“Avadim hayinu,” we say as we begin each Passover seder. “We were slaves.”
Every year we acknowledge that once we had been enslaved; if God had not freed us, we might be there still. Now, though, we are free.
There are at least 21 million people enslaved across the world; some estimates say that there are 36 million. With deadly irony, some of them make bricks — not without straw, as our ancestors did, but certainly without hope. None of those people can say “We were slaves.” Free the Slaves, a Washington-based nonprofit that partners with local agencies in six countries around the world, hopes that one day soon they can say, as we do, “today we are free.”
Free the Slaves is a secular organization with a strong faith-based component — “there is no way you could do this work without faith,” its executive director, Maurice Middleberg, said. It works with many religious organizations, representing Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, and Hindus, among others. It has a particularly active Jewish presence, culminating in but certainly not confined to this year’s second annual Passover Project.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson strongly supports Free the Slaves, and she conceived of “Next Year Free!”, a curriculum, meant to be used to prepare for and lead a seder, that Free the Slaves offers free online.
“Why is this seder different from all other seders?” she asked. “Every year, Jews sit down to a seder, and every year there are beloved traditions, from grandma’s matzah ball soup to Uncle Sidney’s Haggadah reading to my mother’s famous baked goods, that everyone looks forward to every year. But there also is the element of Maxwell House Haggadah fatigue.
“People say they love the tradition, but they want to see it renewed from year to year.”
That need, to make the tradition jump from the rote to become living Torah, dovetails with the tragedy of modern-day slavery.
The moral imperative to rid the world of slavery became important to Rabbi Orenstein fairly recently. “I was asked to write a sermon about human trafficking for the High Holidays for the Rabbinical Assembly” — the organization that represents Conservative rabbis — she said. “It wasn’t my passion. I didn’t even think it would be a particularly good topic for the holidays. But I wanted to be a good rabbinic citizen, so I did some research. And then the urgency of it took hold of me, and I felt that I couldn’t not make this a cause in my life.
“Ever since then I have been thinking about it.
“No Jew should sit down to a seder without discussing contemporary slavery, because the whole essence of the Haggadah is to engage your imagination in order to evoke compassion and commitment to spiritual freedom for yourself — and for physical freedom for other people,” she said. “To me, it is such an obvious link.
“There are people enslaved in India who are making bricks, just as we made bricks in Egypt.” Free the Slaves’ website, freetheslaves.net, includes a video showing people who had been enslaved, making bricks, and who now are free. The group’s philosophy is not merely to set those slaves free, “but to say, ‘How can we help you?,’” Rabbi Orenstein said. As the video shows, “they said they wanted to have their own kiln, so they could make their own bricks. You see people with almost nothing, making bricks, and now they are smiling.”
It takes very little money to free slaves, Rabbi Orenstein said. “We don’t go and outright buy people from the slave trade, though, because that obviously would be good for the slave traders.” It would encourage them to enslave more victims, knowing that ransom would be forthcoming.
“Slavery can be eradicated,” she added. “It is doable. Even though there are now more slaves in the world in numbers, the percentage of people who are slaves is lower. Industries don’t depend on it the way they used to, now that there are alternatives.” In other words, there are many benefits as well as drawbacks to industrialization, particularly now, in the digital age. It takes so little money, relatively speaking, to make a difference.
“There is $150 billion a year going to trafficking, and only one tenth of that amount is being spent to eradicate it. If we just up the spending a little bit more, we can end it.”
Free the Slaves is realistic, she added.
“They don’t only rescue people, they think about what they need, and they let people know about the alternatives.
“If someone” — a trafficker, that is — “comes to town, and you have five kids, and you don’t know how to feed them, and they say ‘We have a good job for your oldest one,’ you might make a deal to feed the other four. But if you know what is really happening — if you have alternatives, and access to food and credit and health care, you won’t take that deal.”
Free the Slaves offers Jews three ways to integrate its message into the holiday through the Passover Project, a five-year undertaking. Aside from “Next Year Free!”, there is Passover Prep, a one-page handout, available for download online, that offers a range of options, which would take between 10 seconds and 10 hours to do. Seder Coupons, also downloadable, are meant to inspire both discussion and tzedakah.
Locally, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, which is Conservative, has joined Rabbi Orenstein’s Conservative B’nai Israel in signing on to use “Next Year Free!”, and so have the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County and the New York Board of Rabbis, whose president is Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, also Conservative. Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, which is Reform, and Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, which is Conservative, are using some of Free the Slaves’ resources this year.
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, who leads Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck — which is Orthodox — also wrote a chapter in “Next Year Free!”.
“I wrote two lessons for high-school-age kids across the denominations, using Jewish sources, with guiding questions for teachers,” Rabbi Helfgot, chair of the department of Talmud and rabbinics at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., said. “The sources are both ancient and contemporary.”
He addressed two issues. The first is “sensitizing ourselves to the problem of slavery, the lack of respect for human dignity that slavery entails, and what that means.” He juxtaposes those ideas with the basic Jewish belief that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim — in the image of God.
“The second lesson talks about how we sometimes are so overwhelmed with a problem that we feel we can’t do anything about it. The idea is that everyone can contribute in some way to making the world a better place.” He uses Jewish sources to talk about some of the things that we can do.
“It’s shocking that there still are millions of people we would classify as slaves,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “Saddening and shocking. It is a positive endeavor to help people out of slavery, and I wanted to contribute a Jewish voice to the fight for human dignity.
“As we come closer to Pesach, we reaffirm the values that no human being should oppress other human beings, and that we should value other people. Those lessons are very deeply rooted in the Torah. We can contribute that to the conversation in the context of our historical experience and broaden it to the whole world.
“Both in the specific and the general, we affirm the uniqueness of Jewish experience and peoplehood, and at the same time we make an impact on the world at large.”
Mr. Middleberg, Free the Slaves’ executive director, came to his work naturally, through his and his wife’s very different but complementary family histories.
“My grandfather, Reuven Mittlesbach, was a slave laborer in Auschwitz,” he said. “He survived because he was a jeweler and watchmaker.” The Nazis kept him alive so he could repair the watches they stole from the victims en route to their deaths.
His wife, Fran Middleberg, is the descendant of famous abolitionists. Elijah Parish Lovejoy, the best known of three anti-slavery activist brothers, was a writer and publisher murdered by a mob incensed by his pre-Civil War work fighting slavery.
Soon after he took his job at Free the Slaves, in 2012, the Middlebergs went back to the synagogue outside Atlanta that they’d had to leave when they moved north to Washington. He delivered a d’var Torah on slavery and Judaism at Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell, Ga. “And then I spoke to the kids at the religious school there, and the kids made us their school project for the year,” he said. “It was amazing. They learned about slavery, did creative projects about it, and had an event in the social hall at the end of the year, with videos and poems and essays. It was very moving.” The children also raised money for Free the Slaves, and Mr. Middleberg was inspired by their passion and commitment.
It was out of that seed, and the intellectual and creative fertilizer that Rabbi Orenstein added, that “Next Year Free!” grew, Mr. Middleberg said.
“The goal is to develop a network of 180 Jewish congregations, schools, institutions, that are mobilized in the fight against slavery,” he said. “We are asking those Passover Project partners to do four things.”
First, to download the materials from the web and use them. Second, to advocate to end slavery whenever relevant policy issues come up on Capitol Hill. Third, to be careful consumers and investors, choosing not to buy products made by slaves. And fourth, “to make Free the Slaves an object of tzedakah for your congregation and school,” he said. “There is no minimum amount. There is no entry fee. Whatever you feel is appropriate is gratefully received.”
So far, in the less than two months that registration for partnership in the Passover Project has been open, 18 institutions have signed up. The goal for this year was just 20. “But this is not just about Pesach,” Mr. Middleberg said. “The fight for freedom is not a seven- or eight-day event. It is not only a seder event. It is a continuing engagement.
“The goal is to build a true network, a living, breathing organism that is engaged in the struggle against modern slavery.”
To learn more about modern-day slavery, and about how Free the Slaves works with partner agencies in six countries to fight it, go to freetheslaves.net/Judaism.