ATZUM and Rabbi Levi Lauer, Founder

… singlehandedly founded ATZUM so that Israel could be as a light unto the nations in addressing social problems and crises…

Rabbi Levi Lauer speaking at the conference “We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking,” in New Jersey in 2014. Photo Robert Wiener.

Rabbi Levi Lauer speaking at the conference “We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking,” in New Jersey in 2014. Photo Robert Wiener.

Women are smuggled across borders and sold into prostitution, forgotten by those who are meant to protect them. In Israel, this is the life for thousands of young girls and women every year. Rabbi Levi Lauer founded ATZUM to address this and other serious social issues facing Israel today. He and his organization are determined that crimes such as human trafficking are stopped forever.

Rabbi Levi Lauer, originally from Cleveland, Ohio and a 1972 alumnus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has been living in Israel for over thirty years. His career as a scholar, combining a keen awareness of the social concerns of the country with his studies in Jewish thought and practices, seemed naturally to lead him to found ATZUM – Justice Works in 2002. This organization’s mission is to educate the public about the problems facing Israel today and to advocate for palpable change. ATZUM seeks to “remedy injustices in Israeli society, and encourage individuals to become social activists and agents of change.”

ATZUM’s efforts currently focus on four major projects. The first, called Project Abrah, aims to work with Ethiopian high school students. There is a profound gap of understanding and experience between today’s students and their predecessors, known as Prisoners of Zion, the older generation whose emigration to Israel was preceded by imprisonment and torture by Ethiopian authorities. ATZUM has sent a filmmaker into the schools to teach the younger students how to film and interview the Prisoners in order to understand what had occurred. In this way, they may not only take pride in their ancestral history, but also become more connected to their home in Israel.

Another endeavor deals with those who survive acts of terror, either innocent victims left behind to fend for themselves, or those injured in an explosion who find themselves without resources and hope for the future. Roberta’s Project, named for social worker and ATZUM activist Roberta Bernstein, provides advocacy from social workers to procure funds for food, medical care, and resources for educational opportunities. ATZUM’s Roberta’s Project stems from the belief that all victims of terror attacks can go on to have productive lives if they are given the means, opportunity, and encouragement to do so.

ATZUM’s third project is called Righteous Among the Nations, and is concerned with non-Jewish rescuers who helped Jews escape and survive the Holocaust. Lauer and ATZUM make certain that these Righteous Gentiles are taken care of in their elder years. This project ensures that those who were selfless during the Second World War in trying to save lives, are now provided with adequate food, healthcare, and companionship. ATZUM has also developed curricula for schools to teach students about the crucial roles of the Righteous Gentiles in Jewish history. Lauer wants these heroes never to be forgotten. 

The fourth, and perhaps both the most passionate of Lauer’s projects, and the most difficult to achieve, is the initiative to stop the human trafficking of women into Israel. According to Lauer, over 3,000 women are lured into Israel each year, mostly from the Soviet Union, stripped and sold to pimps, then used, brutalized, raped, and possibly sold again. Eventually they are used up, rejected, arrested, and deported. While Israel’s borders are largely guarded for terrorist activities, passage for these women is given a blind eye. The laws against the enslavement and movement of young women, even girls, from other countries into Israel go unenforced, as women are pushed into a life of brutality, often raped up to 20 times a day.

To combat this issue, Lauer is working with members of Israel’s Knesset (the government’s legislative branch) to create stronger laws and work harder to get the borders closed to slavers and their “merchandise.” Tighter control of the airports, where women are slipped through any security with false identities, can help curtail some of the supply of these women, as will stronger laws that are better enforced.

In slowing down the import of foreign sex slaves, the demand is still there, and slavers and pimps simply increase their usage of Israeli women. Lauer is frustrated by this and the lack of attention paid to the problem by the public, aware of what is going on with the sex trade but unwilling to “air their dirty laundry” to the country and the world. So, Lauer and ATZUM teamed up with the law firm Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar to try and prosecute the slavers and pimps and help the women who manage to escape their captors. They are also lobbying to bring about the enactment of a law known as the “Nordic law.” This law would decriminalize the sex workers, and instead criminalize those who pay for sexual services. In addition to being allowed to prosecute and punish those who buy these women, as well as those who pay to use them, the law would allow the press to publish the names of the offenders, increasing the shame both upon the offender and his family. ATZUM also organizes Woman to Go, a program designed to draw attention to the crisis, garner petitions to spread awareness, and advocate worldwide for change.

Rabbi Levi Lauer and ATZUM believe in their endeavors to create a better Israel, one that might stand as a model to other countries. Their message is clear: “ATZUM: Addressing Urgent Need in Israel, One Person at a Time.” 

Rabbi Levi Lauer (second from left) with Rabbi David Ellenson, President of HUC-JIR, Irwin Engelman, Chairman of HUC-JIR's Board of Governors, and members of the Joseph family at the Ordination and Investiture Ceremonies at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on Sunday, May 8, 2011, when Levi Lauer was awarded the Roger E. Joseph Prize.

Rabbi Levi Lauer (second from left) with Rabbi David Ellenson, President of HUC-JIR, Irwin Engelman, Chairman of HUC-JIR's Board of Governors, and members of the Joseph family at the Ordination and Investiture Ceremonies at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York on Sunday, May 8, 2011, when Levi Lauer was awarded the Roger E. Joseph Prize.

Rabbi Levi Lauer's acceptance speech at the 2011 ceremony
of the Roger E. Joseph Prize

Rabbi Ellenson, Rabbi Posner, Rabbi Cowan, members of the Roger Joseph Family, soon-to-be-ordained master teachers of Israel,  Rabenu u’morenu b’Yisrael,  dear friends and dear family,

Devarim mehalev nikhnasim el halev- may heartfelt words be taken to heart.

ATZUM—and ATZUM is above all its wonderfully able, tirelessly hard working and devoted staff—is honored to receive the Roger Joseph Prize. We are fully cognizant the committee that awarded the Prize, and all who read the list of previous recipients, know ATZUM has much yet to do to ride the bus with Rosa Parks, or stand at the rail sidings with Raoul Wallenberg. We accept this honor, then, as surely it is intended, as an inspiration for our further efforts to insist Medinat Yisrael be worthy of her very name, the State that would wrestle with God.

We understand you granted us this Prize to fortify our resolve not to desist until the evil of human trafficking is driven from our land, until not one woman is sold into sex slavery on the streets of Tel-Aviv and Yerushalayim. In that struggle, we are privileged to enjoy the partnership of Kabiri-Nevo-Keidar whose attorneys provide unlimited pro bono wisdom and representation before the courts, the Knesset and the enforcement agencies. And we have made a difference—new public consciousness, better regulated borders, far fewer women sold over those borders.

ATZUM acknowledges you want us to persist in our efforts to bring economically deprived children who were severely wounded, and children whose parents were disabled or murdered in a terror attack, the educational resources requisite for a viable, productive future. Our social workers, and many volunteers, have sustained hope for hundreds of these families. With determination and rich imagination, where others saw unbreachable walls of inadequate State budgets or indifference, they built bridges to private funds and public agencies to secure the means to alleviate urgent need. I think of Yael, on her way to university exams, two weeks away from beginning work as a flight attendant. A few blocks from our home, she was nearly mortally wounded and horrifically disfigured in a Jerusalem bus bombing. Long months of hospitalizations and years of countless surgeries. She married a few months ago and today practices law, helped back to life by the skills of plastic surgeons, and by ATZUM’s social worker who saw the person and the soul beneath the burns and scarring, stood with her day and night, refused to allow despair to triumph over hope.  

We know you expect ATZUM not rest until every Righteous Person who saved Jewish lives during the Shoah and came to live in Israel is assured the dignity of their last years—home care, medical assistance, the visits of adoptive grandchildren. We pursue that challenge because a brilliant, young project coordinator, straight from her army service, assumed personal responsibility for every one of those righteous rescuers. She brings volunteers to their apartments; develops curricula for schools to know of their courage; provides for their care in times of extreme illness, and arranges their burials with all the respect due the finest people of our and any time.

By granting ATZUM this Prize, you also now inspire a project to assist Ethiopian high school students. They're often alienated from the culture they inherited. So give a creative and caring staff the means to dream with those kids. They'll open doors to recruit a noted Ethiopian filmmaker who teaches these teenagers to film and document the heroics of their elders, Prisoners of Zion, who suffered imprisonment and brutal torture when their work to organize the emigration of their communities to Israel was revealed by the authorities in Ethiopia and Sudan. Give them a camera and you enlarge their vision of and pride in their origins and their connection to their new homes in Israel.  

It is a great zkhut, an enormous privilege to be able to do this work and to share it with you this morning.

Devarim mehalev—straight from the heart. It’s troubling to hear and read of a growing indifference of Diaspora Jewry to our struggles. It’s particularly disturbing to witness that distancing today, the eve of Yom HaZikaron, Israel Remembrance Day, as we prepare to honor the sacrifice and memory of 22,684 of our sons and daughters. They sought no heroics, but risked and gave everything to secure our safety. In death they breathed life into a two millennia-old vision, to bear the moral burden of power and control of Jewish destiny; to allow us to determine who we really want to become, who we, the Jews of Israel and of the Diaspora, the Jews of Yerushalayim and the Jews of NY need become.

Every Yom HaZikaron I go to Har-Herzl with Anya, my younger daughter, to place a small stone on the graves of soldiers we know personally and on the graves of those unknown but to their Creator. I wonder if next year you can come with us to Har-Herzl. For, if next year we've grown too weary of this decades-long battle to maintain Israel’s well-being, let’s tell those soldiers why we're too discouraged to continue the struggle for a just society. How shall we explain to them why growing numbers are too disaffected to extend hand and heart from NY to T-A? With what turn-of-phrase will we articulate the more important priorities that diminish our dedication to sovereign Jewish independence? But, if on that hallowed ground our words ring hollow, let’s reconsider—and recommit.

We'll have no illusions; we know how grueling it is to try to drain the swamps of Israel’s moral morass, to render the institutions of Jewish Statehood resources of Jewish dignity. Our abuses of power and failures of moral courage are legion. We're in trouble, the mishpoho is hurting, gut auf tzuris, b’tzarot tzurot, and we’re in need of the best hands-on caring we, all of us, can muster.  

Perhaps one day we'll come to times so good, so secure, so morally enlightened, we’ll be able to afford the luxury of not caring, or of merely caring about, but not for the future of the State of Israel—but this eve of Remembrance and Independence is not that time. For all the inevitable divisiveness it entails—really, did you think we'd have State politics less contentious than the average synagogue board meeting—this is not the time for American Jewry to disengage from helping us build an Israel that inspires a compelling vision of what Jewish authority and respect for the other might engender. This is exactly the time to revision and reinvigorate four-thousand year-old prayers and deeds with which we'll renew a people deserving of its children’s and grandchildren’s dedication.

May we be granted the clarity to discern the best and reject the worst of those old-new visions. May we reaffirm the covenant made with the God of Israel, a covenant blessing us with the “difficult freedom” of unparalleled responsibility. May that blessing and its burden sustain our hearts and hands. May it press us to the hard grounds of God-wrestling and state building where we might earn the gifts of peace and well-being --- and in the meantime find strength to make Israel a home sheltering those less able and more vulnerable.

I accept the 2011 Roger E. Joseph Prize humbly and with great pleasure and with gratitude for the friendship, hard work and high intelligence of my friends and co-workers who built and grew ATZUM to what we are today—Sara Wenger, Joe Ratzersdorfer, Ellen Singer, Kayla Zecher, Yael Rosen and Yulia Gofman-Wygoda, Karyn London and Gila Berdichev, Ori Keidar and Avital Rosenberger. They are enormously talented, young (fair enough, they're all young of heart) people who could choose many avenues and venues for their work. They have chosen to make a better Israel, little seen in the headlines, usually ignored in the welter of Middle East politics and wars. ATZUM, all Israel, and I are deeply indebted to them.

I have no words adequate to express my appreciation to Chaya Lauer for sustaining my heart and ATZUM’s work, and for standing unshakably beside me in this endeavor.

Finally, I accept this Prize in loving memory of my dear friend, teacher and moral compass, Rabbi David Forman, zikhrono livrakha, whose first yahrzeit was three days ago and whose thirty-eight years in Israel were daily inspiration for the very best courage and decency Reform, Progressive Judaism can bring to our Land and to its people.

Ani asir toda lakhem—thank you.