Connecting Shmita and Philanthropy

You may not have realized the Jewish world is in the midst of a Shmita year.

Then again, you may never have heard of Shmita, which is observed almost exclusively in Israel.

However, its underlying values can offer Jewish funders everywhere valuable insights into ensuring an equitable and healthy society. We’re exploring how that can happen in a JFN webinar series with Nigel Savage of Hazon, which continues Nov. 13.

Shmita is literally translated as the “Year of Release.” More commonly, it’s known as the sabbatical year, a tradition rooted in the Torah that requires a rest period for the land every seven years. Fields are left to fallow; what does grow is left to animals and the poor to eat. Also, all debts are forgiven.

In the Torah, Shmita applies only to Israel. However, Savage said in the first webinar last month that we’re in the early stages of “taking off of the shelf of Jewish tradition something that has been nominally part of Jewish tradition for 2,000 years, which in practice has not been seriously thought about, particularly outside Israel, for either a very long time or ever.”

Savage, whose group works to create healthy and sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond, said Shmita provides entry points for modern-day funders even if it is rooted in the book of Deuteronomy. “What if we decided in the seventh year in the funding cycle to give more to people in need, whether it’s in Israel or elsewhere?” he said.

While there have been some creative and sometimes controversial workarounds for Israeli farmers determined to observe Shmita, Savage acknowledges the debt forgiveness aspect is a tougher one to embrace. However, he said Shmita serves as an antecedent for a new program in Israel to help financially distressed families get on track.

Under the Shmita Fund, up to 5,000 families in debt will have their loans restructured by banks and creditors. They will also work with counselors who will teach the families how to better manage their finances. If the family repays one-third of what they owe, their bank will write off one-third. Philanthropists—in Israel and abroad—will pay off the remaining one-third.

“For people abroad, it is their chance to do a mitzvah, even though they don’t have land in Israel, and Shmita is usually connected to land,” Ruth Calderon, a Knesset member who championed the fund, told the Jewish Journal.

From Savage’s vantage point, there are other ways philanthropists outside Israel can use Shmita to open up some funding possibilities.

“It would be very fascinating to have a group of funders start to think about day school affordability through the prism of Shmita,” Savage said. “What would it take to encourage families and institutions who can afford it to pay” more than the tuition fee and create an endowment to subsidize a school and enable more students from needy families to attend at low or no cost?

Savage urged foundations to use the Shmita cycle to reflect on how they want the Jewish world to look during the next cycle. It was a message that resonated with James Cummings of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. “These texts are not exactly telling us what to do, they’re just opening up a place to have a great conversation.”