The following text is a manifesto that represents the spirit behind a fascinating initiative taking place in Israel, Shmita Yisraelit: putting the radical idea of Shmita on the map of Israel’s civil society. Scores of individuals, as well as 22 different organizations, have signed this declaration, with the intent of promoting initiatives that take their inspiration from the sabbatical vision of the Shmita year.
This unique integrative vision combines strengthening communities and renewing the commons, with combating entrenched poverty and debt release, and promoting local and sustainable food systems, with a strong statement of work-life balance. Spearheaded by Einat Kramer of Teva Ivri, and former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, the organizations that have signed on range in their activities from environmental quality, debt relief, and social justice, to Jewish renewal, student organizations, community groups, and more.
But this is not just a third sector initiative. MK Ruth Kalderon, who heads the Jewish renewal caucus of the Knesset is also promoting legislative initiatives based on the four pillars of shmita values: economy, education, environment and society. Moreover, efforts are being made to coordinate the top-down and the bottom-up. For instance, the Ministry of Welfare is devoting 70 million NIS (about $20 million) to erase or reduce debts (sometimes just erasing the accumulated interest is enough) and working with people in order to permanently get them out of the cycle of poverty. They hope to be able to raise over 5,000 families out of debt.
Likewise, the NGO Paamonim that works on educating people about household management and personal fiscal responsibility, together with Machon Torah Vehaaretz, starting last Shmita has set up a dedicated fund to collect money to offer a 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 model: for severely indebted families that agree to enter the program, they pay a third, the debtor (usually taxes or utilities) forgives a third – and the family pays the remaining third, after a restructuring and an training they undergo.
A person can also do the mitzvah of helping an impoverished person with a loan, and then do an additional mitzvah of donating the debt to the Shmita fund which will erase the debt. From money donations, and debts given and forgiven, they have managed to leverage a few million shekels into over 20 million NIS of debt relief. They too hope to affect some 5,000 families.
There are additional initiatives in other realms as well. The Ministry of the Environment is planning to declare a moratorium on open sea fishing in the Mediterranean, with appropriate compensation for fishermen, to allow fish stocks to regenerate.
The Shmita year is just over six months away, and these ideas are snowballing! And in just a few weeks Siach will be holding a Shmita summit in London, for representatives from North America, Europe and Israel to gather and learn from and with each other about how to make this coming Shmita year, and seven year Shmita cycle, of greater meaning and social impact.
The ancient mandate of Shmita obligates all farmers in the Land of Israel, once every seven years, to leave their fields fallow, relinquish ownership of the produce, let the soil rest, and enable all people (and animals, both wild and domestic) to take part in the land’s blessing. During this year, financial debts are cancelled, and people receive the opportunity to start over in a new period of financial and social freedom.
During Shmita, property assumes less importance, time is less pressured, and nature becomes much more than a resource to be exploited. Shmita presents an alternative to the race of modern life and is characterized by love of the people and Land of Israel, a heightened sense of social responsibility, and a framework for environmental practice. Shmita invites us to renew quality of life in all spheres of reality, through a unique public effort.
- It is a year of social involvement, spiritual and ethical renewal, and deep environmental reflection;
- It is a year of brotherhood and sisterhood, culture, spirit, family, and community;
- It is a gateway in time – once in seven years, a renewal of the covenant between humans and the earth.
It is a year that leaves a distinct impression on the subsequent six years.