Susan Stern, a veteran of decades of volunteer leadership work in the Jewish and wider communities, learned a lesson when she began her service last year as chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The council’s mandate was to study – and issue a report on – the extent of international slavery and human trafficking, which had become a high priority of the Obama administration.
She and the other Council members, all leaders of prominent religious and charitable organizations, “knew that it [modern-day slavery] existed,” Stern says – but they did not know, until they heard reports by experts and victims of human trafficking,” that it is so prevalent. An estimated 27 million people work at forced labor, in brutal conditions, around the world.
“We didn’t know the extent to which it impacts our communities, our congregations,” said Stern, who will participate on Monday, April 22, in the first major conference here on human trafficking sponsored by UJA-Federation.
“If we weren’t aware, the broader public probably isn’t aware.”
Stern, past chairman of the board of UJA-Federation, will moderate a session at the conference and discuss the findings of the Council’s report, “Building Partnerships to Eradicate Modern Day-Slavery,” which was presented to the President in a White House meeting with him last week.
The non-partisan report calls international slavery, “one of the greatest human rights atrocities of our time … a lucrative business of high profits and low risk. Traffickers make upwards of $32 billion in profits every year.”
“This is the beginning of a wakeup call. People need to be aware of this, they need to know it is existing,” Stern told The Jewish Week. And the Jewish community, which every year remembers its past as slaves in ancient Egypt, has a special responsibility, she added. “Our community needs to talk about the fact that this is going on. Our Jewish tradition says we must do something about it.”
The conference at UJA-Federation’s Manhattan headquarters, entitled “We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking,” will feature talks by a wide range of anti-slavery activists, including Rabbi Levi Lauer of Israel-based ATZUM Social Justice Works, Rabbi Ari Hart of Uri L’Tzedek, Rachel Durchslag of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights North America), and a Jewish victim of sex trafficking.
The conference is geared to rabbis, rabbinical students, educators, lay leaders and social service providers. Under the auspices of UJA-Federation’s Task Force on Family Violence, it is a response to President Obama’s charge to faith groups to address the problem of sex trafficking.
The Council’s report includes recommendation that the White House initiate a campaign that will raise awareness “among vulnerable populations,” adopt “strengthened investigations and enforcement tools” to prosecute traffickers, and offer “comprehensive social services, family reintegration and immigration to protect survivors of trafficking.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, served as a member of the presidential Advisory Council. “The issue is a long-term interest of mine,” she said, noting that the council report
identified “several closely interwoven activities” that religious organizations can take to raise awareness of the human trafficking issue in the wider community, cultivating “the appropriate moral outrage and attendant public responsibility.”
Rabbi Schonfeld said the Rabbinical Assembly will provide resources to its 1,700 members in congregations, schools, camps and campuses “to ensure that victims are treated as such and not as criminals.”
She said the U.S. and countries around the world “must do more in eradicating modern day slavery within their borders, both in terms of sex trafficking, which we tragically know exists in Israel as it does here and everywhere in the world,” and by “following up on any leads of labor trafficking in supply chains for goods purchased, as well as produced in the country.”
Stern, current national campaign chair of Jewish Federations of North America, says the Advisory Council heard several months of testimony by experts on the extent of international slavery. At first, she said, “we all stood there,” stunned. “It was a learning process.”
Once the members learned the facts, she said, they concluded that they had “the moral outrage to say this has to stop. We need to make other people care.
She noted that “pretty much everything we wear, eat, cell phones we use, etc., have forced labor somewhere in their supply chains.”
She said she will recommend that participants in Monday’s UJA-Federation conference alert Jewish agencies to the warning signs of individuals being trafficked, try to determine the source of materials they buy, and offer, when possible, support for victims of trafficking.
“It’s for all of us to take responsibility,” she says. “We need to change our buying habits” by paying attention when shopping to how products were made and how the employees are treated.
“It’s something on the top of my mind that [before she chaired the presidential advisory council] was not on my subconscious.”
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