A year ago exactly, we were preparing for our Human Trafficking Awareness Shabbat. The theme resonated so much–as it still does today–with the biblical narrative: Jewish bondage in Egypt.
We never expected that a real life sex trafficking case would happen practically on our doorstep. It happened two blocks south of our synagogue, in the heart of South Beach, Florida.
That week, two days before Shabbat, a Miami Beach strip club was in the middle of a sordid underage sex scandal. Four adults, including one of the club dancers, forced a 13-year old to dance at the club. One month prior, that girl, identified as D.J., ran away from home and fell in with three men and the club stripper. These four people forced D.J. to have sex for money (which she didn’t get to keep). After this first experience, she vehemently refused to do it again. So, after giving her a plethora of drugs, they took the girl to the strip club and put her on stage to dance as an exotic nude dancer. All of her money was taken from her, and to make sure she wouldn’t escape and go to the police, they showed her their guns and threatened to use them. At 13 years old, she was stuck working for free as a stripper.
When she was discovered, the City Manager served a shutdown notice to the club on Friday night. He called the strip joint a “danger to the public safety.” He said: “If it is so easy for human traffickers to kidnap a 13-year old girl and bring her to dance at the club without anyone noticing… how can we be assured that this is not going to happen again to other girls in our community?”
That Friday night, there was hope for justice. There was hope that a voice would be heard as the story made national news. The community was convinced that the club would be shut down for good. Then we learned that the club was ordered to shut down for only six months. This was like a slap on the wrist, when it was understood that they were dangerous criminals!
Two weeks later, the club was re-opened for business. The story has been buried ever since… Yes, this piece of news made a great story for Human Trafficking Shabbat. Everyone was rightfully horrified and a big roar was heard, but died as quickly as paper in fire.
We read this week in Vaera: “Vegam ani shamati et-na’akat b’nei Yisrael asher Mitzrayim ma’avadim otam,” “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage,” Shemot 6:4. The moaning was heard in Egypt; the question is, what is needed for a voice to be heard today? What can be done for this modern-day slavery?
In Parashat Shemot, we read: “Vaye’anchu b’nei Yisrael min-ha’avodah vayizaku vata’al shavatam el-haelokim min ha’avodah,” “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d,” Shemot 2:23. What we understand from this pasuk is that a change started to happen only when the Israelites made their voices heard. At that point, when they realized that their reality should be different, they cried out for it. Only then did their reality start to change. Things aren’t much different nowadays. If we want our reality to change, our voices need to be heard as well. However, our voices can’t be like a big roar that dies quickly, like paper in fire. We live in the World of Action; when our active voices will be heard in a consistent manner, change will happen.
Marc Philippe is the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, Florida. Trained as a classical musician, he likes to use music to teach Jewish spirituality, mysticism and meditation. He is active in the community with chaplaincy and the Chevra Kadisha, and is passionate about the inter-connectedness of humanity.