Jews combating modern slavery, and an anti-trafficking bill that stalls in the Senate


Rabbi Debra Orenstein’s seder this Passover will look and feel somewhat different from those in most Jewish homes in America. As one of the leading figures in American Jewry raising awareness about modern slavery and trafficking, Orenstein and thousands of other Jews are making Passover not just about slavery’s past, but about its present.

For one, her seder plate will have a padlock. Two, she plans to share the testimony of a freed modern-day slave. Three, her table will include some “coupons” to educate guests on the financial side of slavery — how much does it cost to buy a slave? How much to free one? Where should you spend your money on fighting slavery and trafficking?

“Eat an extra measure of maror and explain that there are still people enslaved in the world today,” Orenstein said in a telephone interview from New York. After 18 years as a teacher at American Jewish University and also the former spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Los Angeles, Orenstein is now the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, N.J. 

An award-winning author and a radio and television guest, as well as an op-ed contributor (including to this publication), Orenstein is now also one of the American rabbinate’s leading advocates for raising awareness of modern-day slavery and human trafficking; current approximations are that 21 million to 36 million people are victims of slavery and trafficking, a wide-ranging estimate because of the illicit industry’s underground nature.

“Millions of people are going to sit around the Passover table and talk about going from slavery to freedom, and they won’t be aware and won’t mention that there are, by estimates, somewhere around 30 million slaves in the world today — 60,000 in the United States alone,” Orenstein said. 

To jumpstart the dialogue on today’s slaves, Orenstein partnered with Rabbi Erin Hirsh of Gratz College and with Free the Slaves — a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and anti-slavery lobby based in Washington, D.C. — on several projects, among them Seder Starters, a new Passover table companion guide (
“Eat an extra measure of maror and explain that there are still people enslaved in the world today.” — Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Seder Starters includes revisions to Passover rituals, such as sitting upright instead of the customary leaning, in order to “remain alert” to those people whose realities are bitter like maror. Orenstein and Hirsh also just launched with Free the Slaves a curriculum of slavery-themed lesson plans for children and adults, in Hebrew and English, written by Jewish educators from across the religious spectrum.

And, until early March, all of this positive momentum to fight the scourge of human trafficking had come just in time for what was expected to be a rare moment of cordial legislative consensus among Democrats and Republicans. But it was not to be.

The “Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015,” a bill that had already passed the House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee, appeared headed for bipartisan passage in mid-March when it was stopped by a filibuster by Senate Democrats. The Democrats accused Republicans of sneaking into the bill an amendment known as the Hyde Amendment, which has been attached to spending bills since 1976 and aims to prohibit the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life. 

Democrats admitted that a Senate staffer had known the language had been included in the bill, but had failed to raise the alarm. The Democrats pointed out that while the Hyde Amendment typically needs to be renewed annually, this bill would only require it to be renewed every five years. 

The stalled trafficking law would add an additional layer to existing legislation that criminalizes human trafficking in the United States. Its main component would create a Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund paid for by $5,000 penalties assessed on anyone convicted of a range of offenses that fall under the umbrella of human trafficking — including slavery and sexual exploitation of minors. The Department of Justice would have the authority to use the fund to issue grants to groups like law enforcement agencies and NGOs with expertise in finding and helping victims of human trafficking.

But given the standoff in the Senate, the bill’s prospects for passage appear low unless five Democrats join the 51 Republicans and four Democrats who are trying to reach the filibuster-proof 60-vote mark, or unless the Republican Senate leadership decides to remove the Hyde Amendment from the bill and, at the same time, convince enough fellow Republicans not to jump ship.

Groups that combat human trafficking are agitated that what they see as a no-nonsense, bipartisan bill (and one funded by fines on convicted sex traffickers, not new taxes or borrowing) has stalled as a result of abortion politics.

“The language was intended to make pro-life donors happy, even if it would have little practical effect,” Autumn Hanna Vandehei, a former Republican staffer and founder of the Advisory Council on Child Trafficking, and Michael Wear, a former Obama administration official, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “What seems most likely is not that Democrats were caught off guard that the language was there, but that this time their favorite interest groups would not accept it.”

Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit that offers pro bono legal services for needy residents of Los Angeles County, said her organization is currently handling multiple human-trafficking cases. Kornberg said Bet Tzedek’s trafficking caseload typically involves domestic workers. 

“The legislation is absolutely necessary,” she said. “It has been our experience both in terms of collection of evidence and in terms of referring cases to us for assistance that those local law enforcement resources are really critical in identifying and servicing victims of human trafficking.”

The law isn’t without its detractors, though, most notably civil libertarians skeptical of granting the Justice Department new powers.

“There’s a real danger in making criminal justice funding contingent on arrests and convictions,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote in The Week. Brown is an editor for reason.com, a libertarian magazine. One of her several objections to the bill is that it would give police an incentive to entrap people who pose little threat to public safety but whose convictions could help fill the anti-trafficking fund’s coffers.

Barring an unexpected move in the Senate or a surprise retreat by pro-choice and anti-abortion groups (which could give some Democrats and Republicans, respectively, political space to change their votes), the bill could remain stalled until the Senate turns over in 2016. 

As Orenstein said, “There’s no grand political gain to be made by freeing slaves.”