This year there will be a bright red tomato front and center on my family’s Seder plate.
The tomato is there to spark a meaningful discussion about the plight of the 20 million people, including 5 million children, who live their lives in forced labor – the faceless victims of human trafficking, the second most lucrative criminal industry worldwide, after drug trafficking, bringing in about $150 billion annually.
The symbolism of the tomato stems from the work of two groups, in Florida – one Jewish – to expose forced labor in the tomato fields
The U.N. Office on Drug and Crime defines human trafficking as “the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.” The Pharaohs of Egypt could not have said it better.
Modern day slavery – like the blood, frogs, bugs, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the killing of the first born mentioned in the Haggadah – is one of the most horrific plagues of our time. The exploited people who are trafficked for work in agriculture, construction, domestic service, restaurants, salons, prostitution, massage parlors and various small business, all have one thing in common with the ancient Jews – their freedom has been taken from them.
In Deuteronomy 24:18, the Torah instructs: “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there. Therefore, I command you to do justice.” Clearly, as Jews, if we say “no one is free, unless all are free,” we have a lot of work to do.
We can begin our work by raising awareness about human trafficking at our Seder by responding to the question, why is this night different than all other nights with this answer: as modern abolitionists this Passover, we are part of a rising liberation and awareness movement working to unshackle those who cannot free themselves.
So how do we help those victims who cannot help themselves? Pay attention, open your eyes and speak up if you see an abusive employment situation. Look for workers who are being restrained in their movements and seem to be living at their workplace; appear submissive, afraid and malnourished; or reluctant to give more than a scripted response to a question.
I don’t expect anyone to part the Red Sea, but you can make waves. Notify the national human trafficking hotline anonymously at 888-3737-888 or text BeFree if you notice any signs of human trafficking.
Like a modern day Moses, there are Jewish heroes in the fight against human trafficking. In Florida T’rua, the rabbinic call for human rights played a significant role in eliminating slave labor on tomato farms, in conjunction with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They continue to fight for the elimination of slave labor in the supply chains of major U.S. players in the food industry.
And, as a member of NCJW/Cleveland, we are working to raise awareness about human trafficking in our advocacy work on the state and federal level. We acknowledge that slavery still exists and that we as Jews must be part of the fight to eradicate it and help those who have been enslaved return to a life of freedom.
So this Passover, anyway you slice it, it is my hope that the symbolic red tomato on your Seder plate will serve as a reminder that although we were once slaves, avadim hayinu, we are now free. As we celebrate our freedom, let’s remember the victims of human trafficking for whom the Exodus has not yet happened. Our eyes are now open. Now let us take action on what we see.
Elaine Geller is chair of National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland’s committee on human trafficking.