President Reuven Rivlin.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MK Ruth Calderon of Yesh Atid together with President Reuven Rivlin launched a shmita project at the President’s Residence on Sunday designed to help families in economic difficulties and battling debt.
During the shmita, or sabbatical year – which by biblical law occurs once every seven years – agricultural land within the biblical borders of Israel must be left fallow and debts are remitted.
Calderon’s shmita project will see household heads undergo a course in financial rehabilitation that will provide them with the tools to manage their family as an economic unit, accurately assess household income and expenditure and increase their sources of income.
The course will help such families clarify their debt situation and make financial plans for the repayment of such debts.
At the end of the process, a debt settlement plan will be put in place for participating families, including partial debt relief with the consent of creditors.
Some 1,500 families have already begun the program, and the project organizers aim to enroll 5,000 through the course of the initiative.
Household debt has increased in Israel by 55 percent since the global financial crisis of 2008, and stood at NIS 425 billion in August this year, according to Bank of Israel statistics.
It has, however, increased only marginally as a share of GDP – to approximately 39 percent as of 2013 – and is significantly lower by this measure than in the euro zone, the UK, US and Canada.
Addressing an audience of social activists, rabbis and finance professionals, Rivlin praised Calderon for her initiative, which he said is restoring the relevance of the economic principles of the shmita year to Israel society.
“We must share joint responsibility for the world and for the society we live in,” the president said. “Mutual responsibility was the glue that held the Jewish people together in exile, and this glue was later found to be incredibly strong when the State of Israel was founded and the land built up.”
Rivlin said the financial management courses for the household heads are an important step in reducing household debt, which has grown “at a worrying rate” in recent years, but that other steps must be taken to prevent the problem from getting worse.
“The motivation for banks and other lending organizations to lend money must be restrained to a certain extent,” he said, and called for considering the establishment of credit associations, such as cooperative banks and similar institutions, “that would give expression to the values of mutual responsibility and trust in the credit system itself.”
Calderon, an author and lecturer in Talmudic studies who established the Alma – Home for Hebrew Culture organization to increase secular Israelis’ exposure to Hebrew culture, said the project is based on one of the biblical aspects of the sabbatical year – namely, that debts between Jewish creditors and debtors be annulled.
“While the global market commands us to control, to conquer and to expand, the seventh year commands us to loosen and release our control,” the MK said.
“The commandment of shmita, especially that of remitting debt, is supposed to teach us that there is a middle path, that it is possible to recognize market forces... while not giving up on the concepts of justice and humility, not leaving behind compassion and the ability of seeing the other as a human being.”
The lawmaker noted that the public debate surrounding, and practical observance of, the shmita year has largely been confined to the agricultural restrictions imposed during the sabbatical and the subsequent restrictions on what produce can be consumed.
“This project is the practical implementation of the values of the Jewish sabbatical year, and its purpose is to benefit families that have encountered debt, while at the same time actualizing the biblical Jewish values in a contemporary and groundbreaking way,” Calderon said.
“This project demonstrates that a serious and committed attitude to Jewish culture can help us progress toward a unified society,” she said.