My Grandpa Max of blessed memory had a sarcastic wit.
When my dad proudly showed him the elevated running track in the newly refurbished field house at the University of Iowa, Grandpa Max sniffed and said, “What are they running from?”
We are all runaways, though. The core of our Jewish narrative is the exodus from Egypt. We are a people descended from runaway slaves. Our Torah tells us – over and over — to remember the plight of the stranger for we ourselves were once strangers in Egypt.
Perhaps the most famous fugitive slave in modern history is Harriet Tubman. She herself escaped from slavery. Tubman then returned to the south, again and again, to help other fugitive slaves make their perilous exodus to freedom.
During the 2005-06 school year, when I was still a rabbinical student, I lived with my family in Jerusalem, Israel.
That year, I began to find out about a different kind of fugitive slave woman. I found out about human trafficking for forced prostitution, also known as sex trafficking.
In Israel, in 2005, significant numbers of women, mostly from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were being trafficked – that is, kidnapped and brought on a harrowing journey through Egypt to Israel to be sold on the auction block into slavery… for sexual purposes.
What do I mean by sex trafficking? American federal law defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. Sex trafficking is modern-day slavery, in which people profit by the control and exploitation of others.
Israel was at that time listed on the U.S. department of state’s annual Trafficking In Persons report as a country that did not comply with minimum standards to prevent such crimes. (Thankfully, Israel has made great progress in this area since then, though there is still more to do.)
But given the centrality of the liberation from slavery in our Torah – not to mention the hope we place in the state of Israel to be a newly re-kindled beacon light to the nations of the world of hope, freedom, justice, and Jewish vitality — I simply could not believe these facts. I found human trafficking to be a nauseating betrayal of the values of the state of Israel and of the teachings of Judaism.
All fourth year rabbis-in-training at the Hebrew union college give formal sermons. So that year, I preached about sex trafficking in Israel. Later, I found out that there had been a birthright Israel group in attendance that morning. Their leaders had heard my critique of Israel and felt the need to do “damage control.” I felt as if Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the prophet Ezekiel were by my side, quietly congratulating me on speaking truth to power.
Our Torah portion this Yom Kippur morning, Atem Nitzavim, comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ final speech to the Israelites. In the beginning of our portion, chapter 29, verse 10, Moses makes it clear that he is speaking to the entire people of Israel. His address is so all-inclusive that he even makes a point of addressing the women, the children, and the strangers in the Israelite camp. Not every section of the Torah is so specifically addressed to women and girls.
We’ve also included a few verses from the book of Leviticus, chapter 18 in our Torah reading this morning. (While we in the Reform movement will read Leviticus chapter 19 this afternoon, the rest of the Jewish world including the Conservative and Orthodox movements will read Leviticus chapter 18. Leviticus 18 rules out an extensive list of sexual relationships with various family members on the grounds that such sexual relations were associated with Canaanite cultic practices. (Leviticus 18 forbids passing children through fire as an offering to the pagan deity, Moloch, another Canaanite cultic practice.)
Despite the severity of such prohibitions, Judaism is generally a sex-positive religion. Judaism has no tradition that sexuality is an original sin that stains the human race. In fact, the first commandment in the Torah is p’ru u’r’vu: be fruitful and multiply. Judaism values healthy sexual relationships, especially but not exclusively for new life.
But Judaism is also a religion of modesty, of boundaries, of setting and keeping limits, of holiness. In fact, the Hebrew word for holiness, k’dushah, really means setting something apart for a special purpose more than moral excellence.
Yet over and over, Leviticus 18 declares eirvah … lo t’galeh – you shall not “uncover the nakedness,” of people related by kinship or marriage, to have sex with them. The Torah’s words are modest but clear: sexual transgressions are abhorrent.
Women and girls are protected by the Torah’s laws; they are also expected to uphold them.
So knowing all this, you can probably guess how I reacted when I learned last spring that the FBI has identified St. Louis as one of about 13 cities in the United States that are centers of domestic sex trafficking.
And well, you can imagine how you would feel about such crimes being committed in your own home town. Just before Rosh Hashanah, I read an article posted on Facebook about a case of teenagers trafficked from Iowa City, Iowa, where I grew up.
I’m sorry to say, that the truth is that sex trafficking is going on in everyone’s home town.
It’s just shy of 150 years since the end of the civil war that supposedly ended slavery in the United States once and for all. As a nation, we have real t’shuvah, some serious repenting to do about allowing slavery to flourish in our country once again, and it is time to change our behavior.
Almost always, when someone preaches on Leviticus 18, the sermon concerns Leviticus 18:22. That verse seems to condemn sexual acts between males as abomination. The Torah’s view of homosexuality is more complicated than that, but let’s not digress: Human trafficking of girls under the age of 18 is the real abhorrent sexual practice of our time and place that needs to be eradicated.
There are about 300,000 child prostitutes in the United States today. These are not foreign girls but Americans. Like the women brought to Israel, they are often tricked by phony promises of glamorous job opportunities, or kidnapped by force. Some are even offered up to a modern Moloch by their own parents who sell them into slavery for money.
Each one of these girls can earn her pimp $150 – $200,000 per year.
The average age of a girl entering what’s known in the sex trade as “the life” is …13. Yes, 13 years of age!
The average victim might be forced to have sex as many as 20 times in a day.
The physical, mental, and emotional stress she will suffer is such that she will not be expected to live much more than 7 years once she’s in “the life.”
Traffickers and pimps hold girls in captivity by force. As if the threat of severe violence or even death were not enough to keep the victims in line, some traffickers give girls heroin so that escape will mean the immediate onset of withdrawal symptoms.
We might guess that girls trafficked in Saint Louis or brought to Saint Louis would be taken to the seamy strip clubs across the river in East St. Louis, Illinois. But we’d be wrong.(Even though nearly all the girls working in strip clubs are underage or started out that way.)
No, underage girls forced to work as prostitutes are found in the western suburbs of st. Louis as often as the city. They are advertised boldly online on classified websites, especially backpage.com, which was recently the subject of a scathing expose by New York Times columnist and activist Nicholas Kristof.
Trafficked girls frequently meet their clients in the kinds of hotels that host business travelers, conventions and events — the kinds of places we all stay when we’re away from home.
Fortunately, there is an organization called The Covering House that seeks to treat the women and girls who are rescued from “the life” or who escape from it– as happened in Tampa, Florida during the republican convention. The Covering House seeks to be a place of refuge and restoration for girls from age 6 to 18 who have experienced sexual exploitation or trafficking in St. Louis. The covering house has begun offering outpatient services this fall. Its major priority is raising the funds to open as a residential treatment facility. When it does, it will join just three programs offering residential therapy for girls rescued from the sex trade in our country. Right now, even for these child victims fortunate enough to be rescued or escape, fewer than 100 beds are available in the entire United States.
The organization’s logo is a log cabin quilt. The log cabin quilt pattern was once used as a secret symbol of safe refuge on the Underground Railroad such as Harriet Tubman might have seen on her own escape from slavery. Now, as different kind of fugitive slave seeks safety, dignity, and freedom the log cabin quilt is again a promise of safe haven.
Our Torah forbids uncovering the nakedness of our kin and adjures us not to offer children up to Moloch. Sex trafficking of girls is precisely such uncovering. It is the real abhorrence of our age, a disgrace to the abolitionist struggle in the 19th century that culminated with the civil war, the emancipation proclamation, and the 14th, 15th and 16th amendments to the constitution.
Sex trafficking is also an affront to the sacred biblical narrative of the liberation from slavery.
So as Jews, as people of faith and as Americans, we should all be outraged that sex trafficking is happening right here, right now.
As a rabbi, the G-d I believe in frees captives, opens the eyes of the blind, humbles the arrogant, lifts up the lowly, and clothes the naked. Our god is just and merciful, protecting the powerless and the weak from those who would oppress and dominate them. Our G-d adjures us to do the same at the beginning of the very next chapter of Leviticus.
On Saturday, September 1, the covering house held its second annual race for refuge. The Torah says we should run, not walk, to do a mitzvah (which means to fulfill any of its sacred obligations). So I laced up my running shoes to raise money and awareness for the covering house about sex trafficking. Man, was I sore the next day.
I am making it one of my missions this year to personally advocate for the covering house. I am specifically reaching out to college fraternities in St. Louis to find allies among young men.
You all know the rule: a missing child is everyone’s child. Just so, a trafficked girl is everyone’s daughter, everyone’s sister, everyone’s niece.
Don’t uncover her nakedness, don’t pay money to uncover her nakedness, and don’t pay money to watch her uncover her own. No, dear Grandpa Max, there’s nobody chasing me. But there is someone chasing these new Harriet Tubmans, these modern fugitive slaves.
My friends, my nechemta, my word of consolation for us all this morning is that this fight against sex trafficking, (and its close cousin which I have not mentioned) labor trafficking and against modern slavery in all its forms can be won. All we need are some more – a lot more – modern abolitionists to stand up and say “not in my home town. Not in this country. Not in this world.”
So who else wants to run to do a mitzvah?
Keyn y’hi ratzon – So may it be G-d’s will.