At a typical Passover Seder table the host traditionally leaves an empty place setting for the prophet Elijah.
At a special Advocacy Seder held Wednesday ahead of the Jewish holiday, which begins April 22 and lasts for eight days, there was also an extra setting for Elijah — but this one was as a reminder of those young women and children lost to human trafficking.
“We welcome all the people who have been victims of trafficking and give them a voice at the table,” said Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, a chaplain with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
For the third year in a row, dozens of community leaders gathered at the federation’s headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard to decry what they call modern day slavery. The event ties in to the Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
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“It’s our responsibility to help the strangers,” said Nancy Zaretsky, the founding chair of the federation’s Human Trafficking Task Force. The task force is an initiative of the organization’s Jewish Community Relations Council and its Women’s Philanthropy Division.
“It is the story of our exodus from Egypt and it is not a simple story to tell,” she said.
Among the attendees: Victor Williams, from the Department of Homeland Security; teens from the B'Nai B'Rith Youth Organization; Leah Klein, from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and Brian Segal from the American Jewish Committee.
One by one participants read parts of the Freedom Haggadah prayer book, and spoke about how people are unaware that the sex trade is used to manipulate people and that victims are often treated as criminals.
Brenda Mezick, from the State Attorney’s Office, updated the group about what had been done this year during the legislative session in Tallahassee to help victims. Among the items that passed: Children can no longer be referred to as prostitutes and there is an increased penalty for causing bodily harm to minors.
The Freedom Haggadah kept to many of the Passover Seder traditions, but used references to modern day victims of slavery.
“As the Exodus story unfolds, we encounter the Ten Plagues that God unleashed to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelite people go from Egypt,” the book reads. “Today, existing societal plagues lead to human trafficking. One of the ways that we can defeat these plagues is by creating equal opportunity, access and influence for women and girls.”
Brenda Ferris, who works with victims of human trafficking at Camillus House, said attending the event for the first time was eye-opening.
“There really are a lot of similarities between the stories,” she said.
To end the Seder, the group sang the civil-rights-era anthem We Shall Overcome.