The girl was about 13 and a victim of human sex trafficking. On the border between Thailand and Burma, she asked Robert Beiser if there was anywhere in the world she could be safe. “It was sad because I didn’t want to lie to her and I told her there are places like this even where I’m from,” says Beiser, a Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize recipient. “I was heartbroken. Right then and there, I determined to do everything I could to change that reality.”
Soon after, Beiser took another step as an activist in pursuit of social justice by becoming the director of Seattle Against Slavery (SAS). Since 2012, he has lead the organization in raising community and political awareness of human trafficking, working to erase an underworld often ignored with great human and societal costs.
Beiser is traveling a trajectory that took him from what he described as unfulfilling work in the high-tech industry to the front lines of the social good movement, motivated not only by the people and needs that he encounters, but also by Jewish teachings that make it imperative to do so.
“I would read Haftorah and realize that we as Jews have an obligation to break the chains of the oppressed, clothe the naked and feed the hungry,” he said in an interview in his SAS office. “So this is the work that I am supposed to do and have to do as passionately and successfully as I can.”
Along the way, Beiser has become a symbol of how discomfort with human suffering can ripple through a life, molding a leader and a teacher to others equally moved toward action and impact.
In 2011, Beiser was awarded the Pomegranate Prize. At the time, he was serving as director of Campus/JConnect Repair the World at Hillel at the University of Washington, a volunteer, advocacy and educational program involving hundreds of young adults in social action initiatives in Seattle, nationally and globally.
During his six years there, he increased participation threefold, and enhanced and established programs making a difference in the lives of volunteers and beneficiaries. He brought the Teen Feed program to Hillel, delivering more than 1,500 hot meals to homeless youth in its first year alone; piloted and led service learning programs to Ethiopia, Thailand, Nicaragua and Guatemala; and oversaw a campus-wide Hunger Banquet, designed to illuminate economic disparity among social classes in a tangible way.
Hillel members during Beiser’s time there describe him as a self-effacing leader and teacher dedicated to meeting needs head on, equipping participants for success, and instilling in them a lifelong dedication to social action.
“Robert is a leader and teacher not because he wants to be seen or wants to be heard. He is a leader and teacher because he is committed to an outcome, and that empowers everyone around him,” says former University of Washington student Helen Bennett, who worked with Beiser on hunger issues, rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina, and other projects.
“He pushed us and supported us and encouraged us to be leaders in our own right,” she adds. Bennett also credits Beiser as a teacher and role model for her work now as an organizer at Boston’s Moishe Kavot House, a community of young adults committed to social justice and tikkun olam.
Beiser was leading a Hillel service project to Thailand – in partnership with American Jewish World Service – and was focused on agricultural and economic development projects there when he met the young victim of human trafficking.
The unexpected encounter led him nearly full circle back to a JConnect project – undertaken a few years earlier with a coalition of other organizations – resulting in a Seattle law forbidding purchase of police uniforms produced overseas with forced labor.
His successes at SAS are numerous, and include a trafficking awareness campaign in partnership with government and other advocacy groups; a multi-language outreach campaign to trafficking victims; and the launch of Freedom Shabbat, a social justice campaign that asks Jewish communities to remember modern-day slavery during Passover celebrations.
“In the realm of human trafficking, there has been so much that hasn’t happened, so there is a lot that can be done in a short amount of time,” Beiser says. “It’s usually the last five or ten percent that is the hardest.”
Citing his selection as one of the first Pomegranate Prize recipients, he adds that the network of Jewish educators and leaders that he has formed as a result, have helped him “learn from their successes,” especially in the effective use of technology. The Prize also allowed him to earn a Master of Public Administration in Non-Profit Management and Policy.
Those observing him connect his Jewish values to his drive for impact.
“His Jewish values have clearly propelled him to the place where he is now, and the entire community, the entire cause benefits from his passionate leadership,” says Lacie Braun, former executive director and now board president at SAS.
“He brings people together, asks the right questions, and listens and processes very well. This can’t be taught. It is who he is as a values-driven person seeking to right the world.”
Ironically, until Beiser was awarded the Pomegranate Prize, he never viewed himself as a Jewish educator in the more strict and traditional use of the label. But he has come to believe that in leading others in the pursuit of tikkun olam, it is an apt description.
“I’ve always thought of myself foremost as an organizer and an advocate, speaking on behalf of others who simply couldn’t themselves,” he says.
“But in making others aware, moving people to action and giving support, giving them the tools to make social impact – that is education. And I see it as the heart of being Jewish.”