An image of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march through the South occupies a prominent place on the Facebook page of Seattle Against Slavery.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” the image reads, echoing a famous line of the civil rights leader.
The picture was supposed to be up only in February, for Black History Month. But no one can quite take it down and so it might be permanent after all.
Fitting anyway, because its message – one inextricably and inherently linked to core Jewish imperatives to repair the world and advance justice – is the driver for an organization dedicated to the eradication of slave trafficking in Seattle and beyond.
“We are creating righteousness,” said Robert Beiser, the executive director of Seattle Against Slavery (SAS) and recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize in 2011.
This organization is enmeshed in society’s dark underbelly, populated as it is by human stories that are hard to fathom and often ignored by a mainstream population blinded by its horrors or oblivious to its proximity.
But human slavery is undeniably present, taking many forms and shapes: trafficking of young boys and girls in the sexual trade, exploitation of refugees and immigrants in the service sector, economic manipulation of homeless veterans on the streets. And the list goes on, scorching dignity, hope and justness.
SAS was not deliberately founded on core Jewish values, but the very mission of the organization reflects and enlarges them. And the very fact that its executive director is a Jew who has fully embraced such Jewish imperatives gives SAS such grounding.
“There is really no idea for the physical reality of human beings on earth outside of their relationship with God other than to create justice in the world,” Beiser said. “The lessons we learn from Talmud and Torah bend us toward doing that work, to keep people safe.”
“Judaism functions as a training regime to create greater justness and kindness in the world. It is fundamental and intrinsic.”
On both the macro and micro levels, SAS is making a discernable impact on human slavery in the Seattle area, focusing as it does on educating the public, government officials, and victims themselves; mobilizing volunteers to create awareness; and working on prevention, intervention and services to those being exploited.
There have been significant advances and victories recently. A multi-language public awareness campaign, called “No One Should be Forced,” featured billboards and ads on public transportation throughout King County, Washington, beginning in 2013. Calls to the state’s trafficking hotline multiplied exponentially as a result.
And just last fall, public employees in Seattle – health inspectors and others on the frontlines in the field – began training to recognize clues of human trafficking and to learn how to report it to the proper authorities. SAS and a consortium of other human rights organizations lobbied and advocated for the new policy, which puts more eyes and ears on city streets.
“Many people think of human trafficking and modern slavery as something that happens far away in the world,” Beiser said. “It’s something they hear about on the international news. They don’t know that it’s right here, like someone trapped in a home and forced to work as a nanny under threat of violence against them or their family members.”
“It’s beyond the scope of what most people are aware of or recognize. So much of our work is by necessity putting the word out there, making people realize it exists, and getting them invested in the issue.”
In an attempt to address larger, more macro societal forces that create climates in which forms of human slavery can be seeded and take root, SAS has adopted a program active in Chicago to teach high school students about violence prevention and personal and social responsibility. The program, which has already reached almost 1,000 students in King County, aims to create allies in the fight against human trafficking.
To be sure, human slavery and trafficking is not a Seattle-only issue. Exploitation of workers halfway around the world, for instance, can bleed into the Seattle area – or any other city or town for that matter – by way of unfair trade products or environmental degradation. Recognizing this, SAS is fighting against these forces by raising awareness of product origins.
Right now, in fact, SAS is supporting a boycott called by The Coalition of Immokalee Workers against the Wendy’s fast-food chain for its use of tomatoes grown in unregulated farms with evidence of human trafficking.
The far-reaching work of SAS is done on a shoestring budget and staff. Beiser, plus one half-time employee, coordinate the direction and programs of the organization, but rely on a pantheon of volunteers to do the legwork.
Volunteer recruitment is critical, and winds back to public awareness campaigns that get people so outraged by human slavery that they are moved to do something about it, whether it is educating others at a Passover Seder on one end, to reporting suspicions or instances of the trade on the other.
“We rely on people doing what they can,” Beiser said. “People develop an identity, a connection with a cause or injustice, and naturally feel compelled to fight cynicism and hopelessness. There are gradations of the work, from volunteering, to getting a degree in human rights and international law. We need and try to build a broad-based pyramid of support and action.”
Beiser himself has headed SAS since 2012. Although he was raised as a secular Jew, his consciousness and passions have landed him squarely in the realm of Jewish social justice causes and work.
Consequently, he readily views the work and impact of SAS through a Jewish lens, and in presentations to synagogues and other Jewish groups, the fit is natural.
“Jewish history and wisdom can be very purposeful,” he said, “and can solve some of the world’s problems. If we tap into that, we can serve others and the world in very meaningful ways.”
“I connect to the prophetic traditions and teachings of Judaism that says you call people out when they are doing something that is wrong, and you have to call people to serve justice and righteousness,” he said. “Ours is not to complete the task necessarily, but we must engage in it and not desist in trying.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project