Kosher Cookies: Reflections on My Trip to Postville

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

[Postville, Iowa, is the town where an allegedly kosher meatpacking company tortured many of the animals it was supposed to be slaughtering painlessly and abused and oppressed hundreds of its workers, many of whom were then rounded up as illegal immigrants by Federal police who sent hundreds to prison and deprted hundreds of others. -- ED]

I was standing next to a long table full of neatly arranged trays of cookies when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw a woman with white hair smiling kindly at me. Noticing my kippah she offered, “The kosher cookies are over here.” She walked me over to another table, this one with cookies in wrapped packages labeled with a hekscher, a kosher symbol. After finishing our march through the tiny town of Postville, Iowa, the hospitality committee of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church was waiting for us, eager to show their appreciation that we had come.

It was an extraordinary experience to march through Postville, a town of 2,200 people. The afternoon began with an interfaith service with hundreds of people packed into the tiny church. We read liturgy of courage, hope, and love together both in English and Spanish, and we sang a beautiful rendition of Hinei mah tov in unison –-- indeed, how great it was that we were all sitting there together.

We were quite a diverse group of over 1,000 people. The march, organized by Jewish Community Action of Minneapolis, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs of Chicago, and our host, St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, drew a fascinating crowd. Young radicals marched alongside middle-aged residents of Postville. Latino families gathered next to organizers with UNITE HERE. Teens from the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah, Jewish twenty-somethings with matching blue t-shirts reading “Social Justice: If not now, when?”, gray-haired Jewish activists, middle-of-the-road synagogue-goers, and rabbis from the liberal Jewish movements all joined together.

As we walked through the neighborhoods, Postville residents sat on porch stoops or lawn chairs watching us as we marched by. They seemed to be fascinated by us – after all, such a march had never happened in this town. We too were fascinated by them. What were they thinking – of us, of the immigration raid, of the immigrant workers, of the Hasidic Jews running Agriprocessors? Unable to engage in real conversation, we looked at each other tentatively, taking pictures of each other as we passed by.

When we arrived at Agriprocessors, a rabbi, speaking through the loud-speaker, explained a piece of Talmud which prohibits employers from oppressing their workers.

We passed a park where we heard more speeches and a poem by Latino children. We then walked into the center of town where we confronted by a small, angry group of counter-protestors. A line of police officers separated us.

I walked for some time with an older couple who lived ten miles outside of Postville. They kept repeating the word disaster – the raid was a disaster, the working conditions at the plant were a disaster, the plight of the children separated from their parents was a disaster, the deportations were a disaster. They were members of St. Bridget’s. I asked what people in the church thought of all of this. They answered, “The church just doesn’t like to see families separated. It’s just not right.”

A downpour interrupted the last of the speeches outside of St. Bridget’s. We all piled into the church – with a spread of cookies waiting for us. Throughout the day I had wondered what the folks at St. Bridget’s thought of so many Jews converging on their town. Did they understand that we were different from the Hasidic Jews who ran the kosher plant? Did they understand that we also shared so many things in common? The kosher cookies seemed to say it all. I thanked one of the women on the hospitality committee. She responded, “We are so happy to have you.” “But serving 1,000 people cookies?” I asked. “We’re Iowans. This is what we do.”

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
Congregation Shaarei Shamayim
Madison, WI 53703