More than 400 people gathered in Paramus over the weekend as members of a statewide coalition combatting human trafficking entered the last lap of a pre-Super Bowl awareness campaign.
The NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, cofounded by the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, invited volunteers for a training and mobilization effort meant to advocate for the end of forced labor, sex trafficking, and other forms of “modern-day slavery.”
Among the speakers at the event — held twice, on Jan. 25 and 26, at the headquarters of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — was Theresa Flores, a trafficking victim and the founder of Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, or SOAP.
Inspired by Flores’s tale of having escaped two years of forced prostitution, the volunteers helped distribute 71,000 bars of donated soap, labeled with a human trafficking hotline phone number and intended for hotels likely to be frequented by traffickers and their victims.
Flores said she generally steps up her efforts in advance of major sporting events, like Sunday’s Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, since they are usually associated with a spike in demand for trafficking. She always enlists local volunteers.
Flores prepared the volunteers to deliver the bars of soap, informational posters, and the message to the region’s hotels. She said it was the largest group of volunteers she has worked with since she started SOAP four years ago, and the first time the volunteer training site had been donated.
Susan Youdovin of Montclair, a member of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, visited three hotels in Whippany with a team that included Rabbi Francine Roston of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
“This is something I can do and really have an impact on someone,” said Youdovin.
At their first stop, Extended Stay America, a part-time weekend manager turned out to be a student at Montclair State University who had just finished a project on human trafficking. Their second and third stop were two related hotels, EconoLodge and America’s Best Value Inn, located on either side of a diner. Owner Mehul Naik promised to hang a poster on the wall in the reception area, to distribute all the soap, and to inform his housekeeping staff.
He remarked that while his clientele during the week is usually affiliated with the many pharmaceutical companies in the area, he does see his clientele change on the weekends, particularly around the time of sporting events. Naik said, “If we rescue one girl, that would be really great,” he said.
Although Youdovin and Roston had worried initially about approaching hotel managers, they were both surprised and pleased at how receptive they were. “That was easy,” said Youdovin, when they had finished their rounds.
“SOAP UP New Jersey” is part of a multi-pronged approach by the NJ coalition coinciding with the Super Bowl and National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Other events have included an End Human Trafficking Shabbat, an Awareness Day program at BergenPAC in Englewood, and training for New York-area rabbis and Jewish leaders.
On Friday, March 28, the CRC will host “We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking,” a morning program at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
The Greater MetroWest CRC first took up this issue in early 2011, according to its director, Melanie Roth Gorelick. It helped to found the NJ coalition with the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey, an advisory council of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ; the National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex, Morris, West Morris, Union, and Bergen chapters; and a number of other faith-based and community organizations, including the Junior Leagues of New Jersey State Public Affairs Committee, the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry, the NJ Department of Corrections, and the League of Women Voters.
The Paramus event was underwritten by the Community Foundation of New Jersey.