You say you had no idea. You say you thought slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t feel bad. Not many others were aware of it either. That’s where Free the Slaves comes in.
Avadim hayinu …
That’s what we say every year when we sit — or lean — at the table during the Pesach Seder.
“Once we were slaves … Now we are free.”
Well, it turns out not all of us are free.
According to unofficial studies — because it’s virtually impossible to have a real count — there are between 21 to 36 million men, women and children trapped throughout the world by some level of slavery. The International Labor Organization said that generates an estimated $150 billion in annual profits for human traffickers.
You say you had no idea. You say you thought slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t feel bad. Not many others were aware of it either.
That’s where Free the Slaves comes in.
Based in Washington, D.C., with branches in slave havens India, Nepal, Haiti, Ghana and the Dominican Republic, Free the Slaves is trying to put an end to a practice that has gone virtually unchecked.
The vast majority of modern-day slavery — about 80 percent — is debt-related. An individual who incurs a debt tries to work it off, only to find the system is so stacked against him that he never can. Often, that results in not only his entire family becoming enslaved, but future generations to follow.
The other 20 percent revolves around sexual prostitution. Due to a combination of poor police protection, as well as general ignorance in remote corners of the world, slavery not only has endured, but thrived.
Free the Slaves aims to change that with the launch of The Passover Project. The year-round initiative is aimed at creating awareness and raising funds that can be used to literally free slaves.
“The institution of slavery never ended formally in many parts of the world,” said Free the Slaves Director of Communications Terry FitzPatrick, one of 15 employees working in conjunction with 20 partner organizations worldwide. “Nobody knew about it until 15 years ago, when there was a grand awakening.
“Slavery’s since made a bit of a comeback. It was outlawed 150 years ago, but it had never been eradicated.”
Leading the charge is Executive Director and CEO Maurice Middleberg, a former Mayfair native and Temple University graduate, whose family history gives him a unique personal stake in the organization.
His French-born parents were among those hidden during the war as children while his grandparents went off to concentration camps. While his father’s mother and mother’s father never made it out of Auschwitz, his dad’s father survived as a jeweler and watchmaker doing slave labor.
In addition, Middleberg’s wife, Fran, is a direct descendant of the Lovejoy family, who were prominent abolitionists and journalists in the pre-Civil War era.
One of the three Lovejoy brothers, Elijah, was murdered in Springfield, Ill., after publishing an abolitionist newspaper. Another, Owen, became an anti-slavery congressman and close friend to another Illinois politician — Abraham Lincoln.
“It’s beshert,” said Middleberg of the path that led him to work for Free the Slaves. “When the opportunity to do this kind of work came up my wife said, ‘You have to do this. It’s not even a discussion.’ It’s been very inspiring having the connection.
“Bob Corker (R-S.C.) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act down in Washington. It is one of those issues that is truly bipartisan. There is no other side to the issue. We’re trying to allocate more money and provide the impetus for diplomatic engagement and more research.”
Nothing will generate a call to action — including funding — more than public pressure. But the public first needs to be aware, particularly Jews, who should have empathy for millions dealing with their own hard-hearted “pharaohs,” said Middleberg.
That’s what led to The Passover Project, the brainchild of Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’Nai Israel in Emerson, N.J.
It’s a series of facts and instructions in pamphlet form on how to incorporate the plight of modern-day slavery into a year-round movement within the Jewish community, starting with the Passover Seder. Each segment: “Seder Starters,” “Passover Prep” and a general Passover curriculum can be downloaded from freetheslaves.net/Judaism.
According to Orenstein, combining Passover with a discussion of slavery is only fitting.
“It’s a year-round concern in terms of social justice and Jewish values,” explained Orenstein, who’s hoping the second-year project will enlist 180 synagogues and Jewish schools over the next five years. “The Haggadah specifically asks us to use our imagination for empathy. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to imagine being a stranger today, just as we were strangers in land of Egypt.
“Jews are always looking for ways to make the Seder experience more meaningful. The whole enterprise of the Haggadah was originally applying a biblical story to the period of Roman oppression. We’re just extending that. If you look at the liberation movement across history, they’ve looked back to the Exodus story as their inspiration.”
It even asks the question: “Why is this night NOT different from all other nights?” Answer: “Because there are still millions of people enslaved around the world,” adding, “Love the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”
The curriculum includes lesson plans for every age group from kindergarten on, said Orenstein, whose own children, 9-year-old Hannah Mathilda Weisz and 11-year-old Emmett Weisz, have sought other ways to raise money for the cause. She’s selling her old clothes on the website he built for her, fashionfreedom.org.
“I see it not only in my kids but others who are shocked on a very visceral level and want to help.
“It’s still hugely underfunded because of lack of awareness. But Free the Slaves can safeguard an entire village for a year for $1,220 a year. The cost to liberate and provide initial services like medical care ranges from $800 to $1,000. In the scheme of things, that’s a paltry amount to save human lives.
“It’s so doable. If every Jew who sat at the Seder table gave $5, it would make a difference — or if they changed their buying habits to not buy products of companies that benefit from slave labor,” she said.
It won’t happen overnight, though.
Human trafficking has gone on so long and become such a lucrative business — with police often looking the other way — the goal of truly ending slavery will be a long, painstaking battle, although one Free the Slaves is committed to winning.
“We’ve deliberately not broken this down into denominations,” explained Orenstein, a South Orange, N.J. native, who spent 20 years in Los Angeles before moving back six years ago. “There are Orthodox rabbis who’ve written. Reconstructionist. Reform. Because the issue of slavery is something every Jew can agree upon.
“Nobody’s for slavery.”
Which is why Debra Orenstein, Maurice Middleberg and everybody else at Free the Slaves have made avadim hayini their mission in life.
Hoping sometime soon we will ALL be free.
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