The Modern Relevance of Passover
Somaly Mam was just 14 years old when a man claiming to be her grandfather took her from her village and sold her into slavery in a Cambodian brothel. After years, she escaped and has since secured freedom for tens of thousands of other young girls enslaved Southeast Asia’s brothels. She has been called the “modern Harriet Tubman.” Might she be considered in some ways, a modern Moses?
More people live in slavery today than at any other time in human history, 27 million according to the United Nations. This is more than the populations of New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut combined. Half these slaves are children. These are not people in low wage, unfulfilling jobs, but individuals in forced unpaid physical labor who are literally bought, sold, and owned by others. And yet, few people know about or discuss it. Can Passover be an opportunity to make sure people know about slaves today so that we may raise our voice for their freedom and in so doing exercise our own?
Growing up, at seders, we talked about those who are metaphorically still enslaved, by poverty or sadness. I had absolutely no idea that as we ate our matzoh balls, more than 13 million children like myself were still shackled. In fact, the respected British medical journal, the Lancet, estimates that 1 million children per year are sold, just into sex slavery, beaten drugged, and raped by as many as 20 customers per day. By comparison, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade, in the 1780’s, 80,000 slaves per year were shipped across the Atlantic for sale.
If the slave trade were a company, it would be #105 on the Fortune 500 list, above McDonald’s, Xerox and Nike. Though slavery is no longer the law of any land, it thrives because law enforcement and politicians are looking the other way. This is where we can come in. The first step in raising our collective voice is engaging our collective awareness.
What can we as Jews do? We can speak out—at our seder tables, in our communities, and through public policy that pressures our government and others to take a hard line on modern slavery, what we euphemistically call “human trafficking:” Here are some resources for doing so:
Raise the issue of modern slavery in your congregation:
- Half the Sky: Turning Oppression to Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Host a screening and discussion. This 4-hour PBS documentary is divided into segments, one of which introduces the issue of child slavery, highlighting the work of Somaly Mam. Despite it’s content, the segment is uplifting and empowering, especially when coupled with the Take Action Guide available on the film’s website.
Introduce the issue at your seder table with these resources:
- Invisible, The Story of Modern Slavery: A Social Justice Haggadah from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC), the social justice arm of the American Reform Jewish movement. This printable haggadah is engaging, beautifully illustrated, and covers the traditional ground of the seder, infused with inspiring quotations and enlightening facts about our responsibility and opportunity to fight slavery as it exists today.
- A Haggadah Companion, from Renée Cassin, a UK-based human rights NGO that uses the experience of the Jewish people, and positive Jewish values, to campaign and educate on universal human rights issues such as discrimination, detention, and genocide. Pick and choose from facts, discussion questions, and textual references to enrich your seder with a modern relevance.
- Half the Sky Take Action Guide: This is a general guide to take action on issues facing women and girls in extreme poverty. There are many tikkun olam gems in here around slavery and related issues.
- Post hotline flier in your congregation for those who might suspect forced unpaid labor.
Eugenie Rosenthal is the Outreach Consultant for Half the Sky Movement. She is working with colleges and universities to spread the Half the Sky Movement far and wide while advising the team generally on marketing and social media strategy.