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Community Ramping Up Anti-Slavery Activism

Community Ramping Up Anti-Slavery Activism

Efforts here and around the country throwing a spotlight on the problem.

The Robbins family of Verona, N.J., which has started its own foundation to combat modern-day slavery, isn’t alone. (Its story is featured in the accompanying article.)

The international crusade to end slavery — whose best-known face is the trafficking of women in the forced-sex trade — has attracted in recent years a disproportionate number of Jewish organizations and individuals.

“Jewish people have been victims of violence throughout our history; we understand unfairness and injustice and intolerable treatment,” said Laurel Bellows, who as current president of the American Bar Association last year created an ABA Task Force on Human Trafficking. “I have made the fight to combat human traffick ing one of the key priorities,” said Bellows of her ABA presidency.

Evidence of the new push on the issue in the Jewish community will be on display next month when UJA-Federation of New York hosts a daylong conference April 22, “We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking.” The first-such event sponsored by the charity is co-sponsored by a wide variety of Jewish organizations.

Speakers at the gathering will include Rabbi Levi Lauer, founding director of ATZUM, a prominent abolitionist organization in Israel; Rachel Durschlag, executive director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation; Rabbi Rachael Bregman, founder of the Open Jewish Project in Atlanta; Isabel Vincent, author of “Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Trafficked to the Americas”; and a young Jewish survivor of sex trafficking.

The conference, which is geared for rabbis, rabbinical students, educators, lay leaders and social service providers, will explore the Jewish perspective on today’s anti-slavery campaign. One focus will be support for passage of an anti-trafficking bill ( under consideration by the state Legislature.

The event, said Anita Altman, deputy managing director of UJA-Federation’s Department of Government Relations & External Affairs, will be the first of other activities the philanthropy will sponsor this year to raise awareness of the anti-slavery issue.

“Thanks to the general awareness brought about by both changes in the state and federal law, service providers in social service agencies, including Jewish ones, have begun to look for trafficking in their existing populations and recognize that the problem still exists, often in the context of domestic violence,” Altman said. “President Obama has made trafficking advocacy a priority in his administration, and last year, charged a broad range of agencies and programs under the Executive branch to investigate trafficking. In addition, he asked that his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships study the question of how to address trafficking.”

Altman points to Susie Stern, former chair of UJA-Federation, whom Obama appointed to head the advisory council. “Her leadership on this issue has helped encourage conversation among other Jewish organizations to take on the challenges posed.”

The list of Jewish participants in the issue includes Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, Los Angeles’ Jewish Labor Committee, San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations, the N.J. State Association of Jewish Federations and many North American congregations.

Prominent Jewish individuals in the anti-slavery fight include Boston activist Charles Jacobs, a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group, and Ilana Schwartz of San Francisco, who founded Fair Trade Judaica, to “promote fair trade as a Jewish value.”

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, is co-author of the recently published “Trafficking Through a Jewish Lens.” In a compound in rural Congo a few years ago, she spent time listening to the life stories of two teens.

Natives of the West African nation who had involuntarily served as soldiers, the teens had been rescued from their lives in de facto slavery a few months earlier. They were living — and recuperating — in the compound run by an organization that brings them and teenagers like them to freedom and reintegrates them into society.

Messinger was there to see firsthand the results of AJWS support for anti-slavery organizations.

The two teens she met in Congo — they were about 14 or 15; they didn’t know their exact age — told her moving stories about how they were abducted into militias that conduct battles against rival militias in their country and against armies from neighboring countries. They told about seeing stragglers in their midst shot on the spot, about being forced to kill their own parents. They showed her their scars.

In the compound, they were learning to live as teens again, Messinger says. “It seemed they were on a much better path.”

“We imagine ourselves in slavery on a yearly basis, an incredible exercise in historical reflection,” said Robert Beiser, executive director of Seattle Against Slavery, referring to the Passover seder. “If this does not lead us to action on behalf of those now in bondage, we are missing the responsibility we have as descendants of slaves.”

Beiser, who earlier worked at Microsoft and left the tech world to work in the Jewish community as a social justice organizer, led annual “slavery seders” at the University of Washington’s Hillel, coordinated lobbying for a slave-free purchasing rule for suppliers of city uniforms, and created the national “Freedom Shabbat” that takes place every year during the Shabbat of Passover. Last year more than 100 congregations around the country participated.

New York City is a place of special concern to anti-slavery activists. It is, according to, “viewed as the ‘final destination of human trafficking activities.’”

While the mainstream Jewish community has, in most cases, followed the lead of small, less-prominent Jewish organizations in embracing the issue, the MetroWest Jewish Federation in New Jersey has served as a leader in federation circles.

Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of the state’s largest Jewish federation, serves as facilitator of the New Jersey Coalition against Human Trafficking (

Inspired by two speakers on a human rights panel she heard discuss the extent of modern-day slavery in New Jersey two years ago, she made anti-slavery activities a priority of the federation.

The coalition has, among other initiatives, encouraged sermons in houses of worship, disseminated educational materials for social studies teachers and lobbied for passage of a proposed Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act in the state legislature.

The Coalition — which includes a wide variety of religious, government and social action organizations, such as Rabbis for Human Rights North America and the New Jersey Catholic Conference, the Northern New Jersey Region of Hadassah and the League of Women Voters, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Morris County Prosecutors Office — sponsored a rally on the steps of the State House in Trenton on Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

“This is our greatest interfaith initiative,” Gorelick says.

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