Recognizing the reality of human trafficking this Passover.
Growing up in an interfaith household, our bohemian Passover Seders were more about digging in to the idea of a metaphorical slavery than honoring biblical or historical events. We’d vow to honor our freedom by relieving ourselves of the superficial, pop culture induced pressures that bind our modern lives. I saw slavery as a pesky psychological obstacle that with the right amount of focus and perseverance, anyone could overcome.
In college, I traveled to the land of milk and honey to dive deeper into Jewish wisdom. There, we dissected the meaning of freedom as it pertains to the Torah, learning that freedom is not a gift someone gives us, but a right and responsibility. We mustn’t wait for freedom to be granted to us in dollars or peer approval, but rather we must go out into the world and claim true freedom for ourselves. I found these conversations invigorating, feeling galvanized by the notion that I held the key to my own freedom.
After my sophomore year at NYU, I traveled South East Asia to teach English for the summer. Somewhere along the breathtakingly beautiful journey through tropical gardens and majestic Buddhist temples, I was struck by an unfamiliar sight: Girls as items for sale. It felt like the walls were crumbling around me as I realized that modern day slavery was not only a metaphorical idea, but it was alive today as the very real buying and selling of human beings.
I realized that the true meaning of the word “slave” is a reality for an estimated 27 million people across the globe. I learned that human trafficking (defined as the act of transporting, recruiting or harboring a person for labor through the use of coercion, force, fraud or kidnapping) is a 30 billion dollar a year business that victimizes our most vulnerable, and turns a body into a piece of property.
To put this crisis into perspective, at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade there were an estimated 80,000 slaves brought over from Africa to the new world. Today nearly 25 times that number of women and girls are being sold into slavery each year.
Devastated by this reality, I tried to talk to my friends and family back home about what I had learned. I’d be the girl at the dinner party telling people that 1 person is trafficked every 15 seconds, or that at least 100,000 children are being trafficked in the US each year. Impassioned, I was roaring facts and figures, but I was greeted by blank stares and numb disbelief. Something about this conversation topic felt too terrifying, too impossible, and too distanced to connect to. The people in my life couldn’t feel this reality the way I could from seeing it first hand, and so the magnitude of the discussion dissipated and fell flat.
Yet the memories of these young girls in Cambodia stayed inside of me, coming out to sting every now and then, until I found myself at a Passover Seder. Here I was back home in New York with a group of people who were talking openly, emotionally about slavery. Here was a point of connection – the children of the children of the children of slaves still tasting its bitterness each year, and still celebrating the sweet pleasure of freedom. How brilliant are the Jews as a people that we take the time to remember where we come from with such detail and such ache?
As Jews, we do not take our freedom for granted, but rather we cherish it with our most beloved year after year. So I ask you, shouldn’t we then be the ones to realize that the fight for freedom is not yet over?
I have always felt a deep sense of pride that I come from generations of people who have overcome incredible oppression to claw their way to freedom, again and again. I know that in my blood I am a survivor. With this knowledge comes an incredible sense of strength, and a deep responsibility. The story of Exodus is vital to our identity as a people, connecting us not only to generations of Jews who suffered before us, but also to our global community that still suffers today.
This Passover, while we relish our freedom, we must too acknowledge that globally, the battle is not yet finished. When we taste maror, let it remind us not only of our ancestors, but of those who suffer today.
How can we make a difference?
The first step is education. If everyone knew how vast and horrific this crime truly was, more people would find a way to fight for change. Consider sharing this Who, What, Wear, Why and How information:
WHO? Trafficking is age and gender blind, but mostly affects young women in developing nations.
WHAT? Human trafficking is the act of transporting, recruiting or harboring a person for labor through the use of coercion, force, fraud or kidnapping.
WHERE? Trafficking is a truly global issue. It happens in fishing villages in South East Asia, and in affluent suburbs of New York City.
WHY? Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. If the slave trade were a company, it would be #105 on the Fortune 500 list, above McDonald’s, Xerox and Nike.
HOW? In the developing world, traffickers take advantage of people who are desperate for work by advertising job opportunities in restaurants or factories. The victims are so eager for a job that they sign contracts, hand over their passports, and often cross foreign borders illegally, ending up in a new country where they know no one, don’t speak the language, and can’t go to the police if they are mistreated because they are now illegal immigrants. The traffickers will then tell the victims that it cost them thousands of dollars in traveling and recruiting fees to get the victim across the border, and now the victim owes the trafficker money. The victim will work and work, but will never be able to repay the fabricated debts that the traffickers keep increasing.
With so many challenges within the Jewish community, is it our role to be spending our time and resources on global issues? What does this have to do with the Jewish community? This cause may feel far away, but in fact it affects all of us. Take a look at SlaveryFootprint.org, and by answering some basic questions about the clothes you wear and the coffee you drink, you will find out how many slaves you have working for you. Slavery is a part of our global economy and most of us are guilty of supporting this evil without knowing it.
Understanding the facts about trafficking and how deeply it has permeated our global community, allows us the chance to take a stance and be leaders in the fight to end such cruelty.
We are such a powerful community and have been on the forefront of positive social change time and time again. This Passover let us focus on fighting modern day slavery by donating to non-profits who are making a direct impact on our most vulnerable, by shopping consciously from brands that treat their workers with dignity, and most importantly by educating our community so that each of us can use our skills and talents to make a difference in a way that feels right for us.
For me, growing up watching my mother’s jewelry business and the sentimental relationship women have to their jewelry led me to use fashion as an avenue to connect people to this cause, and offer everyone an approachable, easy way to give back. How can you use your skills to make a difference in a new way? Let us use the beautiful opportunity of Passover to educate and inspire our communities to relinquish the reality of slavery today, a slavery whose bitterness we understand all too well.