One of the most basic foundational stories of Jewish life — probably the most basic — is the story of the Exodus.
It’s the story of the Israelites escaping slavery, moving toward freedom, leaving the shackles of the place that kept them in service to others and moving toward a life of service, yes, but to God.
It’s the story that gives birth and meaning to the demand we are given to remember to welcome strangers, to treat them with compassion, even with empathy, because, as the Torah and the entire tradition tells us, we were slaves once ourselves.
But that was then, we think. Of course we should be kind to strangers, of course we should empathize with someone new, awkward, from elsewhere, far from home. But slavery? Surely the Civil War put paid to that.
No. No it didn’t. There still are slaves around the world, including in the United States. Most are not sold openly, considered partially human but also in large part simply a product like any other, like hogs or beets or iron ore, at least in the United States. But they exist — at times the trade that distributes and profits from them is called human trafficking — and we can help to free them.
There is no time like Pesach, the holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ freedom from slavery, to think about slavery today, and even to think about the freedom that we can help enslaved people gain, if we want to.
That’s Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s strong belief, and her goal.
And it’s not all grim, Rabbi Orenstein, who leads Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, said. In fact, “one of the things that I feel is uplifting is that there is a path forward. There are so many problems in the world about which we can do nothing. The pandemic has been like this — scientists can do things, healthcare workers can do things, but the average person can’t. And what can one person do about climate change? It’s disheartening.
“The difference is that slavery is a problem that has a solution, and it’s not even that expensive. You can throw money at this problem, and you can solve it. There is a credible plan to end slavery by the year 2030. It is in sight. So I am very hopeful.”
Rabbi Orenstein explained a bit about slavery today. First, she said, like the advocates, social workers, lawyers, and other professionals with whom she’s worked, “I sometimes use the terms human trafficking and slavery interchangeably.” That can lead to misunderstanding, because often human trafficking is thought to be mean sex trafficking, which is probably the most sensational but in truth not most common form of enslavement. “There are slaves in factories and restaurants and nail salons and hotels,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “There are domestic slaves in homes and on farms.” Although sex trafficking does happen, “and there are cases of kids who grow up in the suburbs and go to raves or abuse drugs and eventually find themselves trafficked, but those cases are rare. They are a tiny percent of what goes on.
“Parents worry that their kids will be taken from the back yard. They won’t be.”
But trafficking is a huge business worldwide. “Estimate show that traffickers make $150 billion a year,” Rabbi Orenstein said.
“There’s a tremendous profit motive in modern slavery, and part of the reason is that the downside risks are so low. Very few people end up getting arrested, fully prosecuted, and jailed.”
Modern slavery was not a question about which Rabbi Orenstein knew anything in particular until about eight years ago, “when I was first invited by the RA to write a High Holiday sample sermon on the subject,” she said. The RA is the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Orenstein was on its social action committee. “I had no special interest in the subject at that point, and my response was that I didn’t think it was a good topic for the holidays,” she reported. “I said that I don’t think that people come to shul on the High Holidays to hear about human trafficking. They want to hear about repentance and redemption.
“But the RA said yes, we understand, but this is what we want, and I wanted to be a good rabbinic citizen, so I did it. I had no expectation that this would be useful for anyone. Not the timing and not the subject.”
But instead, after Rabbi Orenstein dutifully researched the subject and wrote about it, “I was so affected by it that I gave a sermon that year on human trafficking.”
It could have ended there, but it didn’t.
“Shortly after the High Holidays, I sat down with my family, as I usually do, to regroup and talk about how the holidays were for them, and about our spiritual goals for the year.
“I said, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to have a hand in helping 18 people become free this year.’
“My daughter was 7 years old then. She said, ‘I get 18, because it’s chai, but why not 100?’ When you’re 7, one hundred is like one million.
“I was so touched by that sweet one-liner that I decided she was right. My aspiration was too modest. So I asked her if she would be my partner, and I realized that I needed a lot of other partners.”
Rabbi Orenstein started reading and mailing and calling and networking, and eventually she called Maurice Middleberg, who since has retired but then was the executive director of a group called Free the Slaves, to see if they could talk. “Maurice graciously granted me a 15-minute appointment, but because he is who he is and I am who I am we were on the phone for 45 minutes and made another appointment to talk.” Today, Mr. Middleberg and Rabbi Orenstein are good friends, she is deeply involved in Free the Slaves, and “we became collaborators in enlisting the Jewish community to be leaders on this issue.”
Up till then, some Jewish organizations had included anti-slavery work in their mission, but none focused on it exclusively, or even particularly fiercely. Now, though, that’s changing.
Terry FitzPatrick, a former journalist and filmmaker, is Free the Slaves’ communications director.
“It is important for people to realize that what they learned in high school history was wrong,” he said. “The perception is that slavery ended. It was outlawed in this country,” as it already had been in most of the Western world. But one of those things doesn’t necessitate the other.
“Slavery made a comeback in the 20th century, and now in the 21st , largely around globalization, where work has moved from places with strict, well-enforced labor laws to places with weaker ones,” Mr. FitzPatrick continued. “That’s a function of population growth, where the number of people has grown quicker than the economy. That makes people vulnerable.
“It also causes immigration, which is a fundamental human right,” but still makes people vulnerable to all sorts of threats, including from unscrupulous people. “We see a significant number of countries where significant parts of the population has left, to send money home.”
But often people don’t send money home, because they can’t, because they’ve been lied to, because they’re not being paid, because they’ve been shipped off to places where they don’t want to go. Because they’ve been enslaved; at times, because they’ve escaped, but to places they can’t identify, hearing only languages they do not speak, and at other times because they’re dead, killed by cruelty or neglect or starvation.
They’re often sold off by parents who have no more food for them, or who genuinely hope for a better life for them, or who know that they’re not being handed off for a better life but have no idea what else to do.
“Conditions are different for people in different places,” Mr. FitzPatrick said. “In some places, slavery is as brutal as it ever was. In other cases, it’s more transitory.” More transactional. “In some cases, people are enslaved at home, rather than kidnapped.” Sometimes they’re married off; child marriage is a kind of slavery.
Climate change is likely to make slavery worse, Mr. FitzPatrick added, in a kind of dreadful chain reaction; droughts, floods, and other extreme weather will cause people to leave their homes, making them more vulnerable. “People who are impoverished always seem to suffer most from global calamities,” he continued. “We know that it’s true now, with the pandemic. Slavery has worsened in the past year, and we are expecting a significant aftermath. People will do whatever they can, because their livelihood has been disrupted or destroyed. They will have to go somewhere.
“That’s when traffickers have a field day. They prey on migrants.”
And it’s not just on the other side of the world. “They’re not just building soccer stadiums for the World Cup in Doha. It happens in Arizona and Texas and Florida. Migrant workers are in meat packing. In vegetable packing. They’re in hotels, working on the housekeeping and janitorial and special events crews. They’re working in the informal cash economy in restaurants, in the kitchens, washing dishes. They’re in day labor queues. When you have an informal economy and people who aren’t documented, you have a perfect storm. People can enslave or traffic people in conditions of forced labor.”
This isn’t a far-away problem, Mr. FitzPatrick said. “I try to make sure that people recognize that we are all connected to it. It is not that our only connection is moral. We are all to some degree complicit.”
That’s because we all buy things made with slave labor. “Everyday purchases, or things like clothing, food, electronics, and jewelry are particularly problematic industries,” he said. “It could be that it was made by sweatshop labor, or the intermediate goods were. The way cotton is harvested — think of it all the way, from the dirt to the shirt. You find it in high conductivity metals. You wouldn’t think about slavery in some of these products, but there is a little bit of slavery in every mall in America.”
This is a far-reaching problem, and Mr. FitzPatrick is not proposing that Americans stop buying food or clothing, or even electronics and jewelry. “We look at this through a macro solutions point of view,” he said. “You can’t go kick down 40 million doors and liberate people one by one. You can’t try to cleanse the economy one television set at a time, or even one economy at a time.
“So we advocate for mandatory human rights and for due diligence. We ask companies to investigate their supply chains, and then do something if there is forced labor in those chains. And they are subject to sanctions or lawsuits if they don’t.”
That’s because some of these practices are against the law; goods are not supposed to be let into the country — as in this country, the United States, among many others — but enforcement of those laws often is anemic.
So Mr. FitzPatrick, Rabbi Orenstein, and Free the Slaves are hoping for “a three-point squeeze play,” Mr. FitzPatrick said. Slavery is against the law, but enforcement is lax. That has to change. “It’s now a high-profit, low-risk criminal enterprise. That has to be flipped. The police have to be made aware that it’s a crime, and they have to be incentivized to pursue it.”
The second part of the approach is “corporate accountability,” he said. “No one should be profiting from this crime. We need to make corporations aware of and responsible for slavery going on in their supply chains.
“The third part is prevention and community empowerment, helping vulnerable individuals and communities know their rights and how to use them.” People usually are at least to some extent reflections of their communities and cultures; if they are vulnerable, so too are their communities likely to be.”
Slavery is not only a moral wrong, it impoverishes what it touches.
Mr. FitzPatrick has moved over from more dispassionate journalist to outright advocacy. “Early in my career, I was told that you would meet people at the worst days of their lives,” he said. They were right. He saw real horror; he’s been a witness at an execution in a Texas prison, and he was in Kosovo during the war there. He’s seen babies die in emergency rooms. “When I started meeting formerly enslaved people, I realized that every day was the worst day of their life, and that moved me from journalist to activist.
“When I started making the video,” — he films for Free The Slaves — “I cried. I have a thick skin, but still I was crying. I recognized that slavery isn’t just an economic crime but a deeply personal assault on a person’s humanity. It’s not just physical beatings but psychological coercion that is deep and scarring and can take years to overcome.
Joha Braimah is Free the Slaves’ regional director in west Africa. He lives in Ghana, where most slavery is on fishing boats, and the bulk of his work is in freeing children who have been forced onto those boats.
Freeing slaves isn’t about rushing onto a boat waving a 21st—century version of a saber. It’s working with local people; it takes their local knowledge to point out situations that aren’t right, then when looked into further reveal enslaved people. Those local people need a great deal of courage. Then Mr. Braimah can go to the police, social service agencies can get involved, and it goes from there. “All the rescues we do are in collaboration with state authorities, with the social welfare department and the police department’s anti-trafficking unit,” he said. Ghana has anti-slavery laws on the books. “Ghana has ratified the Rights of the Child convention, we have free compulsive universal basic education, so in terms of laws and policies that are supposed to protect children, Ghana is pretty good. Just about every law we can think of we have.”
But that can get you only so far. “The problem is with implementation,” he said.
There are many fishing boats on Lake Volta, and many children work on those boats. “Not all of those children on the lake are victims of trafficking, but the majority of them are,” Mr. Braimah said.
Most of the fishing boats on the lake are wooden canoes, that stay out for a few hours at a time. “The smaller children, under 10, sometimes as young as 6, usually will bail water from the boats. A lot of the time the boats are rickety, so you have children holding a calabash and continuously fetching the water out of the boat.
“From 11 on, they will usually be the ones diving into the lake to tie up nets or disentangle them.” As they get older, their tasks change.
Some of the children run away, Mr. Braimah said. Some die. Some grow up and gradually move up financially to the point where they can get their own boats, and they too use small children for the tasks adults are too big to do easily on their own. Sometimes girls are brought in, and they and the boys make couples and they make it more likely that they all will stay in the camps; the babies they often have as a result eventually supply more bodies for the fishing boats.
There are stories with happy endings, Mr. Braimah said. “The most recent rescue we did was last August. We got a tip that said that there is a man who brings in a whole bunch of children and pretends to teach them Arabic. He pretends that he’s teaching them Koran.” In fact, it was a ruse to get the children away from their parents. A raid got out 13 children. “They were indeed victims of trafficking, so they were brought to a rehab shelter. And the stories you hear from them are incredible.”
Mr. Braimah is from Ghana’s north, a region that has far fewer natural resources and therefore far less wealth than the country’s southern region. “I started off as a teacher,” he said. “I was teaching a lot of children who would skip school at some point in the year. It took me back to when I was in high school. Some of my classmates would skip school. Some of them would come back, and some of them wouldn’t.”
Once he was a teacher, watching the same patterns through his now-adult eyes, Mr. Braimah got a better idea of what he was seeing, and he didn’t like it. He’d earned a degree in education, but he earned another, in social work.
Like Mr. FitzPatrick, Mr. Braimah talks about the importance of retraining the formerly enslaved people he’s brought to freedom. They need rehabilitation, they need attention and kindness, they need survival skills, and they need a way to earn money to support themselves. They have to be able to rejoin life in new ways; if they go back to their old ways, with inadequate support, money, hope, and love, they will end up once again enslaved.
Again like Mr. FitzPatrick, Mr. Braimah said that the good he is able to accomplish outweighs the pain of the situations that he has not — or at least not yet — been able to fix.
So let’s get back to Passover.
There are videos on Free the Slaves’ website, www.freetheslaves.net, made specifically for Jews, and some made even more specifically for Conservative Jews. (The main difference is the resources at the end, which are specifically aimed at the movement’s members, Rabbi Orenstein said.)
She’s sanguine about being able to end slavery, and she thinks that for once, it’s best not to start at home. That’s not where the worse need is. “When I look at the slavery problem in the world today, I am not primarily worked up about the United States,” she said. “I applaud the people who say, ‘I want to do this work in my own backyard,’ but I have put most of my energy into Free the Slaves, which works where slavery is most rampant. If we wipe it out in those populations, if we address the problem where it is biggest, then we can move on from there to eliminate it entirely.”
She suggests funding Free the Slaves through its Passover Project; the program’s staff will “work with partners in local communities to educate people about their options and their rights, and they will provide resources so that they are less vulnerable to trafficking.
“From our point of view, you give tzedakah to the Passover Project, which is the Jewish community working with Free the Slaves. That money goes for education in the communities hardest hit by slavery.
“And we also have to clean our supply chain, which is tainted by slavery.”
Rabbi Orenstein offered some specific, easy-to-do actions. “In the chocolate industry, 70 percent of the cacao beans are planted by slaves, so if you are not buying fair trade chocolate, you probably are buying slave-trade chocolate. Some of the elements in your cell phone are from mines in Congo that were mined by slaves.
“And if you buy really cheap clothing, you have to ask how it’s possible. How is this available at this price? There are companies that vet their supply chains and others that maintain plausible deniability. They say, ‘We just bought this stuff.’ They don’t know and don’t want to know where it came from.
“As consumers, we can make a difference. There are companies that are doing the right thing. They are vetting their supply chains, and they are making a point of paying living wages.
“Those companies should be rewarded with our business.” (You can vet your own supply chain on a website, knowthechain.org.)
Free the Slaves has a five-minute video made specially for the Conservative movement and another, very similar video for the rest of the Jewish world. People who are comfortable at this point in the pandemic with watching video on the holiday can watch it, with their guests either at home or online.
And, Rabbi Orenstein said, imagine, when you fling open your door for Elijah on Saturday and Sunday nights, instead of seeing the prophet “you see a slave, and they’d tell their story. I’d say — based on the videos — that I’m a child on a fishing boat. A woman trapped in a brothel. A man entrapped in a quarry.”
What would you do?
You could help.
“How much money do you usually spend on a seder?” Rabbi Orenstein asked. “What about on afikomen presents? Take some amount of money and donate it to freeing people this year. And if you do it through the Passover Project, it’s a double mitzvah, because you are donating money that will help people become free and stay free. You are doing it as a Jew, sending a message to the entire world that these are our values.
“This is why God took us out of the land of Egypt. Not only so that we would be free, but so that we can help free slaves around the world.”