What have we achieved so far?

published on: 24-01-2015

We continue to spread the word, through our website and publications, and we are in demand around the clock as spokespersons for authoritative information on Shmita and its application in society today.   We have provided numerous quotes, interviews and articles for TV and radio, and the printed and online press, some of which are available on our English-language website.

But the exciting work is that we have been organizing, facilitating and supporting numerous grassroots activities whose common thread is that they give everyone the news that Shmita is not solely an issue of religious observance, but informs social/environmental values, and may be harnessed for the good of society and to bring dreams to life!   And, as you may know, because we believe that by partnering with others we can achieve so much more than any of us can individually, there have been – and are planned – numerous exciting happenings that have come about as a result of ideas originating, nurtured and hot-housed within the many forums of The Israeli Shmita Initiative.   Here we give you a flavor of the diversity of these various activities and events.

Hot on the heels of the success of our huge Shmita Conference in December 2013, which established our coalition with the coming together of so many diverse organizations to sign the Israeli Shmita Declaration, led by Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau, we convened ten topical working groups which became well-established and busy during 2014, planning and implementing projects.   The working groups each focused on particular topics, such as Israel in Shmita, the diaspora in Shmita, social justice in Shmita and the environment in Shmita. 

There followed a whole series of conferences in the months leading up to the start of the Shmita year.   Some highlights included a conference we held with the Ministry of Education, impacting how Shmita was presented in schools, and a conference with religious with secular kibbutzim and moshavim.

But it wasn’t just about conferences – though fascinating in and of themselves, these served, together with the work of our working groups, as the launching pad for the real activities for everyone; it is no exaggeration to say that our conferences have led to real action and change!

One project we facilitated, which was initiated by the Environment in Shmita working group, brought the environment to the attention of the religious community through the topic of composting during the Shmita year.   In the past, composting has been abandoned due to lack of knowledge and uncertainty around what was perceived as a complex halachic issue.   The group, convinced that the issue could be tackled head-on and rendered in simple-to-follow terms, approached rabbis across a spectrum of orthodoxy and obtained an agreed halachic approach which would easily allow for the continuation of composting during Shmita, and used this even as a springboard to start new groups composting for the first time as a Shmita-related environmental activity.   This was achieved by taking the rabbinical opinion to the Minister of Environment, who arranged for a letter on the issue, promoting and explaining how composting could be achieved during the Shmita year, to be sent to all municipalities.   This led to spin-off events and conferences at a local level, making composting not only acceptable halachically during Shmita, but “cool!”

Ruth Calderon, member of the Knesset and chairwoman of the Lobby for Jewish Renewal, made an important contribution to our efforts at making the release from debts mandated in the laws of Shmita a reality this year.   We convened a network of organizations which coach people in financial and budgeting difficulties and, with Ruth’s influence, we accessed senior managers in the Israeli financial industry, who formed a committee with us to look at releasing people from debt in the Shmita year.  We took a two-pronged approach.   First, our network of debt-counseling organizations helped people to increase their monthly incomes and reduce their outgoings, and establish a new track record of proper budgeting.   At the same time, Ruth raised money for a Shnat Hashmita Fund which she established.    The Shnat Hashmita Fund paid off a part of the debts of people who showed, after debt counseling, that they had started budgeting properly, and the banks and financial institutions, for their part, agreed to write off their remaining debts.   In this way some 2,000 people have been released from debt in the Shmita year.   But more than that, we have anecdotal evidence from people who have come to us with their stories that the process of learning about Shmita has influenced positively the banks’ wider behavior towards its customers who find themselves in debt, even where they have not been a part of the Shnat Hashmita scheme.

Shmita has traditionally been associated with the agrarian society in which it was established, but even though its mitzvot mainly relate to the field, there is nothing to stop us taking its underlying message and applying it in new ways which benefit individuals and society.  Thus Rav Rimon’s idea for the Hour of Shmita project posited that since most people’s income arises today not from agriculture but from their time and skills, this is what they should give free during the Shmita year.   A circle of religious and secular community leaders convened to learn about and develop the idea and a very wide range of individual projects and initiatives sprung from this.   For instance, a synagogue introduced the idea that seats be rented with hours of volunteering rather than money; a kibbutz reinvigorated its voluntary spirit by setting up a number of attractive and ultimately successful volunteer committees.

All ages and groups in society have been involved in Shmita projects, and the Academic working group we facilitated looked at how to implement Shmita in the universities.  One scheme involved students who excelled in their subjects giving up an hour a week to engage in chavruta, mentoring their fellow students.    Another example was the planning of a conference at the law school of Sha'arei Mishpat Academic College, looking at how initiatives inspired by Shmita can be legally implemented, for instance allowing workers a sabbatical year once in seven years in return for a later retirement age.

The commercial world is often seen as being blinded by the profit motive, but this stereotype has been broken by the many ideas based on Shmita which have been developed through our facilitation with the business world.   One such example we already mentioned, concerning the relief of debt by the banks.  Another example of originated with our Business working group which publicized a list of 49 things technology firms might try to fulfill the Shmita spirit. Examples included the donation of patents not part of a company’s core business, a year without exorbitant bonuses with the money being diverted to social causes, limits on working hours and firm policies on emails not being answered in private time outside working hours.  Inspired by these ideas, Yossi Tzuria arranged for Cisco employees to be given half a day off a week to attend university and learn about developments in hi-tech during the last seven years.   

And of course our Shmita Tent has been travelling the length and breadth of Israel, to diverse events and communities, meeting everyone from grassroots to policy level, hearing, learning, discussing and planning as well as inspiring and being inspired, tempting members of the public in with its unique, warm, communal atmosphere, getting people engaged with Shmita who never thought it meant anything for them.

Partly in order to measure the outcomes we have facilitated, we held a contest, Dreams of Shmita, in which sixty-four projects were submitted to us.   Of these, forty-nine were chosen to take forward and six were awarded a “prize” of assistance from us in the form of practical help and modest funding assistance.   Examples of these 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.

These are just some of the many ways in which we enlarged and strengthened the coalition of our partners, enabling them to carry out a wide variety of events for a broad range of audiences, bringing huge swathes of Israelis a greater understanding of the potential of Shmita as a positive influence in their lives and on society.