Talking about liberation

Talking about liberation

New seder resources from Emerson tackle the issue of modern-day slavery

Some two years ago, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, religious leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, got a call from the Rabbinical Assembly – the Conservative movement’s rabbis’ organization – asking her to write a sermon on human trafficking for the High Holidays.

“I wanted to do my duty and help the organization, so I agreed to do it,” she said, adding that she had no intention of giving such a sermon herself.

“I normally talk about personal issues, growth and development, on the High Holidays,” she said. But as she started reading “A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery” by Benjamin Skinner, “it made such a profound impression that I was drawn into the issue.” In fact, she did give a sermon on the topic on Rosh Hashanah.

The issue became a central focus for her, and as she began to think about Pesach this year, she realized “the irony of sitting around the Passover table and talking about being lifted out of the house of bondage. We can go through a whole seder and not acknowledge that there are millions of people still in slavery in the world.”

Rabbi Orenstein suggested that because of the way news cycles work, “something as important in world events as ongoing slavery doesn’t make headlines. It’s not oriented to the 24-hour news cycle, so it gets relegated to the back pages. Even very educated people express surprise” when they hear about it.

Since the issue doesn’t rise to people’s awareness, and since the vast majority of American Jews celebrate some kind of Passover ceremony, Rabbi Orenstein decided that the upcoming holiday provided a perfect opportunity to educate seder-goers about ongoing slavery. Inspired by the possibilities of this approach, she began working with Jewish educators to create several online resources.

The first, seder starters, was built on the premise that while there are many resources already out there, “nobody knows exactly where to find them.” To make them more easily accessible, Rabbi Erin Hirsh – director of part-time Jewish education at Gratz College and former director of congregational education for the Reconstructionist movement – consolidated existing readings and activities on modern-day slavery, examining such questions as: What is the scope of the problem? How does it relate to our history? What can Jews do? What must Jews do?

The materials include guides not only to individual readings but to full haggadot devoted to the issue. It also suggests things people can do to incorporate the topic into the seder – whether through “readings, prayers, objects, or the way you set the table.” Coupons listing the average cost of buying a slave and freeing a slave are also included, as well as information on organizations working to solve the problem.

On average, Rabbi Orenstein said, “it costs $90 to buy a person and $950 to free a person.” To effectively free someone, it is necessary to factor in such costs as health care, housing, and the cost of reuniting them with their families. Funds for community organizing and educating the police, who often turn a blind eye to the practice of slavery, also are necessary. “It’s the biggest bargain on the planet,” she said.

Traffickers bring in about $150 billion a year in profits – and the practice is widespread, Rabbi Orenstein said. Some countries try to stop it, some look the other way. She cited a recent article in “Good Housekeeping” reporting that 14 million people are enslaved in India right now.

But slavery is not limited to third-world countries. Dozens of traffickers were apprehended at the Super Bowl in New Jersey last year, and “here in New Jersey, people are holding others as slaves, including children.” (Rabbi Orenstein’s website,, follows media coverage of the issue and offers suggested readings. It also lists organizations working to alleviate the problem.)

In addition to seder starters, Rabbi Orenstein and the team of Jewish educators created age-appropriate Jewish curricula on modern-day slavery for everyone, from kindergarteners through adults.

“It’s varied and interesting and draws on different texts,” Rabbi Orenstein said, noting, for example, that the curricula touch on the issues of captives and loving the stranger. “They provide engaging interactive lessons to help children and adults connect to the issues of modern-day slavery and social justice as they relate to the demands of Jewish tradition.”

In addition to Rabbi Orenstein and Rabbi Hirsh, contributors include Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck, who is chair of the department of Talmud and rabbinics at Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School in the Bronx, a faculty member at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and the Drisha Institute of Jewish Education, and the spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck. Another is Dr. Shoshana Silberman of Montclair, who has been a teacher, educational director, and workshop leader across North America.

A third resource offered online is a webinar for Jewish educators “and anybody else who wants to get a tour of the resources,” Rabbi Orenstein said.

She believes that when people understand and witness the problem, they’re motivated to act. “When you read a report of a former slave and come face to face with what we are allowing [to happen] across the world, you’re moved to action.” Some of these actions, she said, are “quite simple.”

For example, consumers can buy fair trade products. “If it’s done by enough people, it will make a huge difference.” In addition, “giving a relatively small amount of money over time adds up to freeing tens of thousands of people.”

Rabbi Orenstein said all the resources cited above are free to the public and easily downloadable from

Free the Slaves, she said, is an organization dedicated not only to freeing slaves but also to keeping them free, giving them the resources they need to sustain themselves. Noting that they have a good “track record,” she said the organization uses a multipronged approach, tackling the problem in different ways in different regions.

Also working on the issue is Breaking the Chain Through Education, a grassroots volunteer-based charity that helps liberate child slaves in Ghana and ensure their ongoing freedom. BTCTE was founded in 2006 by Evan Robbins, a social studies teacher from Metuchen, who read about child slaves in the New York Times and made it his mission to make a difference.

According to Rabbi Orenstein, “Robbins has flown back and forth from Ghana for eight or nine years and has freed over 50 children.” He also built a school and negotiated with slaveholders to free the children working on their fishing boats in exchange for other services.

“There are endless ways to enter into this,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “My passion is getting people out and helping people stay free.”

“It’s a challenge to find the perfect balance at a seder, adding something new so that the conversation is fresh and meaningful,” she added. “There is nothing more meaningful and relevant than talking about liberation.”

Other “seder starter” ideas include:
1. Putting a padlock on the seder plate to represent your commitment to ending modern-day slavery. When you open the door for Elijah, open the lock. At the end of the seder, each participant is invited to say how he or she will help end slavery this year.

2. Adding an empty place setting and chair at your seder table in support of those who are not free. “The vacancy is sure to spark questions – a main goal of the seder – creating an opportunity to start a conversation about ‘invisible’ contemporary slaves,” Rabbi Orenstein said.

3. When you lift up the matzah and recite “Ha Lachma Anya/This is the Bread of Affliction,” lift up a symbol of modern-day slavery at the same time. “You might choose Indian-made fabrics, since thousands of child slaves in India work at looms, or you might select a coffee brand that is not fair trade,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “Raise awareness about buying habits, as you raise those objects.”

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