By Rabbi Robin Podolsky
This post originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.
Almost a month ago, on Pesach, we opened the door to Elijah, the prophet whose coming foretells better days. We are told that Elijah will come to our door as someone impoverished or otherwise oppressed and that the way we treat him will show just how close we are to a Messianic age of peace and plenty.
Last week, we read the heart of our Holiness Code in Parashat Kidoshim. We were commanded to care about the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, and we are warned not to exploit the people who work for us. (Leviticus 19:33-4) We are told these things in the name of God who calls us to “be holy as I am holy,” and says that our holiness is expressed in how we treat other people.
Perhaps on Pesach and again last Shabbat, we made promises in our hearts to turn our ancient words into today’s action. Today and tomorrow, we in California have the opportunity to make good on the promise of Pesach and Kidoshim’s Holiness Code, to regard ourselves as people who were taken out of slavery and tasked with caring for those still suffering in chains. There are bills coming before the legislature that can change the lives of human trafficking victims for the better. And a phone call from you can make an immediate important difference.
AB 1761, which is being sponsored by CAST and NCJW CA, would permit human trafficking victims to raise human trafficking as an affirmative defense so they can have charges against them for crimes they were forced or coerced to commit by their traffickers removed. Human trafficking victims are often forced or coerced to commit crimes like prostitution, theft, and drug use while trafficked, and they are often unjustly arrested and convicted for such crimes. Currently, California has no law establishing a specific affirmative defense for human trafficking victims, even though at least 34 states have already enacted similar laws.
This bill is headed to the Assembly floor this Thursday, May 19. Please call your legislator (whom you can locate at http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov) and ask them to vote yes on this bill.
Directly after Pesach this year, the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles celebrated Isru Hag (the day after a yom tov, a kind of post-holiday dessert day) with the Second Annual Community Seder to Combat Human Trafficking. We mounted this seder in partnership with CAST, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. CAST not only offers immediate direct services, such as shelter, clothing and counseling, to people who have been saved from traffickers; it also trains trafficking survivors to become advocates and policy leaders—active agents of their own liberation. We read from a Haggadah created by T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, that highlights today’s human trafficking epidemic, combining information with personal accounts.
Human trafficking is, according to CAST, one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises today, a $150 billion dollar industry. As many as 17,000 people are trafficked into the United States every year, and many are brought in through the port cities of California.
People who are working hard to escape poverty, to care for families and loved ones and to better their educations are told, by traffickers posing as legitimate employment agents, that they have an opportunity to come to the United States legally, to receive training or to work at a profession, such as nursing or accounting, in which they are already proficient. When they arrive, their passports are taken away “for safekeeping” and they are transported, often in opaque vans so they cannot see where they are going, to… somewhere.
They don’t know where they are and, often, cannot speak the majority language of their new country. They don’t know a soul. They are told that they “owe” their trafficker the cost of their transport and are obliged to work it off. They are imprisoned— often 20 or more people are forced to live in two-bedroom apartments that look normal from the outside but where the windows are nailed shut. They are sent out to work as domestic servants, as caretakers for the elderly and ill, as agricultural workers– or as prostitutes. They are warned that, if they should attempt to escape or tell someone of their situation, they would be turned in as illegal immigrants or debtors or for the prostitution or theft they have been coerced into. Many such people, based on experiences at home, have no reason to doubt that law enforcement authorities would not be on their side.
On Pesach, we heard from a survivor of human trafficking, now a national leader. We pledged to take direct action to stop modern-day Pharaohs. We opened the door to invite the prophet in.
Today we have a chance to make good on our invitation to Elijah, the prophet who appears as the most exploited among us. Let’s not allow people to be punished because they had the bad luck to fall into the hands of real criminals. Please call today.
Rabbi Robin Podolsky is an Educator at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. Before she became a rabbi, she worked as a press secretary to an elected official, a journalist and an educator. Her work has been published in the LA Times, The Jewish Journal of Southern California, The JSpot, Talking Points Memo, the LA Weekly and other publications. She has presented scholarly papers on Jewish topics to the Association for Jewish Studies, the North American Levinas Society and other scholastic gatherings.