Last night, Hillel students at the University of Washington filled the Karen Mayers Gamoran Family Center for Jewish Life to be confronted with some troublesome news. Currently, thousands of men, women and children are living as slaves on American soil.
John Bowe writes about modern day slave labor in America.
John Bowe, an award-winning journalist and the author of Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, lectured students on the still prevalent practice of indentured servitude in the so-called "land of the free." In his book, Bowe details the current working and living conditions of illegal immigrants trapped on tomato farms and orange groves in southwest Florida.
El Diablo's labor camp was in a tiny, isolated country town. He and his family, a network of cousins and in-laws, many of whom also worked as labor contractors, patrolled the area in their massive Ford F-250 pickup trucks, communicating with one another through Nextel walkie-talkie phones. For foreigners unfamiliar with the area, escape was almost unthinkable. But just to make matters crystal clear, El Diablo told his workers that anyone indebted caught trying to run away would be killed.
El Diablo, or Ramiro Ramos, was sentenced to prison in 2002 after a jury convicted him on indentured servitude charges. For more than a year, Ramos held more than 700 undocumented immigrants against their will on a family-owned orange grove where the workers were beaten and threatened daily.
Many of the Hillel students who attended Bowe's lecture last night will come together again on Saturday night for a social justice seder at Café LeVine on campus. Led by Hillel UW's Social Justice Coordinator Robert Beiser, the seder will focus on the familiar Passover theme of forced labor. Beiser says students will study the issues of modern day slavery and human trafficking and how they relate to core Jewish values.
"We have held a social justice seder consistently for the past few years, but the focus on slavery and human trafficking this year came directly from Jewish student interest and activism on our campus," says Beiser. "Our visit by John Bowe and this seder topic are a way to emphasize Hillel's commitment to encourage students in their pursuit of justice and highlight the Jewish obligation and connection to the issue of modern slavery."
Hillel students at 2006 Darfur rally.
One of the ways Jewish college students are responding to contemporary slavery is through community activism. STAND (Students Take Action Now: Darfur), a student anti-genocide coalition, has more than 700 active chapters on high schools and colleges across the world including Israel.
Last month, Hillel students at Cornell University gathered with peers from Black Students United at St. James AME Zion Church in downtown Ithaca. Together, the Jewish and African-American students discussed the cultural implications of a shared history as enslaved people.
Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, executive director of Cornell Hillel, talked with both groups of students about their collective responsibility to ensure a free peoplehood.
"[Jews] will know freedom when all people can celebrate that which makes us unique while at the same time embrace that which makes us universal," Rosenthal said.
Senior Alex Haber, the outgoing vice president of Cornell Hillel, told the student paper, “Exodus for me means a continuous movement, a continuous resilience despite so many hardships in the past.”
And yet, the issue of slave labor is still very present in society. In fact, next to drug trade, human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world. The U.S. State Department says more than 1 million children are exploited each year in the global sex trade industry. Most commonly, in Cambodia, where 5 and 6-year old girls are sold to pimps for as little as $10.
Arek Anyiel Deng was 10 years old when she was abducted during the Sudan conflict in 1988. Deng was among 11,000 other southern Sudanese to be forced into slavery. For 18 years, she was beaten, abused and raped until finally getting free in 2006.
That same year in May, more than 1,000 Hillel students converged on Washington, D.C. for a rally to promote awareness about atrocities being committed in Darfur. The "Rally to Stop Genocide" was the culmination of a year's worth of advocacy efforts by students on dozens of campuses. In all, an estimated 12,000 people attended the rally. Hillels from as far away as Georgia, Wisconsin and Canada partipated. The rally took place just days after Yom Ha'Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day).
Students bake challah for hunger at Claremont Colleges.
Since 2004, Hillel students across the United States have been taking part in Challah for Hunger, which raises money for Darfur refugees through the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Challah for Hunger was started by Hillel students at Claremont Colleges. The bread-baking initiative has expanded to other campuses including the University of Texas and UCLA. So far, challah sales have added up to more than $20,000 in donations.
And, Hillels around the globe continue to reach out to the people of that region. Over the summer, Hillel activists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev worked with refugee children, helping them adjust to their new life in Israel.
“The issue of Sudanese refugees has become more critical, and the students responded accordingly, on two levels: awareness and involvement through informal programs, and the establishment of a formal group to help the refugees,” Yossi Goldman, president of Hillel Israel, has said.
Gesher Chai, which means living bridge in Hebrew, was a blog started by Hillel students in Israel and Canada to raise global awareness about the genocide in Darfur.
One author wrote:
Israel was built by a nation that knows first hand the meaning of the words persecution, genocide, and exile. Therefore, Israelis should not fear suddenly being swamped by thousands of refugees fleeing Darfur. Rather, Israel should fear turning away an opportunity of using the history of its people in order to uplift the history of another people.
And, so the Jewish tradition of re-telling the Exodus story, is practiced not just at Passover seders, but in the everyday life of college students who have not forgotten, they were once slaves in Egypt.