Jewish womens group fights, educates on human trafficking

A hundred years ago, a crisis engulfed thousands of vulnerable Jewish women from Eastern Europe. Lured by false promises, they arrived in America and found themselves the victims of human traffickers who forced them to work as prostitutes.

The National Council of Jewish Women fought tirelessly against this so-called “white slavery” and worked with immigration officials to meet single women who arrived at Ellis Island or Angel Island, taking them to shelters and helping them find jobs.

Antonia Lavine (left) and Rachel Ungar work to end human trafficking. photo/drew himmelstein

Now, in the 21st century, the National Council of Jewish Women is still fighting human trafficking. The San Francisco chapter coordinates and staffs both the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking and the San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking.

The former is a partnership that includes the Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Children and Family Services and the New Israel Fund; the latter is a partnership between city officials, police, the district attorney, Jewish groups and other community organizations.

“Anybody can be subject in specific conditions to enslavement,” said Antonia Lavine, executive director of the NCJW in San Francisco and chair of the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking. “We were slaves, and we don’t want this to happen to any community.”

Last week, Lavine participated in an event aimed at educating the public to recognize red flags for human trafficking. It was held Aug. 5 at the Addison-Penzak JCC on the Levy Family Campus in Los Gatos.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen and other officials told the audience of 250 that their help was needed in uncovering trafficking that is happening in their own backyards.

“So often we talked about it as if it was happening someplace else,” Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said. “It’s a problem here. We’re seeing it on the streets. We need your help.”

Though exact numbers are hard to pin down, the Department of Justice estimates that 17,000 people are trafficked annually into the United States every year, Lofgren said. But human trafficking is by no means a problem that affects only people from other countries; in fact, most sex trafficking victims in the United States are U.S. citizens, Lofgren said.

Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen speaks at Addison-Penzak JCC on Aug. 5. photo/alexander community law center

The majority of labor trafficking victims, who are forced to work in homes, restaurants, nail salons and other settings for meager wages and substandard housing, are foreign nationals, Lofgren said. Victims can be male or female and come from all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds; the common denominator is that trafficking victims are trapped in involuntary servitude through force, fraud or coercion.

Most victims are too frightened to report their situations and don’t know that help is available.

Meanwhile, members of the public might casually cross paths with a trafficking victim without realizing something is wrong. In the Bay Area, there has been an effort to train the wider community to spot and report human trafficking.

Lavine said that those fighting trafficking have reached out to the hotel, restaurant and agricultural industries to help them recognize signs of trafficking. These include people who don’t control their money or personal documents, who appear nervous or fearful, or who show signs of physical abuse or malnourishment. The JCC event was aimed at bringing that knowledge to members of the general public.

“There are other sectors, like domestic workers, where we cannot actually in any way use existing networks to educate and prevent human trafficking, and this is where the public comes into play,” Lavine said. “That is why we need to educate literally every person, because people have to understand the crime and be able to identify it.”

Over the past five to 10 years, law enforcement officials have adopted a “victim-centered” approach to trafficking in which trafficking victims are not treated like criminals. Sex trafficking victims are supposed to be provided with assistance rather than prosecuted as prostitutes; labor trafficking victims from other countries are eligible for a visa that allows them to stay and work in the United States if they cooperate with law enforcement officials.

“It was not so long ago that law enforcement viewed the victims of human of trafficking as criminals, as prostitutes,” Rosen said. “We’re going to incarcerate … individuals who are involved in trafficking, which is another way of saying buying and selling human beings … and hopefully in our lifetime, we’re going to eradicate human trafficking.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.