There was never a question of why National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) would engage fully and lead in the anti-human trafficking movement. It is something NCJW has been doing since 1894, one year after the establishment of NCJW. At that time, NCJW women saw the needs of immigrant Jewish girls as different from that of other immigrants. And NCJW sought to protect its immigrant Jewish daughters. According to author Faith Rogow, in her history of NCJW’s first 100 years, NCJW determined that the greatest threat to female immigrants was the white slave trade. It was an often covered up fact that in the late 1800’s and beyond, the white slave trade was often led by Jews. One source estimated that half of the prostitutes on Chicago’s West Side in the early 1900s were Jewish. Initially, NCJW concentrated its work on the juvenile courts (still a focus today) and on developing ways to keep girls from meeting the white slavers (also sounds like a familiar strategy!). By providing safe housing for single women and guiding them from the docks when they arrived in this country to connect with their families, NCJW women made a huge impact on the white slave trade. By 1903, NCJW was the leader in this unique work and was asked by the US government to help in preventing immigrant girls from ending up with white slavers. NCJW created a permanent aid station on Ellis Island, staffed by both NCJW volunteers and professionals. Between 1904 and 1907, NCJW helped close to 20,000 Jewish women and girls and countless non-Jews make it through customs and safely settle in America.
But this direct service was not the total answer for NCJW’s early leaders. In addition to their social service work to prevent trafficking, NCJW women advocated for governmental legislation to address this issue. Some things never change and never should. This work in the public policy arena continues to this day as NCJW takes the lead in seeking and supporting laws and policies to protect women and girls from the scourge of human trafficking.
It is clear that our efforts today to prevent and eliminate human trafficking of all women and girls (no longer just Jewish women and girls), has its roots in NCJW’s founding focus and the visionary women, many from Chicago, who led this charge. NCJW defined itself by its service and its advocacy then and now. As was said by Bertha Rauh in Jewish Woman (April 1922), an NCJW publication: “In no other religion is charity linked up with the idea of social justice as in ours. The Jewish philosophy which is expressed in the adage: ‘The whole world rests upon the Torah, the practice of religion, and the practice of social justice,’ is so inextricably interwoven with the idea that it is our religious duty to give to the poor with a view of helping them to rehabilitate themselves, that it completely dominates our conception of philanthropy. The abandonment of this controlling idea might indeed be tantamount to weakening our Jewish social structure.” And so it continues today.
The confluence of NCJW’s work in educating the public, providing direct services, and advocating for legislation and policies that support social justice, can be seen in our work on Human Trafficking nationally and locally and in NCJW’s leadership in the Jewish Coalition Against Sex Trafficking (JCAST) Chicago. It would be nice to say that the groundwork laid in 1894 by NCJW has led to the elimination of sex trafficking. Unfortunately, we still have much work to do. Fortunately, we have a strong history of successes to build on.
– Carole Levine