Letter Pledging Jewish Movements' Unity in the Fight Against Slavery

Posted on: Tuesday April 14, 2020

To whom it may concern:

We the undersigned, presidents of international organizations of rabbis, representing different viewpoints, constituencies, and movements, are writing to advocate for a cause that unites all Jews. In times marked by division, and acknowledging the cliché that a gathering of “two Jews” yields “three opinions,” we are absolutely united in the fight against slavery.

During Passover, the Jewish Festival of Freedom, Jews retell the story of our people’s Exodus from Egypt. This central, foundational narrative is so important to the identity of the Jewish people that its retelling is prescribed in the Bible itself, to the very generation that experienced it – and to every generation thereafter. The Passover Haggadah states: “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if personally leaving Egypt.”

The empathy engendered by imagining oneself enslaved and then rescued extends not only backwards in time, to our ancestors in ancient Egypt, but across all geography and time, including today, to all human beings who have been or are enslaved. As Exodus 23:9 puts it, “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Talmud suggests that 36, and perhaps as many as 46, biblical commandments reinforce this obligation.

Approximately 40 million people are enslaved around the world – more than ever before. About 25% are children, who, like the adults, are working without pay, unable to leave, and treated as “disposable commodities.” Approximately 50% of slaves today do forced labor – picking crops that we eat, mining metals that we use in our computers and cell phones, and toiling at resorts, restaurants, hotels, spas, and nail salons where others relax. Of the other 50%, approximately 37.5% are held in forced marriage and 12.5%, in sex trafficking. While slavery is most common in Asia and Africa, it persists, to some degree, in every country. Shamefully, slavery takes place in the shadows of the communities where we live.

Despite these grim statistics, we see great hope and promise for the dignity and freedom of all human beings. Awareness of the problem is greater than ever. Albania, Chile, Madagascar, Mauritania, Nepal, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Vietnam have all signed on as “Pathfinder” countries, admitting that they have a significant problem with slavery and taking immediate steps to support freedom. Through the United Nations, almost 200 countries have agreed that it is both possible – and necessary – to end slavery and trafficking by 2030. The Catholic Church, too, has agreed to this goal and timeline. We, as Presidents of leading rabbinic organizations, share this vision and commit to making it real. 

Very few enslaved people today are Jews, but that in no way diminishes our obligation to end their oppression and assist in their rescue, rehabilitation, and protection. The Hebrew Bible teaches us that all human beings are created in the image of God.

We commit each of our organizations, and our collective rabbinates, to promoting freedom and ending slavery in our lifetimes. Different organizations and individual rabbis will choose different paths and strategies. Among these are:

  • rescuing people now enslaved by collaborating with and donating to worthy non-profits doing this work
  • keeping people free by helping to provide access to education, credit, health care, legal help, and food
  • preventing slavery by supporting those who help educate and organize vulnerable communities
  • assisting survivors of slavery in their recovery from trauma and amplifying their voices
  • bringing traffickers and their protectors to justice by advocating for fair laws, sentencing, fines, and enforcement
  • lobbying for governmental policies that promote freedom
  • advocating for corporate policies that promote freedom
  • using our consumer dollars to make purchases that are just – including by buying Fair Trade products whenever possible
  • honoring human dignity and value, in keeping with the commandments and principles of our faith
  • providing Passover handouts, activities, and full curricula for our members to use and share with students and congregants, in order to connect the issue of modern slavery to Passover classes, Seders, and services. Resources created by rabbis and educators from all the major Jewish movements are available at FreeTheSlaves.net/Judaism.
  • teaching Jewish texts that support action on behalf of enslaved people – not just at Passover time, when this theme is prominent in the Jewish world, but throughout the year 
  • raising our voices to bring massive awareness to this issue, so that our member rabbis and their students and congregants celebrating our Festival of Freedom acknowledge – and take action about – the fact that there continue to be slaves in the world

Debates are not only acceptable in Jewish tradition, they are the main modality that our ancient rabbis used to get at the truth and determine just laws. But on the subject of slavery, we, clal yisrael, the totality of the Jewish people, have no debate: slavery is wrong, and it must end. We, as Jews and rabbis, commit to helping end it. Our Exodus story belongs to the world.

​​​​With blessings for all those who work for freedom and peace,

Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, President, Rabbinical Assembly
Rabbi Hara Person, Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President, New York Board of Rabbis
Rabbi David J. Fine, President, North Jersey Board of Rabbis
Rabbi Pam Frydman, President, Northern California Board of Rabbis
Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President, Rabbinical Council of America
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, Executive Director, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association