Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Modern Day Slavery is Closer to Home Than You Think

Just before Passover,  a holiday celebrating Jewish freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt, I attended a conference on modern day slavery at the Jewish Community Center in Whippany, NJ.  It was presented by the Polaris Project, a Washington D.C. based non-profit organization dedicated to the abolition of sex and labor trafficking in the United States. 

Slavery in the United States in 2012? That's right. It's closer to home than you think. 

The staff of the Polaris Project  New Jersey office described how they rescued a young woman from Guatemala who was forced into domestic servitude.  The 18 year old thought she was coming  to the U.S. to work for a family, learn English and go to school.  The family sponsored her visa, then confiscated her documents and made her work 18 hrs/day for 6 years for no pay  in the suburbs of New Jersey.  The teen was told that she was legally bound to do anything she was told to do by her employer. Then she was restricted from almost all outside contact, forbidden from using the phone and physically and sexually abused. The one thing she was allowed to do outside the  home was to go to church on Sundays. Over time,  her church experience led her to realize that she was being deceived and mistreated and she reached out to the trafficking hotline.

Two local survivors spoke at the conference.  Dara (not her real name) was a woman who grew up in an affluent town in New Jersey and went to college in Boston.  While away at college, she was invited to a party, but when she got there was told it was the wrong night. The man invited her out to dinner and paid her a lot of attention.  He became her "boyfriend" and one night told her to get dressed so they could go to the "track". When she got there she found out that he expected her to "walk the track" to make money as a prostitute. Dara felt betrayed, trapped, degraded and humiliated and didn't know how to get out of the situation. After a week she got up the courage to stand up to him. She told him to "shove it" and he beat her.  He kept her totally isolated , would only let her call home when he was monitoring the call and continued to beat her for supposed  infractions of the rules.  She was afraid to do anything to cross him. 

Dara's  pimp  made her work as an escort by day starting at 8 AM and then change her clothes and walk the track from 9 PM to 6 AM. From 6 AM-8 AM she could eat or sleep; she always chose sleep.  Dara said that she fortunately managed to stay away from doing drugs.  This enabled her to stay aware of her surroundings and  get out of dangerous situations; otherwise, she believes she would be dead. After two years, her pimp surprisingly allowed her to go on vacation with her family and she found the courage to tell them what had happened even though she was afraid they would reject her. Her family was supportive and she never went back.  She completed her undergraduate college degree back home in New Jersey and finished a year of graduate school.  She's been married 5 years and has 2 children and volunteers at the Polaris Project to help others victims of sex trafficking.

The night before the conference there were over 180 ads for massage parlors in NJ on Backpage and Craigslist.  And it's not just in low income communities; 15 were listed for Morris County, where the conference took place.  According to the Polaris Project, for every two Starbucks in this country there is a massage parlor.  In NJ the ratio is 1 to 1. There are 500 massage parlors in this state alone.  Sex trafficking is not uncommon in these massage parlors. Late night hours, video monitoring of the street, and blacked out windows are some of the telltale signs. 

In New Jersey, mostly Asian and Eastern European women are brought to the U.S. under false pretenses and forced into debt servitude in these massage parlors.  First they are promised the American Dream, then they are charged exorbitant fees for being smuggled into the country, and for food and substandard housing, but the massage parlor fees are collected by the  "mamasan" who runs the massage parlor and all this money goes to the house.  The women are forced to engage in the commercial sex trade to make any money towards trying to pay off their debt. 

For answers to questions about possible trafficking situations, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline at 1-888-3737-888. It is confidential and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year. The NHTRC is a program of the Polaris Project, a non-governmental   organization (NGO) not affiliated with law enforcement or immigration authorities.  For further information go to :

In my next post, I will give examples of child labor and sex trafficking, describe warning signs and actions you can take on the legislative and grassroots levels.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Different Perspective on the Dharun Ravi Invasion of Privacy Case

Dharun Ravi was recently found guilty of invasion of privacy and a bias crime against  his roommate Tyler Clementi in a highly publicized trial in a New Jersey courtroom.  Clementi was an 18-year-old  Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide in September after Ravi secretly videotaped his homosexual encounter, streamed it online and told all his friends to watch.  Most of the commentary on this case has focused on the bias conviction.  I would like to talk about the invasion of privacy and gossip aspects of this case.

There is a Chassidic story about a man who went around town spreading gossip all the time. Something happened to make him realize how hurtful his behavior was and he wanted to repent. He went to the Rabbi and asked what he could do to make up for his behavior. The Rabbi told the man, "cut open a feather pillow and scatter the feathers to the winds."  The man thought this was an odd thing for the Rabbi to ask him to do, but he was glad to do it if it would help him make amends.

When he returned to tell the Rabbi that he had done it, the Rabbi said, "Now, go and gather all the feathers."  The man said, "Rabbi, that is not possible. The wind has already scattered the feathers all over town."   The wise Rabbi said, "You cannot undo the damage your words have done any more than you can gather up all the scattered feathers."

When Dharun Ravi invaded his roommate's privacy and spread the word to his friends, the gossip spread like feathers in the wind, with tragic consequences.

One good thing has come out of this tragedy. New Jersey strengthened its anti-bullying law so that it is one of the strictest in the country (see NJ Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act  The law requires public schools to "conduct extensive training of staff and students; appoint safety teams made up of parents, teachers and staff; and launch an investigation of every allegation of bullying within one day."*  It is an excellent law that  mandates prevention programs and prompt and thorough investigations of all reports of bullying and harassment.  Hopefully other states will follow New Jersey's example.

If you want to get involved in the development of school prevention programs, you can access resources at The Center for Social and Character Development  and  the New Jersey Dept. of Ed. website If you are a parent, there are many ways that you can take action at home and  in partnership with your child's school to help prevent harassment, intolerance, and bullying

What experiences have you had with bullying in schools as a parent, teacher, counselor or student?   Were you satisfied with the way the situation was handled?  Do you have any ideas about what can be done on the college level that can prevent another tragedy like the suicide of Tyler Clementi?