NFTY-MV: Understanding Modern Day Slavery

By Jackie Heymann, NFTY-MV Social Action Vice President

Each year, as the grocery stores begin to display their Pesach foods, I, without fail, think to myself “Passover time already?!” I think that it is more safe to say that the majority of us dread the long week of scrounging through old family recipes trying to find new ways to hide the cardboard taste of Matzo. Looking back on my childhood, my main Pesach memories involve sitting at the school lunch table comparing how our mothers prepared our Matzo sandwiches that morning and wondering how someone could ever dare to eat the slimy gefilte fish that were set out at our seders the night before. Although, I may not have been able to look past the food aspect of the holiday, I always acknowledged that there was something different about this holiday, something unique. I think that I have determined that this something “unique” is different from person to person. Personally, though, I have taken this holiday to be a week where I am constantly reminded that our world is not near perfect, it has much repairing to. Also, that each one of us has a duty to repair a piece of it, however big or small that piece may be.

Each year, we are commanded to “regard ourselves as if we ourselves went forth from the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8) so that we can feel how sweet freedom is. We can see how truly lucky we are to have a room over our heads, heat warming our bodies, and delicious matzo torte waiting to be devoured at the conclusion of the seder. However, after just a moment of feeling particularly lucky, we are reminded that a lot of our brothers and sisters around the world are not as fortunate as we are. We are reminded that “This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free” (Haggadah, “HaLachma Anya”). This statement always causes me to wonder exactly how are we, as mere human being, supposed to achieve this ideal of freedom? In a world filled with so much corruption, is true freedom even a possibility and if so, how do we measure it?

There is a lack of freedom throughout the world in many different senses. To start off, there is lack of freedom in the traditional sense of slavery. Nowhere in the world is slavery legal but yet it exists everywhere. Worldwide, an estimated 20-30 million are enslaved. In Mauritania, an estimated 10%-20% of the population is enslaved (340,000 to 680,000 people). In 2007 that they made it a law that criminalized owning another person but yet, in a time period of 5 years, only one person was successfully prosecuted. In Mauritania, individuals are often born into slavery and it is a way of life for them. This causes them to know nothing else than the oppression and that freedom actually exists. In West Africa on the Ivory Coast, children are forced into harvesting cocoa beans without any monetary compensation for their world. They work in terrible conditions and when asked, they did not even know what the final product (chocolate) of the cocoa beans is. Also, human trafficking (When instead of being held by law, victims are trapped physically, psychologically, financially or emotionally by their traffickers) happens in cities and towns all over the world, including in the United States. Victims have been found working on farms, as prostitutes, as domestic workers, and in restaurants, hotels, nail salons, and shops in small towns and booming cities.

Globally, individuals are oppressed by the laws of the land. In North Korea, all newspapers are censored and citizens’ actions are carefully watched over. In Syria, what started as peaceful protesting for freedom turned into a civil war. In the United States, many have joined the fight for the LGBTQ community to be given equal treatment under the law by overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. Although these people may not technically be enslaved, they are still feeling the forces of oppression weighing down on them.

On a more personal level, those around us may feel confined to a certain way they have to live based upon the stereotypes in society. As cheesy as it is, take a second and think about the song “Status Quo” in High School Musical. This song describes several experiences of the fake teens and how they just want to break out of their shell. As teenagers, we feel the pressures to conform everyday. We see the TV shows, the movies, and read the magazines. We very well know how we are “supposed” to look and act in order to fit in. We are also very quick to judge people who do not “fit in”. Instead of seeing the beauty in people being different, society tends to outcast them which leads to them not feeling free to be who they want.

Many problems in our world such as slavery, oppression, and Hunger (as the Hagaddah mentions several times) can seem like very far off, distant problems to us. They are often intangible and we do not know exactly how we, as American Jews sitting at a seder table can make a difference. Well, you have already done the first step! Having the seder and remembering that these issues and conflicts exist in our world is one of the most important parts. Next, there are many options. You can choose to not judge those who are not like you. You can simply call up your government officials ((202) 224-3121 will get you to the switchboard and then they will connect you) and voice any concerns that you may have on the local, state, national or global levels as well as urge them to vote a particular way. You can contact chocolate companies and thank them for tracing the supply chains of their chocolate to determine where the cocoa beans are coming from or urge them to start the process of tracing the chains! Also, you can start your own campaign to show that you are all for peace with another country, just like Israel and Iran did (Read the full story) There are so many options of how you can work towards making your impact in the fight for freedom. At the end, I have attached a few resources for more learning and ideas as well!

It might go without saying that “true” freedom is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain but yet the Haggadah reminds us year after year that this is what we should strive for. As long remember each year that the world needs some help and we work on repairing it, together, we can get one step closer to the seemingly unattainable goal of true freedom. If we work together and one person is freed from human trafficking  if the government changes their views on gay marriage, if companies begin to track their supply chains, then progress is made and we, as a community, have fulfilled the duty that is set before us each Pesach.