Teaneck rabbi talks about slavery

Teaneck rabbi talks about slavery

New haggadah stresses both oppression and liberation

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster and other T’ruvah rabbis protest outside a fast food restaurant in Florida last October. Coalition of Immokalee Workers

T’ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights recently created a new haggadah, targeted to the issue of anti-trafficking.

“It’s really exciting,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck, the group’s program director.

“It’s a full-length haggadah, to be used as a full anti-trafficking seder,” she continued, and users also may “pick and choose pieces. We saw that people were starting to do public anti-trafficking seders, and we wanted to create a resource for people to use in their homes.”

The new haggadah, “The Other Side of the Sea: A Haggadah on Fighting Modern Slavery,” edited by Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, T’ruah’s director of education, looks at the issue of modern slavery through classical and contemporary texts, exploring “how we blot it out; how we support its survivors, and how we understand it religiously and spiritually.”

With side commentaries by rabbis, activists, and survivors of human trafficking, it also includes original artwork by trafficking survivors. The book can be read online, downloaded from a print-ready version, or ordered as a printed and bound copy. It can be found at truah.org/pesach or truah.org/Passover.

Rabbi Kahn-Troster said that people may choose to download one or more sections, pointing out that traditional parts of the seder, such as the Four Questions, have been rewritten to reflect the anti-trafficking theme.

In reply to the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” we find the following: “On all other nights we depend on the exploitation of invisible others for our food, clothing, homes, and more. Tonight, we listen to the stories of those who suffer to create the goods we use. We commit to working toward the human rights of all workers.”

The text goes on, answering questions about exploitation with declarations of commitment to take concrete action to end this exploitation.

Or, taking a new look at the Karpas section and the question of why we dip twice, the haggadah tells us that “the two dippings are opposites. The first time, as we prepare to enter a world of slavery, we dip a green vegetable into saltwater, marring its life-giving freshness with the taste of tears and death. The second time, as we move towards redemption, we moderate the bitterness of maror with the sweetness of charoset. Any time we find ourselves immersed in sadness and suffering, may we always have the courage to know that blessing is coming.”

The Maggid section, the story part, tells the history of American slavery, leading up to the situation that exists today. One caption, quoting a Florida grower, reads, “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.”

“Modern-day slavery doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “It is a continuation of slavery.

“It’s important to us that the haggadah is about both oppression and liberation. That’s why it includes stories about survivors and how they’ve rebuilt their lives. We move from past to present to future.”

She also is excited about the haggadah’s artwork, done by trafficking survivors. She said that it’s important to hear the voices of these survivors and note the leadership roles they’ve taken.

“The haggadah was T’ruah’s way of wrestling with the question the wicked child asks,” she added. “We were asking ourselves, as people who get up and speak before other Jewish people, what it means to us to do this work.”

T’ruah, which includes 1,800 rabbis from across North America, has representatives from all denominations and does human rights work not only in North America but in Israel and the West Bank as well.

“Rabbis can be a moral voice for change,” said Rabbi Kahn-Troster, who has held her position for about eight years. She directs the organization’s campaign on slavery and human trafficking, with a particular focus on labor.

While the group works closely with the National Council of Jewish Women, “they work primarily on sex trafficking,” she said. Both groups are part of a national coalition dealing with the issue.

For T’ruah, “I do the overall work educating the Jewish community about human trafficking,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. In addition to training rabbis, she has produced a handbook for those in the community who want to work on the issue.

Her department also takes part in specific campaigns; for example, it has worked with an anti-trafficking organization called the Coalition of Immokale Workers in Florida. The campaign, allying T’ruah with a grassroots campaign to improve working conditions in Florida’s tomato industry, was a major success.

“It felt like a natural extension of our work to produce a piece of ritual,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said of the haggadah. It can be adapted for children, especially if seder leaders pick pieces that are appropriate, she said. “It is possible to talk with kids about it.”

Rabbi Kahn-Troster said using the new haggadah “is a really great way to bring in a serious issue to the seder,” fitting in well with the story we tell about oppression and liberation. For people looking beyond the seder for other ways to help, she suggests calling members of Congress, urging them to sign on to anti-trafficking legislation.

“There’s one ask that never goes away,” she said, citing the runaway homeless youth act. “They’re one of the most vulnerable groups and there are not enough services for them. Ask your member of Congress to fund shelter beds for homeless youth.”

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