On Monday, halfway through the Sefira period between Passover and Shavuot, between the holidays that celebrate the Jewish people’s ancient delivery from slavery in Egypt and their receiving the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai, a few hundred members of the Jewish community met to consider our communal responsibilities to slaves in our days.
“We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking,” a daylong conference at the headquarters of UJA-Federation, was the first major gathering on modern-day slavery sponsored by the philanthropy, and one of the first on the topic sponsored by any major Jewish organization in this country. (See article, page 10.)
Drawing a capacity crowd — mostly Jewish professionals and lay leaders, and, sadly, only a few men — the conference represented the mainstream Jewish community’s coming of age on a problem that for years has energized human rights activists, and, of late, the U.S. government.
For years, American Jewry largely seemed to express the feeling that contemporary slavery, whose public face is women pressured or forced into sex work, was not a Jewish issue. “We’re not the procurers or pimps, we’re not the trafficked people or prostitutes, we’re not responsible for other people’s problems.” That was the attitude, and sometimes-voiced response, to reports on the growing prevalence of international slavery.
The speakers at Monday’s conference, which was co-sponsored by several organizations, including The Jewish Week, showed otherwise. In this country and Israel, the speakers testified, Jews have a share in causing, and in being victimized by, the trafficking of human beings. Israel, once among the countries with the poorest record on sex trafficking, has improved its standing, though its victims include a higher percentage now of Israeli women, not just foreigners.
Experts at the conference noted that Jewish tradition — both our sacred texts and our shared history as slaves in ancient and modern times — requires our involvement in bringing an end to this problem. The dramatic presentation by a young Jewish woman, a former prostitute, underscored that our community is not immune from the plague of sex trafficking. “Open your eyes,” she told her spellbound audience.
While it was heartening that hundreds of people chose to devote a day to a topic that seems overwhelming — an estimated 27 million people are enslaved around the world today — it was discouraging that few men showed up. The victimization of women is not just “a women’s issue,” as conference leaders stressed. And it’s important that in the follow-up by UJA-Federation and like-minded Jewish organizations, modern-day slavery continue to be addressed as a Jewish issue, as well.