By Marcy Levinson
Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell has responded to the reality of modern slavery by teaming up with Washington-based Free the Slaves to educate students about how Judaism’s roots and contemporary human trafficking are intertwined.
Free the Slaves has one goal: to end slavery. Estimates range as high as 45 million people living in modern enslavement, with Asia accounting for two-thirds of the victims.
Free the Slaves’ executive director, Maurice Middleberg, a former Kehillat Chaim member, showed the temple’s sixth-grade religious school students a documentary called “Stand With Me” in 2014, Rabbi Harvey Winokur said.
The documentary is about Vivienne Harr of Fairfax, Calif., who at age 9 viewed a museum’s photography display of a child carrying a boulder in a rock quarry. Surprised to learn the child was enslaved and not doing the fun things children do, she set out to raise money to free 500 children from slavery.
Her plan was to run a lemonade stand for a year. Within six months, she raised over $100,000 for Not for Sale, a nonprofit that works to eradicate human trafficking.
Her campaign became a for-profit social purpose corporation, Make a Stand, which now stocks lemonade in 137 stores, is run by her father, and donates proceeds to organizations devoted to ending slavery, including Free the Slaves.
Since its inception in 2000, Free the Slaves has liberated 12,000 people from slavery, according to its website.
The film’s impact on the Kehillat Chaim students was more than anticipated, Rabbi Winokur said. “It was completely an eye-opener for them. They didn’t have any sense this sort of thing was occurring — for children as well as adults.”
He said the students were not aware that products they buy could have an impact if fair-trade items are available.
“This is more about the whole general notion: A fair number of individuals are indentured slaves,” Rabbi Winokur said. “For kids, it was fairly accessible — the fact that Passover comes every year when they sit down and talk about the brick-making business. Jews made bricks for Pharaoh.”
During the 2014-15 school year, when Kehillat Chaim education director Caroline Figiel researched, organized and implemented a curriculum based on modern slavery, she made sure it correlated to Judaism through Torah teachings, values and Passover.
“It was an issue they had not learned about in school or religious school,” Figiel said.
Students naturally related to Harr because of the closeness in age, she said, and because the curriculum was crafted for social action, Harr was a great example of someone who “didn’t wait to grow up to make a difference.”
The curriculum also paralleled slavery issues taught in secular schools, Figiel said. “I could tie it in to their weekday school curriculum of American slavery and civil rights issues.”
The projects implemented through the yearlong program included various ways for students to express themselves.
“The issue of modern-day slavery, under Caroline Figiel, it was very moving,” Middleberg said. “They developed a wonderful array of creative projects to express what they had learned and how they felt about it: paintings, poems, videos, etc.”
A model Passover seder Kehillat Chaim held for the students in conjunction with Free the Slaves in 2015 used the example of a desperate mother in India selling her 9-year-old son for $15 to work in a carpet factory 19 hours a day. With the support of Free the Slaves, local police liberated that boy and nine others July 12, 2005.
The seder script connected that child’s story to Passover:
- “Today the salt water reminds us of the bitter tears that this boy shed. The parsley reminds us of the new life and hope he was given by just law enforcement, righteous advocates and conscious consumers.”
- “Can we hold up, along with the matzah, a cloth or candy bar that might be made from slave labor?”
- “This is the bread of pain and suffering. It reminds us of our difficult life in Egypt.”
- “This is a sign of pain and suffering as well. We should try to be aware of where products like candy, coffee, even soccer balls are made. We might be eating and wearing slavery.”
For Middleberg, the reality of slavery goes back to the Holocaust, when the Nazis forced his grandfather to serve them as a jeweler and watchmaker.
“He was kept alive to repair what the Nazis were stealing. … That’s how he was kept alive through the war,” Middleberg said. “When I do this, I feel in some ways like I continue to redeem him.”
In part inspired by its work with Kehillat Chaim, Free the Slaves has developed a Passover program and launched a five-year campaign to enlist Jewish communities into a network against human trafficking.
According to the organization’s website, the Passover Project has four goals:
- “Making education about modern slavery a part of congregational life.”
- “Mobilizing Jewish communities to take strong advocacy stands against modern slavery.”
- “Inspiring synagogues, Jewish schools and other Jewish institutions to be careful consumers and investors to be sure the products they buy or the companies in which they invest aren’t tainted by slavery.”
- “Making support for Free the Slaves a part of school tzedakah projects and an option for b’nai mitzvah projects.”
Other metro Atlanta congregations have joined the Passover Project with Kehillat Chaim. Middleberg’s goal is for 180 Jewish organizations nationwide to participate.
“I am so grateful to Harvey and Caroline for embracing this movement with their hearts and bringing the congregation with them,” Middleberg said. “The response was very enthusiastic, and it was wonderful to get their support and engagement.”
Slavery’s 4 Children
The Free the Slaves-inspired Passover seder includes this modern adaptation of the haggadah’s four sons.
The Child Who Cannot Ask
I live in a poor village where the houses are made of dung. The landowner doesn’t allow outsiders to come to the village, and we don’t have a school, which means we never learn anything new. All we know is what the landowner tells us. When a person in my village is old enough, they work for him. My grandfather was a slave, his father was a slave, my father was a slave, and I am a slave. It seems I’ll never know anything else; neither will my children and their children. That’s just the way it is. (He doesn’t know how to ask because he doesn’t know he can.)
The Simple Person
A stranger came to my village. He told my brother that he could help our family. All my brother needed to do was come work for him in the diamond mines. My brother knew it was far away, but the man promised to send my brother’s pay to my parents. We were always hungry, and my brother thought his wages could buy food for all of us. At first my parents said no to the stranger, but the man promised my brother would also be able to go to school near the mines. My parents had always wanted a better life for their children, and this man seemed like he could be trusted, so they finally agreed to the arrangement. It’s been two years now, and no one has heard from my brother. No one has received any money from him. No one knows if he is alive. Since then, Free the Slaves has come to our village and set up a school. … I will never allow myself to become a slave.
The Wise Person
My daughter and I were bought by a circus. After Free the Slaves rescued me, I asked them to go back and free my daughter. It was awful to be away from her, knowing that she was treated poorly while I was learning to take my first steps in a free world. It took almost a year, but they did it. Now my daughter and I own a small shop. We have learned not only to be aware of the traps of false promises by strangers, but we have also learned to take care of ourselves.
The Wicked Person
I am a slave owner. I have taken children away from their families and made them do horrible, dangerous jobs that could injure or kill them. Some people think that I am a monster and don’t deserve anything but prison, but my family has been doing this for generations. I have not learned how to treat workers. Perhaps someone can teach me and I can change.