Living and serving the Jewish community in a state capital has its advantages, the primary one of which is the proximity to government. As the rabbi at Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, Washington, I am keenly aware of what happens in the state legislature. In my case I have literal proximity, my synagogue is literally about 5 blocks from the State Capitol building.
What this allows is a unique ability to engage directly with our state lawmakers. We saw this recently with the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, where members of the Jewish community joined the protests against the Governor’s proposed legislation to eliminate collective bargaining. Protests are one means of communicating with our governments. In thinking about our High Holiday liturgy, in which we say “the great shofar is sounded and the small, still voice is heard,” I realize that both of these means of communicating with our lawmakers are necessary and appropriate, and I recently had the opportunity to exercise the latter.
Two weeks ago I took the walk from my synagogue to the Capitol in order to use my “still, small voice.” I went to testify in front of the Washington State Senate Judiciary Committee in support of a bill that would expand the definition of human trafficking, giving law enforcement officials and prosecutors more tools at their disposal to fight this crime.
The lineup of those testifying was impressive: the state representative who was the first sponsor of a human trafficking bill in the legislature (In 2003 Washington was the first state to enact a human trafficking law), prosecutors, social service agencies and a victim of trafficking. When I was called by the committee chair to give my testimony, I was able to tell the committee that we as a society must not treat human trafficking solely as a legal issue, but a moral one (and a religious one). That my Jewish tradition and teaching compels me to act on this. That human trafficking is an issue of fundamental human dignity and human rights upon which the committee has the power to act. It was a powerful experience being able to communicate directly with those in our communal leadership in a formal way “by speaking in front of the committee my testimony is now on the record” and a good reminder that doing so on issues of importance and concern is a necessary tactic at our disposal to advance the cause of human rights.
My journey to the legislative hearing room began back in December when I attended the conference of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. Prior to attending the conference I was familiar with human trafficking to some extent, but I was woefully ignorant as to its magnitude. At the conference I learned that slavery still exists. That through the crime of human trafficking, people are bought and sold, forced into labor, held against their will by physical or emotional violence, transported, threatened, coerced and beaten. That people are trafficked for the sex trade, for domestic work, as farm hands, and more people are in slavery today than ever before in human history.
I was also reminded of our particular responsibility as Jews to address this issue in our communities not only because of our historical narrative of slavery, but because of other injunctions including not to oppress the stranger, and the mitzvah of pidyon shevui’im, redeeming the captive. During my testimony I mentioned my affiliation with RHR-NA, and how this organization has made human trafficking a key part of its agenda.
I also learned through RHR-NA that much of the work in combating human trafficking happens on the state level. When I saw in our local paper that a human trafficking bill was introduced in my state legislature, it caught my eye. I sought out the legislative assistant to the Senator who was the main sponsor of the bill (I was introduced through the Government Affairs director of the local Jewish Federation) and told him of my interest in the issue. I offered that if he needed a Jewish or faith community perspective on the issue that I would be happy to help. He responded by inviting me to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee the following week, which is how I found myself in the hearing room that Friday afternoon.
In learning about the issue of human trafficking or any issue of human right, we must ask, what can we do? As rabbis we have many tools at our disposal: we can educate our communities, work on the grassroots, provide aid and relief as needed. But sometimes our pursuit of social change and human rights compels us to go directly to the halls of power to speak to those who make our laws.
I continue to track the bill (it has recently passed out of the Judiciary Committee), and have written to my own state Senator soliciting her support. I intend to continue to be active in the fight to combat human trafficking. And we need not be living and working in state capitals to do the same. State government is readily accessible through the web, local representatives may be receptive entry points. Joining together as Jewish communities and with other faith communities also provide opportunities for collective action. But sometimes a trip to the state house is warranted.
The issue with human trafficking is that many of its victims are silenced. We as Rabbis for Human Rights-North America can give voice to the voiceless, can represent the powerless to the powerful, whether as the “great shofar” or the “still, small voice.” Indeed, our Jewish tradition demands it.