“I am an abolitionist,” proclaimed Melanie Roth Gorelick at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy Annual Welcome earlier this month. Gorelick, Community Relations Committee director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ, spoke along with two other “abolitionists” to increase awareness of the sex trafficking of women and children — a modern day form of slavery — and how to fight it.
Human trafficking, Gorelick explained, is often considered a crime that is perpetrated against foreigners or prostitutes and does not affect the Jewish community.
Not true — in Pima County, in Arizona and across the United States, every community is vulnerable: The average age of girls targeted by traffickers is 12 to 14, for boys it is 11 to 13. Once targeted, escape is difficult and bodily harm or threats may be frequent.
At the Oct. 14 event, held at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon, around 120 people heard facts about the buying and selling of human beings worldwide, a commercial crime that generates $31.6 billion annually, second only to drug trafficking. Along with Gorelick, Savannah Sanders, a sex trafficking survivor and training coordinator of the SAFE Action Project in Tempe, and Kathleen Winn, director of community outreach and education at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, were on hand to speak.
With the Super Bowl coming to Glendale again in January, it’s important to train law enforcement “to not see girls as prostitutes but as victims,” said Winn, who explained that large sporting events often bring with them an increase in sex trafficking.
“Training has been going on for the last two years,” said Winn, who noted that Phoenix has the only vice squad in the state. The Super Bowl was last held in the state in 2008. Since then, she says, HB2454, which was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer on July 14, increases the penalties for buying and selling children (minors under 18) in Arizona. In 2013, Brewer established a Task Force on Human Trafficking to review laws and enforcement strategies.
Sex trafficking in the Jewish community isn’t new. Gorelick noted that Jewish women and girls were trafficked for sex to the Americas — including Argentina — as part of the “white slave” trade in the 1800s “when traffickers would come to poor Jewish communities in Poland and Russia to marry the young women and bring them to the new world for a better life.” Instead, many were forced into prostitution. At the turn of the 20th century, she said, volunteers from Jewish organizations met young Jewish women arriving at Ellis Island to protect them from the same fate.
Today, even in Short Hills, N.J., recently cited as one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, young women are still vulnerable. Gorelick told the story of Danielle, a young Jewish woman from Short Hills who went to Northeastern University in Boston and was invited to a party. When she showed up there was no party; instead, Danielle was met by a handsome older man who wined and dined her, eventually becoming her boyfriend, or so she thought. One night, he took her purse and threw her out of the car, insisting that she make several hundred dollars or he would beat her and kill her family. A forced life of prostitution had begun.
Orthodox girls in Brooklyn have been forced into prostitution, said Gorelick, adding that sex trafficking exists in Israel too. “The Talmud tells us it’s our role to liberate all people from slavery. It’s also our role to protect foreigners in the United States.”
The NJ Metrowest Federation got involved in the issue because of concerns leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl. Another reason was because of the Federation’s proximity to Newark, “one of the sex-trafficking capitals of the world,” said Roberta Elliot, a part-time Tucson resident who’s currently co-chair of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey.
In New Jersey “we give grants to help women and girls who are underserved and have given multiple grants to the Polaris Project [www.polarisproject.org],”an anti-trafficking organization. “Philanthropy and advocacy really came together in this effort,” she said, “which doesn’t always happen.” Elliot recently became a member of the Arizona Jewish Post advisory board.
“We will remember not just our liberation from Egypt but the liberation of all people from oppression,” said Gorelick. “We were slaves and now we’re abolitionists!” In 2011, she helped launch the NJ Coalition against Human Trafficking, a grassroots organization that includes the National Council of Jewish Women, faith-based organizations, nonprofits such as the Junior League, government agencies, law enforcement and direct service providers.
“There’s so much that can be done to raise awareness,” said Gorelick. “Around the Super Bowl, which attracts violence and organized crime with so many ‘looking for fun,’ advocates organized with 200 volunteers in more than 400 hotels. Rutgers Law School held a workshop to train hotel managers. We ran assemblies with high school students, organized interfaith programs, helped train police, held a human trafficking Shabbat and used social media. We reached more than 1 million people. The Super Bowl can also be an opportunity to educate the community.”
Here in Arizona, Sanders said she was trafficked in Phoenix — one of the top 20 U.S. cities listed for human trafficking. “I’m a survivor advocate. Human trafficking is an issue of social justice, human rights and gender inequality. It’s a symptom of our larger social ills. I truly believe in addressing the root causes. I was sexually abused at age 6 by an older cousin and groomed for trafficking by 17. I didn’t recognize this could happen within my own family, people I trusted. I never told anybody. My parents thought my behavior was about their divorce. I started cutting at 13, made 14 suicide attempts and was living with a boy in a meth lab by the time I was 15. I was living in a shelter at 16.”
She was recruited for pornography by an older man, who took her home from a club at 2:30 a.m. “I had no parental supervision,” said Sanders, adding that when the police found her locked in a shed in the desert, they arrested her as a runaway, rather than seeing her as a crime victim.
“I really never saw myself living past age 18,” she said. But Sanders, now 29, was one of the lucky ones: “I met my husband who loved and cherished me. We’ve been married 11 years and have four beautiful children.”
She has had her ups and downs, and almost got divorced around five years ago. “I didn’t know how to be a mom, a wife, a woman or even an individual. I only knew what I saw through media perfection.
“I went for mental health treatment and kept getting pills. I didn’t realize I was sex trafficked. I thought it was all my own fault,” said Sanders. “I finally went to an organization [www.MendingtheSoul.org] about sex trafficking. It was the first time I was told it wasn’t my fault.”
Sanders is currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work after receiving her undergraduate degree in social work with a minor in women and gender studies from Arizona State University.
Winn, with the Attorney General’s Office, pointed out that around 250 NFL football players have retired in Arizona. Many have been recruited to speak out against sex trafficking in TV commercials for www.Aznotbuyingit.org. With all of the recent news about NFL players and domestic violence, she noted that “25 percent of NFL players are perpetrators, and 100 percent of trafficked minors were involved in domestic violence.”
While the panelists agreed the eradication of human trafficking will require a shift in our culture, Jewish women are ready to take on the challenge.
For more information, contact Brenda Landau at 577-9393, ext. 134 or [email protected]. Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-3737-888 with questions or concerns. For information about sex-trafficking worldwide, visit www.sharedhope.org, or in Arizona, www.safeactionproject.org.