March 25, 2015

A Fifth, and Essential, Question

By Barbara Goldberg Goldman, Chair of the NJDC Women's Leadership Network

A version of the following originally appeared in Washington Jewish Week.

Why is this Passover different from others in our past?  This might be the fifth essential question being asked during American Seder tables this year. The NJDC’s Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) is urging that as we are near the end of this year’s National Women’s Month, we include it.

Unlike the traditional four questions and responses with which we all are so familiar, this one will not appear in our Haggadahs that admittedly have evolved over time. But, we should not be deterred from discussing current world events and the impact on the lives of American Jews or Jewish Americans.

Today, countless American Seders are different from what some might consider “traditional.”  For example, today, many plates include an orange signifying the fruitfulness of ALL Jews, specifically women and members of the LGBT community. And, Elijah’s Cup no longer sits alone on a side table.  It is accompanied by Miriam’s Cup, signifying the multitude of contributions women make to Jewish culture, past and present.  And, when we read the familiar, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” Ex. 13:8, many texts now include “thy daughter.”  While many contend that Jewish slavery actually is myth, we nonetheless reenact the drama during our Seders.  So, when we re-tell to our children and grandchildren the Exodus story, consider discussing a very real struggle of slavery—human trafficking, a different, but no less horrific form of it.  And, while today there exists universal support for federal legislation addressing such atrocities, unfortunately, it is ensnared in the U.S. Senate. 

The Exodus story told, artfully or otherwise, about the Israelites, being enslaved, and led out of Egypt by Moses, the revelations at Sinai, and the wanderings in the desert to the borders of Canaan, plays a part in the American Jewish Community’s  heartfelt displays of strong social activism, concerns for equality, and compassion for those less fortunate than others. So, how do we, members of the Jewish community, engage in remedying this seemingly emotional and uncompromising political environment in which civil discourse and really listening to one another has been replaced with disrespect, distortion, miscommunication and misguided acrimony? Answer: By joining together and making our voices heard.

Human trafficking, by all accounts, is a multi-billion dollar industry with perpetrators profiting from the control and exploitation of women, girls and young children, some of the most vulnerable members of society. And, it appears that some of our most familiar venues are not immune from being connected to it. In fact, this form of modern slavery can be found during the Super Bowl, at motorcycle rallies in South Dakota, in the fields of Florida, in gangs in California, and in brothels in Washington, D.C. It is crucial that our community is aware of its broad reaching existence. Victims of sex and labor trafficking need help and services throughout the year. Efforts to address this hideous crime never should be used a partisan wedge issue. To do so demeans us as a modern society.

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tx) creates a fund to help human trafficking victims by using fees charged to traffickers. It passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.  But, Democrats recently were exceedingly surprised to learn that the Hyde Amendment language, restricting federal funding for abortion and other health care services, was included. An outrageous trick that forces the entire bill to be stymied until the controversial language is removed. Enter further inane GOP partisan action:  GOP leadership says that confirmation for President Obama’s stellar nominee for Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, will not move forward until the Cornyn bill is passed.  Coupled with the fact that relief for victims of human trafficking is no further along than it was a year ago, this situation illustrates just how partisan politics can harm, possibly irreparably damage, efforts of Tikkun Olam.  Stalemate?  Well, not exactly. Enter two strong women: Fighting and defying the odds by creating a compromise, and, in today’s political climate, this is an almost unheard of bipartisan effort. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D. N.D.) and Susan Collins (R. Me) are working to route the bill, without the Hyde language, through the appropriations process. But, we must be mindful that the GOP very well could reinsert it. We now must work together to prevent such derailment from happening.

We have much to which we relate this year when retelling the Exodus story. Modern slavery certainly can be one of the issues we address.  Why is this Passover different from others in our past?  Hopefully, this year, WLN’s mantra will resonate: להשמיע את קולנו: MAKE OUR VOICES HEARD.