The next chapter in the social change movement – Israeli Shmita

Recently, I gave birth to my fourth child. He was an easy baby, and I found myself experiencing my maternity leave as a kind of “sabbatical.”  The months of free time, combined with the distance from the working world, enabled me to take a good look at some of the transformations which have taken place in Israeli society of late, and my place within them.

But before I jump into that, a bit of background about what I usually do with my time….

Seven years ago, in an attempt to bring together my far-flung interests and worlds, I established Teva Ivri – an NGO that promotes a concept of Jewish Sustainability based upon local culture. From the beginning, Teva Ivri sought to cut across the spectrum of Israeli society, reaching out both to Israelis who have historically not identified with the environmental movement (the religious sector in Israel), as well as to Israelis who typically shy away from anything that hints at religion. I believe that environmentalism in Israel can reflect both a Judaism that is relevant and an environmentalism that is uniquely Jewish.

Seven years ago, this was not a popular idea. Maybe Jewish Environmentalism seems obvious to Jews from North America, where it has been “in” for many years, but Israelis have their own particular set of hang-ups around anything remotely connected to religion. Yet the time and distance made possible by maternity leave has helped me to see that this has begun to change; Israeli society is not where I once thought it was.

Back then, I was viewed (by my modern orthodox family and my hippie friends alike) as a crazy evangelical tree-hugger. Jewish environmentalism was a sub-niche of the environmental movement, which was already considered the fringe of Israeli activism.

Yet all of a sudden, the fringe has made its way into the status quo. The social justice protests of the summer of 2011 heralded a growing (and, some would say, unusually mainstream) openness to questioning the social order, economic system, and political power structure in Israel. In this new reality, it is par for the course to hear ordinary Israelis discussing complex social and environmental issues. Even better, many are even beginning to talk about why it is a “Jewish thing” to work for change.

This is an amazing achievement. However, even if we could say “mission accomplished” on a certain stage in Israel’s societal evolution, it seemed clear to me that we are ready to take the conversation one step further. So, with the clock ticking toward the end of my official rest period, I began to look around for ideas about where to take the Jewish social-environmental movement next – something that would serve as both catalyst and medium for deepening and expanding the scope of social change in Israel.

Going through my files, I came across a paper entitled “Sustainable Growth – a Jewish-Israeli Approach.” Together with an inspiring group of Israeli environmentalists, educators, and thinkers, I had co-written it in 2012 to add a “Jewish flavor” to the Israeli delegation to the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil. The focus of the summit was sustainable economic development, and one of the key ideas we introduced there was the observance of Shmita.

The Jewish tradition of Shmita obligates every farmer in the Land of Israel, once every seven years, to leave his fields fallow, relinquish ownership of the fruit, let the soil rest, and enable all people (and animals) to take part in the land’s abundance. During this year, financial debts are cancelled, and people receive the opportunity to start a new period of financial freedom. The Shmita year calls for a collective break from the race of life – an entire year to focus on community, culture, and spirit.

The 5775 Shmita year, which begins this coming September, is timed perfectly to be just the sort of catalyst and medium Israeli society needs right now.

The Torah relates to Shmita primarily in the context of an agricultural society. But a contemporary approach understands Shmita as a lens through which to address pressing issues in the realms of education, social equity, culture, industry, and more.

Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern voiced this idea years ago, during the last Shmita:

“In our current privatized, globalized, stratified Israel, Shmita is a vital exhortation. We have, in our national repertoire, a remedy for the rehabilitation of our disintegrating social solidarity. In this sense, Shmita is a component of our national vitality. It is hard not to be deeply impressed by the profundity of the idea that moves cautiously between the desire to preserve private property, and the desire not to see in property the totality of everything. Shmita is a call to set apart a bubble in time, which slows economic activity down, and which fosters care, compassion and even partnership between all those who share the earth, including animals. The race will resume in the eighth year, because humanity needs it, but the idea and its memory will linger on beyond the confines of the sabbatical year, to the other six years of feverish productivity.”

Clearly, the above-described ideal has not yet caught on in the modern State of Israel. 

Instead, Shmita has become mired in legal, political, and economic issues that obscure its historical and ethical origins. For most Israelis, the topic of Shmita has been relegated either to the kitchen (kashrut observers must choose between a complex set of Shmita standards) or the garden (when am I allowed to cut the grass?!). The fierce debates around these issues not only exacerbate tensions between the secular and religious communities, but also detract from the underlying significance of Shmita.

It is time that we transcend these conflicts, and return Shmita to its rightful place in Jewish life – as a once-in-seven-years chance for reflection and rejuvenation in all sectors of society.

As a first step toward making this happen, I contacted the many people who tried to launch social-environmental-economic initiatives during the last Shmita year, and asked them what happened. Aside from the sense that Israeli society just wasn’t ready, the main problem was lack of preparation and limited resources (time and money). Also, most projects started too late, when Shmita was already underway.

It was clear from the get-go that actualizing a more meaningful Shmita would take careful groundwork. Like all successful (and sustainable) social revolutions, it would require connecting often disparate people, sectors, and ideas.

So, over the course of the past several months, with the enthusiastic support of former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior (Teva Ivri’s president), I knocked on the doors of hundreds of NGOs, educational institutions, and government offices to tell them about the formation of an exciting new platform for collaboration – the Israeli Shmita Initiative. And, to my great surprise, nobody slammed the door in my face!  Everyone just wanted to know how to sign up. First we formed focus groups. Then a conference.  Then another conference – this time in the Knesset, where MK Ruth Kalderon (of Yesh Atid) and three government ministries declared their intention to join the initiative.

Shmita is turning out to be a remarkable source of inspiration, impetus for change, and medium for unprecedented cooperation. Government offices and influential NGOs are working together through the Initiative to create several groundbreaking (one might even say “radical”) programs, including a Shmita year economic recovery program, in which debt forgiveness is the first step on the road to financial rehabilitation for Israeli families in severe need.

In the pages of this blog, I hope to share some of what is going on behind the scenes, and to invite you, the reader to hop on board and create your own scene. Together, each person in his/her own way, we can experience a more meaningful Shmita year that will infuse new energy and the potential for change into the six years to follow.

About the Author
Einat Kramer is the founder and director of Teva Ivri, a non-profit organization promoting Jewish social-environmental action in Israel. She is also the coordinator of the Israeli Shmita Initiative, a nationwide coalition that seeks to restore the meaning of the Shmita year as a time of personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel. She lives in the mixed community of Eshchar with her husband and four children.