Just weeks before the start of Passover, members of New Jersey's Jewish community will gather to reinforce the connections between the bondage of ancient Israelites and the present-day slavery of human trafficking — and redouble their commitment to fight it.
“We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking” will take place on Friday, March 28, on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, at 10 a.m. The free three-hour program will feature a survivor, an attorney, and several activists, including a rabbi from Israel; they will address the $32 billion dollar illicit industry from a Jewish perspective.
“The impact of human trafficking is one that touches and has touched the Jewish people,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the Community Relations Committee of Greater MetroWest NJ. “For the past two years we have been advocating to strengthen laws and raise awareness in New Jersey and in the United States on the issue.”
As the CRC helped organize a major campaign against sex trafficking in connection with the Feb. 2 playing of the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, it teamed up with law enforcement agencies and a wide variety of civic and religious organizations and women’s groups, in and outside the Jewish community.
This time, its partners will be strictly Jewish groups: its other sponsor, Jewish Women’s Foundation of NJ, and cosponsors Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ; 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 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.
“The reaction I get from our community is ‘Is this our issue?’” said Susan Stern, former national campaign chair of the Jewish Federations of North America and a former member of President Barack Obama's Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Stern, who will keynote the conference, told NJJN in a March 17 phone interview that “most people don’t know this is happening in our own backyards, that kids as young as 12 are being trafficked every day.
“This is a wake-up call for the Jewish community and other communities as well.”
“We know all too well that anyone can be a victim of trafficking — Jewish or non-Jewish, rich or poor, from the city or from the suburbs,” wrote another speaker, Nancy Kaufman, executive director of national NCJW, in a March 19 e-mail to NJJN. “As Jews we have a responsibility to do tikun olam, to repair the world. Thus, we have an awesome responsibility to ensure our communities, our world, is safe. The Jewish community is uniquely qualified to speak out on this issue, where an organized and coordinated response is needed to shed light on this hidden crime,” said Kaufman.
Speaker Lori Cohen, senior staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families in New York, works mainly with young women who are lured by young men in Mexico to be smuggled into the eastern United States. Her talk will connect the Latin American presence and its similar Jewish past.
“That is what happened to Jewish women who were trafficked to the Americas starting in the 1880s,” she told NJJN. “Well-dressed Jewish immigrants to the United States would return to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, attend Shabbat services, make friends with the fathers of marriageable daughters, and say they were looking for an eligible bride. The parents would consent and would arrange for the couple to be married. Then the men would put the women on a boat to the United States,” where they would be installed in brothels.
As early as 1902, NCJW mounted an effort to thwart such practices. Yiddish-speaking members would greet young women at Ellis Island, while immigration inspectors stood by to determine if they had landed in the New World as potential prostitutes. “If that was the case they would try to place them with host families and prevent the pimps from gaining control over them,” Cohen said.
Rabbi Levi Lauer, a Cleveland native who now lives in Jerusalem, is executive director of ATZUM, an organization that has been successful in reducing the trafficking of young women into Israel through the former Soviet Union and Egypt.
“To have Israel be worthy of its name, you can't tolerate the situation in which thousands of women are trafficked annually across its borders,” he said. “You can't tolerate slavery in its streets. You need to create a climate of public opinion in which slavery is not tolerated.”