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The Passover Project: Building a Jewish Movement Against Modern Slavery

For tens of millions of people slavery is not an historic relic. It is the brutal reality of their lives.

In the months leading up to Passover 2016, Free the Slaves, in collaboration with a group of rabbis and educators led by Rabbi Debra Orenstein, launched the Passover Project, an effort to catalyze a renewed Jewish movement against slavery. The perpetuation of slavery holds powerful resonance for Jews, and Jews have the opportunity to show leadership in its eradication.  

Just a few days ago, Jews throughout the world rejoiced at the seder. As always, we began by saying “Avadim hayinu – We were slaves. The passage from slavery to freedom is at the very heart of the story of the Jewish people. The Exodus is when law and justice become possible, for justice has no meaning for a slave. Our sense of shared community and common heritage stems from breaking the chains of bondage. So every year we gather at Pesach and joyfully retell the ancient tale.  

But for tens of millions of people slavery is not an historic relic. It is the brutal reality of their lives. By slavery, we mean people who are held at a workplace by force, fraud, or coercion for purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labor. They receive no compensation other than subsistence and cannot leave. The International Labor Organization (ILO) says that 21 million people are in slavery; the majority are women and girls; a quarter are children.

Those in slavery are ruthlessly exploited: girls and women victimized by sex trafficking; little boys on fishing boats; young girls trapped as household servants; women breaking rocks by hand in a stone quarry; and men sent down primitive mine shafts. I have met the mother who was separated from her daughter, the father whose son disappeared and the wife whose husband was forced to lick the spittle of their master.

Those in slavery overwhelmingly come from the most impoverished, marginalized, and stigmatized groups in any society. The enslavement of the outcast and the minority is an experience Jews know only too well.

The good news is that slavery can be defeated. Effective strategies have evolved—choking off the demand for slave-made goods by tracing them from producer to retailer to consumer; increasing law enforcement so perpetrators are held accountable; and strengthening the ability of at-risk communities to protect themselves. 

I’m proud to say that Free the Slaves is widely regarded as a pioneer and leader in the anti-slavery movement. We have rescued over 12,000 people from slavery and helped thousands of villages and hamlets develop the skills and assets to permanently protect themselves from human traffickers and slaveholders.

But the anti-slavery movement is fighting an uphill battle against traffickers. According to the ILO, the profits from slavery are about $150 billion/year. The resources available to the anti-slavery movement are a very tiny fraction of that amount. A knowledgeable and vociferous constituency against slavery must be mobilized. A much more vigorous policy response is needed from the U.S. government. Companies must know that consumers and investors won’t tolerate neglect or complicity in the production of slave-made goods.

The Passover Project was created to catalyze a robust Jewish response to these challenges. The goal of the Passover Project is to enlist 180 congregations and schools in a network that is mobilized against slavery. We launched the project in February and already have 22 Passover Project Partners, including the New York Board of Rabbis. While Pesach is an ideal time to launch dialogue on this issue, the network will operate year round in a continuing, dynamic conversation.

There's no cost to being a Passover Project Partner, though we do ask that Partners take four steps:

1. Commit to congregational education about modern slavery and how the eradication of slavery links to Jewish belief and history. Eleven rabbis and educators from all Jewish denominations, led by Rabbi Orenstein, collaborated in developing a curriculum called Next Year Free! The curriculum has modules appropriate to all age groups from primary school to adult that teach about modern slavery and its relationship to Jewish beliefs and history. Other educational resources are also available. All of the materials are available free of charge and their use and reproduction is encouraged. The materials can be found at www.freetheslaves.net/Judaism.

2. Be open to advocacy on U.S. policy toward slavery. Free the Slaves will send periodic alerts about emerging policy issues and opportunities to communicate with policy makers. Of course, every community will decide when and on what topics to join in these dialogues.

3. Be careful consumers and investors, so that the purchase of goods and services tainted by slavery is avoided, and investment practices take corporate behavior on slavery into account.

4. Partner with Free the Slaves, offering the congregation and congregants the opportunity to choose Free the Slaves for tzedakahThere is no minimum contribution—whatever can be mobilized will be gratefully received.

Jews are commanded, “Tell your children.” When we participate in the seder we fulfill a covenant with history to celebrate our freedom. This covenant is also a promise we make to the present and the future. Our delight at liberation in the past must be matched by a commitment to eradicating slavery today. This work goes on and is not limited to the days of Passover. Next Pesach, we will, God willing, gather with our loved ones and ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Let our answer be, “We honor the heritage received from Moses by helping to liberate those who are slaves in our time.”

Our collective response to “Avadim hayinu” has always been “Atah b’nei horin” – “Now we are free.” Let us work together to hasten the day when all people in all languages may shout of their freedom in joy. 


Maurice Middleberg is the Executive Director of Free the Slaves, a global leader in the fight to eradicate modern day slavery. The mission of Free the Slaves is to liberate slaves and change the conditions that allow slavery to exist. Free the Slaves focuses its efforts on eradicating slavery in highly vulnerable communities in the countries where slavery is most prevalent. http://www.freetheslaves.net/

Found in: Pursuing Justice, Passover

Tags: seder


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