In the early 1900s, shortly after Hannah Greenebaum Solomon molded the early model of the National Council of Jewish Women, women in the organization waited at Ellis Island to assist female immigrants who came to America alone.
Today, the organization and its members are still helping women who may be coming to the country alone — and they are still trying to end human and sex trafficking, just as their foremothers had done.
On Dec. 15, close to 100 members and friends of the group participated in a panel at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel to discuss sex trafficking, including learning more about Senate Bill 851. That bill would amend two titles of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes to provide further definitions and provisions for trafficking-related offenses and establish the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund, among many other details.
Among the panelists were Lori Cohen, a national board member of NCJW as well as Director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at Sanctuary for Families, Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services in New York; Sister Terry Shields, co-founder and president of Dawn’s Place, a Philadelphia shelter for women who have been victims of prostitution and sex trafficking; and Liz Robbins, a Philadelphia native who is now a metro reporter for The New York Times covering immigration.
Robbins played the role of moderator, providing background on the other panelists as well as asking each of them questions about their work, about sex trafficking in the United States and around the world, and strides they have made to end it.
Robbins had written a piece in the Times last year about a human trafficking court in Queens that was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The court was particularly noteworthy as it was one of the first to treat women who have been prostituted as victims rather than as criminals.
“What has struck me in the year since covering immigration and the year since I did this story on the intervention court where almost everybody was an immigrant — an immigrant from China, Korea, somewhere in Latin America — is that we’re talking the same issues,” Robbins said in her opening remarks.
“Syrian refugees, Muslims, women who are trafficked — these are people who are vulnerable in many ways, especially refugees coming. They are people who need protection and respect. And of course, as we know in Judaism, in the Talmud, it says, ‘If you save one life, you have saved the world.’ And even though there are so many people who need to be saved, if we could just save one, whether it be through legal means or through counseling or housing, or whether it be through your own advocacy or donations, we have started to repair the world and save the world.”
The speakers shared how they got their start in the work they do and shared individual cases and the ways they aim to help ease the problem. Both Shields and Cohen shared powerful stories about individuals they have worked with who had been forced into prostitution, often raped and beaten.
Through Shields’ story about Anne Marie and a case Cohen worked on for a woman named Kika — two women who in brief summation were prostituted, repeatedly raped, gotten into legal battles and have now become outspoken advocates for ending sex trafficking — Shields and Cohen put faces to the problem for the audience.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, more than 21,000 total cases of human trafficking have been reported to its hotline in the last eight years.
Further, per the same source, 4,168 cases have been reported in 2015 — 75 of them in Pennsylvania.
Dawn’s Place opened its doors in Philadelphia in 2009 — though the exact location is not disclosed for the safety of those staying there. It’s the answer to a question Shields and a group of sisters asked after learning about the wide scope of the problem: “What are we going to do?”
Shields likes to say that Dawn’s Place found her, not the other way around but sex trafficking was an issue she had always been concerned with. A midwife by profession who previously worked in the medical field in places such as Sudan and Rwanda, Shields recognized that sex trafficking was “very definitely” a women’s issue.
She went into medical centers to teach emergency room staff about what to look for in a trafficked person who might come in for medical attention. She became part of the first anti-trafficking coalition in Pennsylvania, of which there are now 13, according to Shields’ estimation.
However, the availability of resources was still a concern for her and other women she was working with.
“There’s nothing out there for these women, no housing for them, no services for them — can we do something?” they said.
In 2005, she and the other co-founders of Dawn’s Place found a building and it officially opened in 2009. Since then, around 80 women — domestic and international — have come through and graduated from its yearlong program, which includes providing victims with therapy from art therapy to psychological therapy and other services to help them transition into employment and living on their own.
They recently bought the building next door, which should provide at least another three beds in addition to the nine available in the main building for women. The plan is to use it as a “transitional house,” Shields said.
As good as this progress is, it is something Shields hopes won’t be needed in the future.
“We are expanding, which is an awful thing to say,” Shields said. “We don’t want to expand anymore, but while the problem is still there, we’re there.”
Lori Cohen has been working with Sanctuary for Families for 10 years and has seen many policy changes, which she hopes is a sign for future progress.
When she was first starting out and learning more about the links between domestic violence and sex trafficking, she noticed partnerships with many religious groups, but said the Jewish voice was “strikingly absent.”
“I began to dig a little into our own history — only to discover what was alluded to in the outset of this meeting but was shocking to me,” she said. “Human trafficking, and, specifically, sex trafficking, is very much a Jewish issue.”
She learned about the “white slave trade” in the 1890s to 1930s, which resulted in the trafficking of thousands of young Jewish women from Eastern European shtetls to the Americas on false promises of marriage or employment. In 1910, she discovered, an estimated 900 Jewish women were sold for sex in Philadelphia.
However, she also learned about NCJW’s early involvement with helping women as soon as they arrived at Ellis Island.
“While economic empowerment is a term that many use today as the new approach toward fighting trafficking, NCJW developed innovative shelter, English language and literacy, and job training programs to train immigrant women so that they could gain economic independence — and we did this over a century ago,” she said.
Through her work as a lawyer and leader with the anti-trafficking initiative at Sanctuary for Families and as Chair of NCJW’s Trafficking Advisory Board, Cohen has seen several policy changes in the courtroom.
One such change goes along with what Robbins reported on in the intervention court in Queens — vocabulary.
Prostitution, Cohen said, was the “only place in the criminal code where the crime is actually the label for the defendant — you don’t say ‘the robber,’ ‘the murderer,’ ‘the rapist’ but you do say ‘the prostitute.’ ”
After lobbying to change that, she said now it’s “a person arrested for prostitution.”
“There’s the acknowledgment now that we’re talking about a human being,” she said.
She also noted the two crucial questions they have added when working on a case with victims of trafficking: “Have you ever had to engage in sex in exchange for something of value?” and “Have you ever engaged in sex against your will?”
These questions have served as a screening tool to better identify victims of trafficking and help them in their legal battles.
While the focus was on sex trafficking as a predominantly female issue, the speakers also talked about how men and boys are affected and what resources are available for them as well; males are also trafficked though it is less frequent.
And though there has been progress in areas like raising awareness that not all cases of prostitution stem from drug addictions as Shields discussed, focusing on vocabulary and labels, and policy changes — especially for young women and girls who have been trafficked (the youngest Cohen has worked on a case for was a 9-year-old girl) — there is still work to do, in order for people and groups like NCJW to “craft meaningful social change in the 21st century.”
“Now,” she said, “the Jewish feminist, progressive voice is once again being heard on behalf of some of society’s most vulnerable members.”
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