Often we work towards a goal, and along the way identify a point we build to that seems to be a climax: the start of the Shmita year represented something of a climax for us at the Israeli Shmita Initiative, after months of hard work preparing for it. But of course it was merely the beginning, a milestone or waymarker and, as we continue our climb, we never reach the summit! Each is a step on an ongoing journey. Tu B’Shevat, which has just passed, was certainly a landmark – if not a peak – of our Shmita year. Because it is all about nature, the day has in recent times become a popular springboard for Jewish socio-environmental action, what I like to call our “Jewish Earth Day.” It is a wonderful time to reinforce the connection between humans and nature that is inherent in Judaism: as the Torah has it, “Man is a tree of the field.”
So we give great focus to Tu B’Shevat, and this year we produced a special seder for the Shmita year with the co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development and Ministry of Religious Services, producing some 20,000 copies which were provided to schools, synagogues and communities and anyone else who we could reach! We were a central point of contact for so many people wanting to run communal seders, or to find out where they could attend one; over three hundred were held from Yerucham in the south to Shlomi in the north.
But we are all about personal interaction with people, so just before Tu B’Shevat we took our now-famous Shmita Tent to Jerusalem and set up store at the the First Station, the hip former Jerusalem Railway Station. We had a great few days and met so many people: young and old, environmental activists, religious, secular – you name it, we met them and talked with them and listened to their ideas and shared what Shmita and Tu B’Shevat mean and can be in modern Israeli society. And we had the good fortune to be able to spread our message of social and environmental Judaism.
On Tu B’Shevat we were pleased to give out the prizes in our Dreams of Shmita contest, in which sixty-four projects were submitted to us. Of these, forty-nine had been chosen to go forward forward and six were awarded a “prize” of assistance from us in the form of practical help and modest funding assistance. Examples of the winning projects include a community garden planned and arranged during the Shmita year (but to be built and planted after the year ends), a community house built by a group of students at Har Hazofim, and a grassroots project between Jewish and Arab women in the Gilboa region to promote peace through learning and keeping alive traditional crafts.
Our Shmita Tent has become vital to who we are and what we do, not just at Tu B’Shevat. For one thing it is the place where we really impact people, perhaps those who never knew about Shmita, or never intended to learn about it: the passers-by who are tempted to come and see what is going on when we pitch our tent! Travelling the length and breadth of Israel throughout the Shmita year, to diverse events and communities, the tent has been a magnet for members of the public with its unique, warm, communal atmosphere. Whether there happens to be something organised going on in the tent, or it is a quiet period between events, people who come into our tent find themselves enveloped in an atmosphere of informal learning and endless possibilities as they pick up books and leaflets and chat interact with the people they find there. People have told us how our tent enabled them to realise, for the first time, the potential of the Shmita idea to benefit themselves and society in ways beyond the agricultural origin of the mitzva. That makes us proud.
But as a democratic space of equality and possibility, where boundaries between teacher and learner are in constant flux, the tent has changed us too! Every place we went with the tent has had a connection to a particular aspect of Shmita – sometimes by design, and sometimes emerging unexpectedly. We ourselves have learned how the ideas of Shmita extend, almost without limit, potentially influencing positively societal values such as unity, local culture and environment. Although we always knew that Shmita was a great concept, we have been surprised to find out it was even bigger than we realised!
Onwards and upwards!