Passover plate from France.
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM PHOTO ARCHIVES)
This past week, Jews throughout the world sat down at their dinner tables to celebrate Passover, recalling the miraculous story of our people’s escape from captivity and our flight to freedom.
The concept of slavery is, for our community, one rich in ritual and metaphorical import. We are commanded to feel, over the course of our Seder, as if we, too, experienced the ravages of slavery and the redemptive power of liberation.
The issue of slavery can sometimes feel remote, both temporally and geographically. Tragically, however, slavery not only persists but also has grown in scope to the extent that there are more people enslaved today – conservative estimates suggest at least 40 million people – than at any other time in human history. Men, women, and children perform forced labor or are exploited and trafficked for sex. Much of this slavery takes place in regions with highly repressive regimes and armed conflict. But slavery also takes place in the US, in the shadows of the very communities where we live.
We must commit, as Jews, to do everything in our power to eradicate the sin of slavery. “Love the stranger, for you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt,” is the most prevalent commandment in the Torah. And at our Seder tables, we recited: “we were slaves; now we are free” as we recalled the liberation from slavery as our people’s greatest miracle.
While our community prepared for Passover by scouring our kitchens, cleaning our households of any hametz, and cooking our favorite Passover recipes, the Rabbinical Assembly (the international association of 1,700 Conservative/Masorti rabbis) and our partners in the Conservative/Masorti movement announced its participation in an alliance of governments, civil society organizations and other faith groups committed to eradicating slavery within the next decade.
In 2015, the United Nations created the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This included ending modern slavery, an ambitious set of 17 sustainable development goals adopted by all UN member states. The world has made steady progress toward these goals, and the Jewish community must continue to do its part to see this aim accomplished. Sustainable development goal 8.7 focuses on decent work and economic growth, and includes within its ambit efforts to combat slavery and human trafficking. Some Jewish institutions have already done laudable work to stamp out slavery, including the National Council of Jewish Women, T’ruah and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. But we can do more, bringing the cohesion and amplitude of an entire movement to actualize a community-wide campaign.
Going forward, the Conservative/Masorti movement and its various arms – including (list in formation) the Rabbinical Assembly, Cantors’ Assembly, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Schechter Institutes, the Milstein Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the Ramah Camping Movement, the Schechter schools, the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Jewish Youth Directors Association and the global Masorti Movement – will support this vital endeavor.
The Conservative/Masorti movement will do its utmost to raise awareness about, fund initiatives relating to and formulate programs about modern-day slavery and abolition. We have so far appointed some of our leadership to Alliance 8.7, the global coalition that brings together 22 countries and 217 nongovernmental organizations to the anti-slavery campaign. The group has left its mark in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, and has made strides in emancipating the tens of millions of individuals in bondage and still toiling as child laborers.
The Conservative/Masorti movement will be updating its materials on slavery, human trafficking and child labor, and will be distributing them widely to the congregants, students and faith leaders who belong to and frequent our institutions. We will also reach out to our friends in the wider North American and international Jewish community to create an umbrella group for the anti-slavery effort.
We are resolved that in the next 12 months the Conservative/Masorti movement and other Jewish institutions will raise consciousness around this issue such that no Jew will sit down to their Seder on April 8, 2020, without being mindful of, praying and acting to end slavery. Our push against modern slavery presents an opportunity to translate our values into actions, and to ensure that someday soon the Passover promise of freedom rings true for all.
As we remember the mighty hand and outstretched arm that freed us long ago, we must commit to taking action to release all others from the torture of bondage and slavery today. May we work together to create a world where all people know freedom, so that next year, when we sit down for our Seders, slavery truly will be a sin of the past.
Rabbi Ratner is chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Human Trafficking Task Force and Rabbi Kornsgold is chairman of its Social Justice Commission.
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