplied inexpensive kosher food to Jewish men and women who otherwise couldn't afford it.

To many, the Rubashkins' image in Crown Heights is of generous and devout people who donated money without a second thought and opened a restaurant that didn't charge those who couldn't pay, said Isaac Gurewitz, who traveled to Sioux Falls with Levin.

Rubashkins' trial began Oct. 12, moved to South Dakota in part because of pretrial publicity in Iowa. At least 60 Hasidim packed in an overflow room in the Sioux Falls federal courthouse. They came from Brooklyn, Minnesota, Chicago, corners of the country with small Orthodox populations and even Italy. They rocked back and forth while reading from the Torah, and flocked to Rubashkin when he stepped outside during court breaks for a cigarette.

Levin acknowledges that the Hasidim are oddities to the locals _ during jury selection, one South Dakota man confused them with the Amish.

"It's a bit of a strange sight," he said with a smile. "You haven't seen many people like us."

Former Agriprocessors employees have testified that Rubashkin personally directed them to create fake invoices. Days before an immigration raid in May 2008, former employees said Rubashkin scrambled to get new documents for his workers, at least 389 of whom were found to be illegal immigrants.

Rubashkin's defense attorney has argued that Rubashkin never read the loan agreement with St. Louis-based First Bank and tried to show Rubashkin as a bumbling businessman in over his head.

Rubashkin's son Getzel said his father has been a calming influence on his worried family. He said he's amazed by his father's perseverance, but shares his faith in a verdict of not guilty.

But the allegations weren't the focus of a recent morning in a hotel room packed with kosher food. The Lubavitcher men instead wanted to talk about a new believer.

Graham, the Sioux Falls man, said Rubashkin showed him last week how to apply the tefillin, the black arm bands attached to Torah scripture. To the Lubavitchers, it was Graham's initiation into Jewish society, and one of the reasons they believe God led them to Sioux Falls.

"This room is the biggest synagogue here," Levin said, laughing.