Jewish Journal

Slavery lesson stirs Milken students to act

Posted on Mar. 29, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Milken students raised $10,000 for Jewish World Watch in 2006.

Milken students raised $10,000 for Jewish World Watch in 2006.

How do Jews remember slavery?

"Yetziat mitzraym was something too long ago," Rabbi Leah Kroll, rabbinic director of the middle school at Milken, says of the Exodus. "Kids have a hard time understanding that," she said about slavery.

That's why Kroll, who is also a rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple, founded "Dream Freedom" in 2001. Inspired by a former slave's book of the same name, which chronicles slavery in the Sudan, Kroll has conducted a monthlong project between Purim and Passover every other year to educate Milken's middle school students about the plight of slavery.

In the course of learning about slavery from around the world, they have met with a former slave, helped stage a rally against slavery and raised money to help the cause. In 2006, Milken students raised $10,000 for Jewish World Watch to assist people in refugee camps in Darfur and Chad. A total of $35,000 has been raised to redeem the slaves in southern Sudan and assist with the resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced persons affected by the genocide in Darfur. Next year, Kroll says, they may focus on slavery in the United States.

As important as the money the students raise, is the fact that they learn about modern-day slavery as it relates to the Jewish tradition. "It connects our kids to something real," Kroll says. "I have always wanted to connect Jewish kids to the idea that Passover meant something to them."

"I wanted them to hear this staggering number of 27 million people who were slaves, and we need to do something about it," Kroll says.

About 1,000 students have been through the program, but the effects have multiplied, because they've taken the program home to their family seders. "We still keep getting e-mails from parents; it changed their parents' seder, 'There are still people who are slaves today; it wasn't just words on a page anymore,' they knew what it meant for people to be slaves because they met a slave. Because it all came alive from it," Kroll said.

In addition, Jewish organizations like American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and Jewish World Watch have been instrumental in fighting genocide and helping the victims (many of them sold into slavery) in places like Darfur. Currently AJWS has started a letter-writing petition to Congress to increase funding for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping in Darfur.

"Every major faith tradition has spoken out against slavery," says Jolene Smith, executive director of Free the Slaves, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending slavery worldwide.

"It's inspiring to us that Jewish schools and synagogues that have used the opportunity of Passover to talk about modern-day slavery, and particularly how modern-day emancipation for people really resonates. It's really beautiful what folks have done for Shabbat, how people have made the issue their own," she said.

Smith said that synagogues and other religious organizations are also helping fight slavery by looking at their investments and institutions to police the supply chain for slavery. A law that dates back to 1930 forbids sales of slave-made goods, but a loophole allows import of some goods if demand does not meet U.S. supply. This has included imports of gold, mahogany and pig iron. "It's safe to say that one thing that I've worn today or consumed today has been made with slavery." Smith said.

"We have an opportunity here to do a lot of really good things just based on the goods we import and choose to consume," Smith said. "My $1,000 doesn't matter, but when my church or synagogue, with their millions or billions, says something like, 'We really want you to shape up,' they do it!"

To join American Jewish World Service's letter-writing campaign to Congress to increase funding for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping in Darfur go to http://action.ajws.org/campaign/07SupplementalFunding?rk=3pS8u_614GcIW).

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