Shabbat dinner at the home of two doctors, north of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica: There's a terrific chicken with lemons and
green olives, the lemons plucked from a tree in the yard. There's crisp roasted potatoes, salad and a 1998 Cabernet. The table is set with silver candelabras and a sterling silver Kiddush fountain funnels sweet wine from one large cup into several smaller clones. My cup runneth over into a lot of little cups.
The conversation veers toward Passover -- whether we will stay here or go back East; how you cook seven courses for 25 people; is it better to stay home and cook for multitudes, or travel across country and be served?
Then their son interrupts. "Did you know," he interjects, "there are 17,000 slaves in the United States right now?"
Well, that's a conversation stopper.
This young man is 12, a seventh-grader at Milken Community High School's middle school. With Passover approaching, Milken High launched a curriculum program called Dream Freedom, focusing on modern-day slavery, genocide and other violations of human rights around the world. Worldwide, there are an estimated 27 million people enslaved.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has reported powerfully on ongoing examples of this ancient, persisting trade. He has praised the Christian right for pushing this issue and the related issue of genocide at the United Nations and in Washington; in fact, Kristof has repeatedly stressed that these crises can and should unite political adversaries.
Last week, The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Christian evangelical groups both praised the House of Representatives vote to provide an additional $50 million for peacekeeping in Darfur.
Kristof has also followed the lives of some of the approximately 1 million girls and women trafficked every year in the sex trades, which former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called "the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world."
All this is part of the Dream Freedom unit at Milken Middle School. This past Wednesday, the school hosted Francis Bok, a former Sudanese slave who discussed the genocide in the southern Sudan region of Darfur and the ongoing issues of world slavery.
What is even more meaningful, though, is that Dream Freedom is part of the Judaica program. In other words, students at the Jewish day school learn that there is no disconnect between the ancient rites and rituals of Passover and what is happening right now, in their own time.
What's happening at Milken is mirrored throughout Los Angeles and, indeed, in Jewish communities around the country. The ongoing genocide in Sudan, which has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced millions, has mobilized all faiths, including many Jewish organizations.
Jewish World Watch, a creation of Valley Beth Shalom, has joined with synagogues of all denominations across the area to hold several public events leading up to Passover. On April 9, it will convene a "Seder for Darfur" at UCLA Hillel, with readings and lessons interwoven with the story of the Jews' liberation from bondage.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, together with the American Jewish World Service, is coordinating efforts in the Jewish community in support of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign -- an online and snail mail petition drive to collect 1 million postcards from Americans calling on the president, "to lead in the creation of a strong multinational force to safeguard the citizens of Darfur." The signed postcards will be delivered to the White House at a rally on April 30, 2006.
American Jewish World Service, which has been an early and tireless advocate on behalf of the people of Darfur, has distributed an online addition to the standard haggadah that weaves modern-day genocide and slavery into the traditional narrative.
It's unconscionable that there is still a need to write on behalf of the abolition of slavery more than 140 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. But here we are.
I have no illusions about the power of 800 words in a community newspaper to help people a world away. But at the very least this column can serve as an echo chamber for everyone from Nicholas Kristof to the children at Milken Middle School to the silent victims of genocide and the world slave trade.
We are about to enter the Passover season, busying ourselves with the joys and burden of a Big Fat Jewish Seder. Now is the time to pause, to listen and to help. If a portion of our Passover energy is not expended on freeing those currently enslaved, how is our Passover truly kosher? Can we read that God freed us "with an outstretched hand," but not allow God to work through our own hands?
"Let us remember," Eli Wiesel wrote, "what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander."
Frances Bok will also speak on May 18 on behalf of the Facing History Foundation at the California African American Museum. For complete information on this and other events surrounding Darfur and slavery.
For more information:
Milken High's Dream Freedom program:
Jewish World Watch and Seder for Darfur:
Million Voices for Darfur: