Young girls always dream of a better life. For the 21 to 27 million people around the world involved in human trafficking — what President Obama aptly calls modern-day slavery — those dreams gradually, or suddenly, become nightmares. The lures differ. An older man takes an innocent girl and hires her out to his friends. She obeys out of a twisted sense of love and obligation. A Russian teen is offered a new life in America or Israel with a dignified position at a legitimate company. But when she arrives, there is no job, no dignity, only prostitution. If she doesn’t bring home enough money, the people who consider themselves her owners (read: slaveowners) beat her.
Too often Jews feel exempt from this ultimate, nefarious, institutionalized network of abuse. What does human trafficking, a $32 billion industry, have to do with the Jewish community in 21st century America? According to our Page 1 JTA article, “Though exact figures on Jewish girls involved in sex trafficking are unknown, the overall problem is a major one.”
Regardless of the numbers, Jews cannot turn their back on a heinous situation that condemns girls throughout the world to enslavement. Jews are told that if they save one life — from a literal death, from a living death — we save the world entire. It’s time to start saving the world.
Read related news coverage, "Human trafficking: Jews seek to publicize it; aid the victims"
Our own history demonstrates that Jewish women were prominent victims of slavery. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was common for newly arrived Eastern European Jewish women to become entrapped in prostitution. According to Lori Cohen, an attorney for a group that helps victims of trafficking, impoverished Jewish women from the shtetls were easy prey for unscrupulous pimps who promised them a new start.
Economic momentum diminished the issue, but did not make it disappear. In fact, it has returned with a vengeance. Many involved in combating human trafficking in the US, and Israel, say the Jewish community regards this as someone else’s problem. Yet, morality is one of the seven universal Noahide laws Jews have a sacred interest in protecting.
Alice Borodkin, a former Colorado State Representative, brought the epidemic of human trafficking to the awareness of the state legislature years ago. She now works on this painful, rampant reality full time. She deserves our thanks and support.
Federations and Jewish organizations in the US and Israel are finally following her lead. NCJW is developing a strategy to deal with the egregious practice. The Greater Miami Jewish Federation and New Jersey’s Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest have launched task forces and coalitions to stop human trafficking. Members of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly are focusing on modern-day slavery and encouraging rabbis to address the problem in their High Holiday sermons.
Perhaps the most difficult problem is identifying the traffickers and their victims. Girls ensnared in a prostitution ring are too terrified of retribution from their owners to come forward. What are our options?
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive VP of the Rabbinical Assembly and a member of Obama’s advisory panel on human trafficking, says, “Part of what we need is for all Americans to have their eyes and ears open and recognize the signs of slavery, not only for sex but also for labor.”
Sarah (not her real name) told JTA that families and teachers must be alert to the signs: fatigue, isolation, unexplained injuries. “There has to be a realization that anyone can be trafficked.” Whether she’s a member of our community or the stranger beyond our midst, we must accept this awful truth and act on it.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News