A short while after leaving her home in Short Hills to attend Northeastern University in Boston, Danielle Douglas became a sex trafficking victim.
For two harrowing years, between the ages of 17 and 19, she was forced into prostitution by a man she met at a party.
“I had nowhere I could turn to for help,” Douglas told an audience at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany on March 28. “There were no human trafficking alliances or coalitions or hotlines. I didn’t even know what human trafficking was. So for two years I was forced to work on ‘the track’ or for escort services.”
Douglas’s narrative was the centerpiece of a three-hour conference called “We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking,” cosponsored by the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ and the Jewish Women’s Foundation of NJ, along with 14 other Jewish organizations.
Speakers and audience members explored the history of sex trafficking and discussed strategies for combatting it using the tools of clergy and legal, human-service, and medical professionals.
Speakers included Isabel Vincent, a journalist who has written a history of Jewish women forced into prostitution; Lori Cohen, who works to combat sex slavery; and Susie Stern, chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Rabbi Levi Lauer, executive director of ATZUM, an organization that battles human trafficking in Israel, lamented that fewer than five people in the 100-member audience were men.
“I want to suggest that until men get in the room, this will not become the priority for the Jewish world that it needs to be,” he said.
The Cleveland-born rabbi called for a redefinition of the issue of sex trafficking, which he labeled “the dirtiest laundry of the Jewish people.”
“One does not have sex with prostitutes,” said Lauer. “One rapes sex slaves.”
He said his organization’s clientele include Israelis of every social class, ethnic origin, and economic stratum, “including men from Herzliya who bring their 12-year-old sons for their pre-bar mitzva first sexual experience and reserve IDF units who come to a brothel in south Tel Aviv.”
Like many of the women speakers who preceded him, Lauer urged that prosecution be focused on male pimps and patrons, as opposed to the women forced into prostitution.
“Human trafficking exists in Israel like it does around the world,” said CRC director Melanie Roth Gorelick. “American Jews can join with Israelis to end human trafficking in Israel and here.”
Douglas described how, from 2000 to 2002, she was forced by a brutal pimp to sell her body in the red-light district of Boston. He had taken her purse and money as well as her identification and credit cards. She worried constantly about being attacked by customers, arrested by the police, and being beaten by her pimp.
Her chance to escape came when he allowed her to visit her estranged mother in Buffalo. Douglas returned to college, then became an advocate for women who were also trapped in sex slavery.
One day “the pimp actually came to my home and tried all kinds of things to get me back; none of them worked. He finally gave up,” she said. When she learned a few years later he had died, “it gave me good peace of mind.”
Other sponsors of the program were Jewish Family Service of MetroWest-Rachel Coalition; Jewish Family Service of Central NJ; National Council of Jewish Women’s West Morris, Essex, Union, and Bergen sections; NCJW State Policy Committee; Northern NJ Region of Hadassah; ORT; NJ State Association of Jewish Federations; and the Jewish community relations councils of the Jewish federations of Northern NJ, Southern NJ, and Greater Middlesex County.