In a week and a half, we will sit at our seder tables and sing, Avadim hayinu, “we were slaves in Egypt,” atah b’nei chorin, “now we are free.” The unfathomable reality, however, is that slavery is more prevalent in our world today than ever before. The UN International Labor Organization estimates that 21 million people are slaves on our planet today. Asia and the Pacific have the most slaves, around 11.7 million people. Sub-Saharan Africa has approximately 3.7 million people enslaved. But nowhere is immune from it. U.S. officials estimate that there are about 60,000 slaves in this country, and about 18,000 slaves are trafficked to and through the United States each year.
What does it mean to be a slave? We’re talking about people who are forced to work, without pay, under threat of violence, and they cannot walk away. They are found in mines, quarries, farms, factories, fishing boats, brothels, and private homes. How does this happen? Most often it is people who are poor and in debt. They borrow $100 in an emergency and are forced to “work it off” over decades, the interest on the debt always growing so that they can never be free of it, and the debt then being extended to their children. Or sometimes a family is so desperately poor that they agree to send off one child to a farm or factory for a supposedly “good job,” never to see them again.
The problem is mind-boggling. What’s encouraging though is that there are coalitions of good people on the ground, changing this reality, educating communities in India, Nepal, Ghana, Congo, Haiti, and right here, and they are literally freeing slaves. I, and dozens of other Conservative rabbis, participated in a webinar this week with a leading umbrella organization in this effort, Free the Slaves. Click here to read more about the work that they do. The problem is complex and fighting slavery requires many different approaches. But it has been boiled down to a dollar amount.
The cost for securing long-term freedom for a single slave in the developing world averages out to about $800. We’re not just talking about buying a person out of slavery. We’re talking about schooling, vocational training, legal, medical, and psychological support. And this can be done, through vetted organizations on the ground, for roughly $800. My colleague, Rabbi Debra Orenstein, told her family that her goal was to free 18 slaves. Her 7-year-old daughter asked her, “Why only 18?” And so, after some soul-searching, Rabbi Orenstein and her congregation set a goal of freeing 100 slaves, raising $80,000. They’re not there yet. But they are almost half way. And Rabbi Orenstein has made it her mission to spread the word about Free the Slaves throughout the Jewish world. Free the Slaves has an elaborate website with a large section focused on Judaism. Click here to see links to “Seder Starters” and other ways to integrate slavery awareness into your Passover preparations. You can also look at Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s website, with lots of articles and other resources she has written on the subject.
Some people are putting a padlock on their seder plate this year, to prompt a discussion about the persistence of slavery. Some are donating money as a way of honoring the hosts of the seder they are going to. I’m trying to figure out how to share this information with my kids this Passover. How do I tell them that slavery is not gone? It is illegal, but it persists around our globe in unprecedented numbers – 21 million people, 5 million of whom are children. I welcome your thoughts. What I want them to take away though is that we have the power to help free slaves.
And Passover is the ultimate time to do it.
I talked about Free the Slaves in my sermon this past shabbat, and afterward, Rabbi George Schlesinger rushed up to me, saying “You want to free some slaves today, right here? Ask anyone who is willing to donate $40 this week to Free the Slaves to raise their hand, to commit right now.” At the end of the service, I followed his suggestion. I asked the congregation who would commit to donating $40. And at least 60 people raised their hands. If all of us do what we said we would do, we just freed 3 slaves. I am writing to you, to invite you to join in this mitzvah as well. Let us make this Passover truly a holiday of liberation.
Rabbi Sarah Graff