For all we are worth

What does a person cost?

When I was a kid, science teachers were fond of telling their students (if they wanted to shock or humble us) the chemical value of a human body. It amounted then to about $1.78. With inflation, today, you may be worth as much as $4.50.

Now, I don’t want you to get a swelled head (because we’ll be needing it at its regular size), but if you sell off the components of your body, then your heirs could get 45 million dollars today, according to “Inside the Business of Selling Human Body Parts” (Wired, 1/31/2011). That’s because we live in the West. Blood, organs, and DNA are cheaper in the developing world.

The phrase “human values” normally has a very different connotation, but I have a morbid fascination these days about the price of a person. A few years back, I made a commitment to take an active role in freeing slaves.

The most recent estimates put the number of slaves in the world today at 36 million. Federal officials report that about 60,000 slaves are now captive in the United States. Up to 18,000 slaves are trafficked to and through the United States in a given year.

The cost to buy a slave is shockingly low — $40 in some parts of the world. In hard currency and in percentage terms, the price for slaves has actually gone down in the United States since the Civil War! Across the world, life is literally counted as cheap.

I set a goal to free 100 slaves in a year. I wasn’t sure how I would go about it, but I committed to find out. My first partners were my family and synagogue. Later, I collaborated with and learned from local Federations, the New Jersey Commission Against Human Trafficking, Breaking the Chain Through Education, the Rabbinical Assembly, and Free the Slaves.

How much money does it take to free 100 slaves?

More than you might think, given the cost of buying a slave on the open market. You can’t just buy a slave’s freedom outright. It might be dangerous. It would probably encourage the kidnapping of more slaves. It would certainly require participating in the “slave economy.” And it doesn’t prevent re-enslavement.

Many factors can affect the cost of liberation: e.g., what are the local economic and social conditions? Were the slaves transported, and will they be far from home when rescued? What equipment and staff are needed to secure their freedom? Are police or government officials likely to help, or do they side with — or fear — slaveholders? What immediate medical care will be required?

It is not enough to pluck slaves from their environment. They must gain the resources to maintain their freedom. Insufficiencies in food, work, housing, education, and/or the rule of law keep people vulnerable to trafficking. Most immediately, those who have access to schools, health care, and credit are far less likely to be exploited.

If you have the choice of watching all your children starve or receiving payment for the oldest to be taken to a farm or factory for a “good job” (even if you know what that really means), then you might sell one child in order to save the others. Ensuring that people have a viable way to feed their families protects parents and children from such a “Sophie’s Choice.”

People regularly fall into debt bondage, although it is either altogether illegal or practiced with shocking excess. A man who owes less than $100 to an employer might be forced to “work it off” over decades, and the bondage is commonly extended to his children as well. Workers are charged both interest on the debt and rental fees for the equipment they use in their labor, so that back-breaking work over many years never lowers the pay-off amount. Bullied and often beaten, these slaves typically do not know that the law is on their side. Public education campaigns, along with community organizing, have ended debt bondage in many regions by empowering people to claim their freedom.

Sometimes, you need to improve the lives of desperate people who resort to enslaving other human beings in order to feed themselves. Along the Volta River in Ghana, pollution and over-fishing have created an environmental crisis for the region and an economic crisis for the local fisherman, who can no longer make a living. For some, the “solution” is to kidnap children to work as slaves on their boats. Breaking the Chain Through Education helps fisherman to succeed without slaves, thereby aiding would-be and former captors, even as they rescue and provide schooling for enslaved children.

In Ending Slavery, Kevin Bales, founder of Free the Slaves, estimates that the cost for securing long-term freedom for a single slave in the developing world varies between $400 and $1200. Assuming a cost of $800 per slave, my partners and I need to raise $80,000 in order to free 100 slaves. That is why you will see a prominent “donate” button at and at

It’s commonplace to assert that “you can’t just throw money at a problem.” Well, you can’t just throw money at the problem of slavery, but even small amounts of well-placed money can do astonishing amounts of good. It’s worth repeating: with the help of vetted organizations on the ground, you can liberate a human being for about 800 bucks.

Not only your tzedakah, but also your grocery money and clothes budget, can be deployed to help end slavery. Fair-trade foods and clothing cost only a little more in the short run than the cheapest (slave labor?) goods. In the long run, your purchasing power can help change industries and buy people’s freedom.

Giving of your time can also help to free slaves. Various communities have educated hotel managers about the signs of human trafficking and then contributed bars of hotel soap with wrappers that feature the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. In New Jersey, the Jewish community helped to distribute 85,000 such bars of soap in advance of the Superbowl that was held here. Law enforcement was also on alert. I can’t say that it was the advocacy and the soap that led directly to the liberation of 16 minors and 54 adults and the arrest of 45 sex traffickers. I am confident, however, that this level of involvement encourages — and puts positive pressure on — law enforcement. Equally important, it helps to change our culture.

To learn more about what you can do to free slaves before Pesach — in ten hours, ten minutes, or even ten seconds, view and download Passover Prep.

We ask in the morning liturgy: “What are we? What are our lives? What is our piety? What is our righteousness?” Those questions are always challenging, but they take on a special urgency as our Festival of Freedom approaches, with 36 million slaves still in the world. What, really, is the measure of a person? How are we measuring up, by God’s standards and our own?

These questions circle back to the question with which I began: “what does a person cost?” That’s a heretical question. A better one is: what is a person worth? In particular, what are you worth? And what is the worth of a slave you may never meet, but just might be able to save?

To learn more about how to free slaves, visit

lo alecha w thinner frame BLUEcalligraphy by Nila M. Pusin — from Next Year Free! A Modern Slavery Curriculum

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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