At an age when some Oakland girls are preparing for their bat mitzvahs, others are being forced by child traffickers to have sex with strangers.
Learning that fact stunned Genice Jacobs, a resident of Oakland and a member of that city’s Temple Sinai; she heard it during an NPR report about the local explosion of sex trafficking.
“You just don’t think of 12-year-olds being sold on the street,” she said. “I started researching. I became aware of how global it has become.”
Jacobs learned that life is joyless, brutal and harrowing for the young girls whose bodies are bartered, and that penalties are stiffer for those caught selling drugs than for those who sell girls for sex. In short, the profits are high, the risks low.
She also discovered that Temple Sinai’s new rabbi, Rabbi Andrew Straus, shared her despair — and her determination to compel a change.
The result: a Shabbat workshop and discussion on March 16 presented by the temple’s social action committee that will focus a sharp lens on a tragedy that victimizes thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of girls across the country. California accounts for 25 percent of all U.S. trafficking cases.
Straus said he hopes the event will not only raise awareness, but spur congregants to support a 2012 ballot measure that would give California the toughest sex trafficking laws in the nation. The Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act would also support training for law enforcement and care for victims. As of this week, supporters were about 50,000 short of the required 800,000 signatures.
“Is this a Jewish issue? Absolutely,” Straus said. “We as Jews know what it is to be a slave. We have a responsibility to reach out. And there’s another reason: This is going on in our area. It turns out Oakland is one of the centers of this despicable trade.”
Exact numbers are hard to pin down, especially as the trade moves off the streets and onto the Internet. But according to an FBI report, sex trafficking is the fastest-growing segment of organized crime.
It is a $32 billion-a-year, $87 million-a-day industry, according to A New Day for Children, an Oakland program for recovering victims. A pimp can clear as much as $650,000 a year.
“You can sell a rock of crack once,” said Jacobs, now a public policy volunteer with Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, an Oakland-based agency better known as MISSEY. “You can sell a 14-year-old over and over and over.”
Police say pimps spot susceptible girls, luring them with flattery, affection and gifts. They later dole out savage beatings when the girls balk at prostituting themselves or fail to bring in enough money.
“I can say they are the worst of the predators, and the most manipulative of criminals I’ve dealt with,” said Sgt. Holly Joshi of the Oakland Police Department. “Sociopaths.”
Joshi is scheduled to speak at the social action Shabbat at Temple Sinai — and not all of her lecture will be a downer. She plans to make note of the fact that Oakland is suing the owners of three hotels used for sex trafficking of minors, and that the Alameda County district attorney’s office, which has successfully prosecuted 140 trafficking cases since 2006, is teaching prosecutors in other counties how to go after pimps with charges that stick.
The last decade has seen a rush of new laws at the state and federal levels, said Megan Fowler, communications director for Polaris, which runs a national human trafficking hotline.
Across the religious spectrum, faith communities are helping increase awareness.
In the Jewish community, efforts include the Freedom Shabbat (www.freedomshabbat.org), an initiative that asks Jews to tackle the subject during Passover services and seders; the Jewish Coalition to End Human Traff-icking, a group established in the Bay Area by four Jewish agencies; and the Temple Commit-tee Against Human Trafficking, a program of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. In addition, Temple Emanu–El-Beth Sholom in Quebec has taken it upon itself to fight sex trafficking full time, with education campaigns in local schools, re-search and public talks.
Jewish liturgy provides the mandate, Straus said: Each day, observant Jews say the Amidah, in which the worshiper praises God “who sets free the captive.” A lengthy talmudic discussion provides guidance how to help break the bonds of slavery.
Activism is also spurring changes in the Holy Land, where the Knesset passed a law banning sex trafficking.
“Yes, the law has to be enforced; yes, there have to be programs,” said Peggy Sarkow, a self-described “abolitionist” who lobbied for the bill’s passage. “But when the law is on the books, it’s a huge step forward for society. We’ve seen the power of persevering.”
“Child Trafficking in the Streets of Oakland” is presented by the Temple Sinai social action committee. 8:30 p.m. March 16, after 7:30 p.m. musical Shabbat. Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland. (510) 530-6687 or (510) 451-3263.