The roots of the National Council of Jewish Women can be traced back to Ellis Island, where members greeted new immigrants, assisted them in starting their new lives and kept them from people trying to abduct them into forced labor or sex.
The organization celebrated its 120th year this week with a three-day conference in St. Louis in which combatting sex trafficking was a major issue.
“We feel like we’ve come full circle,” noted CEO Nancy Kaufman.
Minors are being taken right from malls and other places and forced into having
sex, she said, adding that “everyone thinks that this happens in other countries, but these are kids coming from your own neighborhoods.”
Kaufman also noted that “so many of those trafficked have come out of the welfare system.”
During her speech, Kaufman identified the issue as striking “to our core as Jews, not only because we were once slaves and not only because we have a long history of rescuing women when they arrived at our shores, but because we know with focused attention we can end this horrible scourge.”
She told the 300 women from across the United States who attended the conference that NCJW will focus on data collection, services, training, holding law enforcement accountable and exploring ways to end trafficking.
Also discussed were the protection of women’s reproductive rights, civil marriages in Israel, immigration and welfare reform, and bullying against members of the LGBT community.
Attendees heard the story of a woman who had a late-term abortion after being told her child had a brain disease. They also heard from a doctor who performs late term abortions.
“It had a real impact on people,” she said. “I think it showed how important our work is.”
Robin Leeds, a D.C. resident who sits on NCJW’s national board, called the conference “very energizing.” She said everyone was highly engaged and very enthusiastic and clearly anxious to go back to their communities and work for social change.
Kaufman labeled the conference, which is held every three years, “profoundly moving.”
In her speech, Kaufman reminded everyone that “it is our responsibility as progressive Jewish women to ensure that our laws are relevant to the times in which we live and do all we can to ensure that they safeguard the individual rights and freedoms that we hold dear.”
It didn’t take long for NCJW members to get back to their work following the conference. On Thursday, they are holding a nationwide fast day for immigration reform coinciding with the Fast of Esther. More than 200 women had signed up as of the beginning of the week.
The effort is part of We Belong Together’s month-long women’s Fast for Families in which women across the country will “pass along” one-day fasts in an effort to increase awareness on immigration reform.
“We hope to draw on Queen Esther’s courage as we fast to call attention to the importance of just, humane and comprehensive immigration reform that is sensitive to the needs of women, children and families,” said Kaufman.