New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has made a name for himself by visiting and writing about some of the world's worst places. But though he spends most of his time reporting on genocides, famines, warlords and more — and has won a pair of Pulitzer Prizes in the process — Kristof took a slight detour this week to study some Torah.
Sitting at a table with about 30 Jewish students at the University of Pennsylvania, Kristof — who is not Jewish — related his own experiences of reporting harrowing stories of human trafficking as he, the students and Penn Hillel Rabbi Mordy Friedman referred to Jewish texts on the topic.
As the veteran journalist recalled his reporting on sex trafficking throughout Asia, the students provided their perspectives, comparing Talmud and Mishnah passages to certain moments in recent history.
Kristof's visit to Penn — his second in just over a year — was coordinated by Moral Voices, a yearlong program sponsored by Penn Hillel and funded by the Heyman-Merrin Family Foundation, an outlet for philanthrophy done through a Jewish lens.
Students participating in Moral Voices choose a single social action issue to focus on throughout the academic year. This is the program's first appearance at Penn, where the topic is human trafficking, which Kristof also addressed in a public lecture later that evening in Zellerbach Hall on campus. (Moral Voices had its debut three years ago at Tufts University near Boston.)
As students in the text-study session discussed Midrash about the story of Hannah — who refused to spend her wedding night in the bed of her governor and stood up for herself by tearing off her clothes in a public protest — Kristof told them that the story served as an "interesting counterpoint to Liberia, where the revolt was somewhat led by women."
He pointed out to the students that, in many cases, sexual oppression is not as much about sex itself as it is about breaking a community, and that its methodology is much the same today as it was in the days of the texts being studied.
Action and Responsibility
For Penn freshman Moshe Bitterman, 19, the face-to-face interaction with the columnist was all about "really emphasizing our responsibility for action" in the face of such horrors. He added that since Kristof's appearance, he's already begun looking around for volunteer opportunities for this summer, possibly in India.
Kristof also spoke at a dinner that drew about 100 Jewish and non-Jewish student leaders to the Hillel facility.
He said that while his generation and the one before were good at raising awareness, today's activists — including the students he spent the day with — have been able to turn their passion into concrete results rather than just symbolic actions.
He exhorted students to use travel as a way to broaden their horizons and contribute to social justice. He encouraged them to get beyond their personal comfort levels and head for "the kind of place that makes your parents say, 'Uh … are you sure you want to do that?' That's what you want to aim for."