Dressed in jeans, a denim jacket, brown boots and an oversized brown cap atop her long, straight black hair, “Sarah” looks like a typical hip college student.
Except for her eyes, which look much older.
A former prostitute who is Jewish and now in her early 20s, Sarah spoke on condition that her name not be revealed and that no photographs be taken of her, at a UJA-Federation of New York conference on human trafficking Monday.
Her speech at the conference was the first she has given to a large gathering since she left her life on the streets a few years ago.
“Trafficking,” seduction by sweet words followed by violence, “isn’t happening [only] to ‘those’ people,” to outsiders, to non-Jews, she told the overflow crowd at the daylong conference. Young Jewish women fall into that life also, she said.
She read unemotionally from prepared notes: no blinking, no tears, no smiles.
“Open your eyes,” she urged, asking her listeners to make themselves aware of the signs (like beating marks, poor health, or indications that a young woman is being forced to accompany a man against her will) that someone is the victim of trafficking. During her years working as a prostitute — she offered few details about her pre- or post-trafficking background — she came into contact, she said, with many people, including police, who failed to recognize the warning signs.
“If only you recognized these signs,” she said.
More than 200 people filled the main room of the conference, and an adjacent room set up to accommodate people who registered at the last minute, to hear the historical roots of human trafficking, its contemporary causes, and suggested ways to end it.
Speaker after speaker stressed the Jewish responsibility to get involved in the fight against modern-day slavery, which experts say includes as many as 27 million men and women, many of them children, around the world.
“It is a communal obligation,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights – North America).
Susan Stern, past chairman of the board of UJA-Federation, presented at the conference the findings of President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Programs. The council earlier this month released its report, “Building Partnerships to Eradicate Modern-Day Slavery,” which followed several months of testimony by experts and victims of human trafficking.
Stern said the conference marked her first opportunity to publicly share the report’s recommendations, which include a national hotline and an extensive advertising campaign. “The government can’t do everything,” she said.
The conference, billed as the first major one under Jewish auspices to focus on contemporary slavery, highlighted sex trafficking, but mention was made of other forms of forced labor. It was geared to rabbis, rabbinical students, educators, lay leaders and social service providers — “modern-day abolitionists,” Stern said.
Rabbi Levi Lauer, founding executive director of ATZUM, an Israeli-based human rights organization that works to end human trafficking in Israel, described the activities of his grass-roots group.
In the panel discussions and in subsequent breakout sessions, conference participants proposed many steps to help end modern-day slavery: enlist the pro bono help of law firms and advertising agencies; teach about the subject in religious schools and talk about it from the pulpit; lobby for the passage of anti-trafficking legislation — in New York State, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, (A.9804/S.7212); talk to children about it at home; get trained to serve as foster parents for children who were trafficking victims; train cab drivers, who often ferry prostitutes to their “customers,” to recognize the signs of trafficking; hack Internet sites that offer women’s sexual services for sale; post notices in places like restaurants and hotels; contact members of Israel’s Knesset to vote for anti-trafficking bills; refer to men who pay for sex as “rapists” or “sexual predators,” not as “johns;” urge newspapers to print those men’s names after they are arrested; make sure that products bought for one’s home or synagogue or workplace were not produced by slave labor; ask department stores to display women with price-tags affixed to their bodies as a silent witness in show windows.
“We have to create a blueprint for action,” said Lori Cohen, conference chairperson. “We have to bear witness to our historical experience as slaves and abolitionists.”
The overwhelming majority of the people at the conference were women, a fact noted by several speakers.
“It’s our job to get more men into this room,” said Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who coordinates a wide variety of anti-slavery activities in Atlanta.
“I wish there had been more men. I hope this is not simply seen as a ‘women’s issue,’” said Anita Altman, deputy managing director of UJA-Federation’s Department of Government Relations & External Affairs.
Sarah said she struggled to talk about “something I long to forget.”
She was molested as a child and was kicked out of Hebrew school. She was vulnerable to the words of an older man who became her pimp and ended up beating her. She became a prostitute, against her will, she later realized, and grew “isolated” from her family and friends.
The men who paid to have sex with her came from all walks of life, Sarah said. “Some … wore a kipa, some were Muslims. Some talked about their wives.”
One day a few years ago, after she spotted an older prostitute on the street, she decided to walk away. “That could be me, one day,” Sarah told herself. “I realized I had to get off the streets.”
She sought help at a social service agency whose name she did not mention.
“Now I’m out of prostitution,” she said. Her heart no longer races. She no longer has to wear long sleeves to hide “the bruises … burns … cuts.”
She said she is leading “the normal life I wanted for so long.”
Sarah’s short speech was followed by an ovation.
She walked silently away from the podium — without blinking, without tears, without a smile.