MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) believes that the biblical concept of a sabbatical year for the land, or shmita, can be perfectly adapted to modern Israeli society. To this end, she has initiated what she calls “The Sabbatical Year Shmita Project.”
“In some ways it’s ancient and in other ways it’s very revolutionary,” she tells The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview in English for Succot. “It’s my aim to make shmita relevant to Jews in Israel and throughout the world, even if they’re not religious.”
The Shmita Project is a program designed to help 5,000 families extricate themselves from the poverty cycle by providing them with economic guidance and financial assistance. Backed by the Knesset, the government and the business sector, the project is led by non-profit and philanthropic organizations.
“I’m very enthusiastic about this Shmita Project, and I’m so happy that so many banks and firms, cellphone companies, the Israel Electric Corporation and the Amidar housing company are part of our coalition, led by Pa’amonim and other NGOs,” she said.
The program will be officially launched at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem at a ceremony at the end of October, and a website is being designed for those who want to participate, help or donate.
How does it actually work? “It’s a program in which we are inviting these 5,000 families in deep debt to go through a process of economic rehabilitation,” Calderon explains. “The families start working with the nonprofits, they have a coach and a program in which they learn how to balance their budget. Once they come to a point where they earn more than they spend, we go with them to the companies to which they owe money and reach a debt settlement agreement. The companies then write off anything from a third to the whole debt, the family takes responsibility by paying a third, and we pay the difference.”
Underlying the project is the belief that the sabbatical year is an opportunity to renew the age-old concept of shmita in a way that will reflect the modern Jewish state’s values of democracy, equality and compassion.
It is also, according to Calderon, a chance to bring together religious and secular, as well as Jews in Israel and abroad.
“Jews in the Diaspora can do the mitzva by donating to the Shmita Project, which is both an agricultural shmita [Sabbatical] and a shmita [wiping out] of debts,” she says. “In the Bible, it says that the settling of debts is only at the end of the agricultural shmita period, which means next September.”
On a philosophical level, Calderon says, “it’s a combination of the radical notion of shmita written in the Bible and our values of solidarity, responsibility and trying to bring into the economic market some feeling of trust.”
She quotes Prof. Eugene Kandel, who heads the National Economic Council at the Prime Minister’s Office and is helping her with the project, as saying: “It’s important for Israel because trust is the basis of a healthy economy.”
“In Israel today, there’s a lack of trust,” she explains. “This Shmita Project is something that we are doing together – the government, the business world and the non-profit sector, and it’s a very rare project because we’re all working together and those who are leading it are Pa’amonim and other non-profit organizations.”
She acknowledges that it may seem like “a drop in the ocean” when it comes to breaking the cycle of poverty, conceding that this is the job of the government and the Welfare Ministry.
“The size of this project is not big enough to change this whole country, but for these 5,000 families who are in debt and don’t have credit, or a phone or a television, it will be a big breakthrough back to normal life.
I believe it is a project that will show Israeli communities and Jewish communities throughout the world how this could be done on a much bigger scale.”
Asked what her ultimate goal is, Calderon said: “I have a few aims. One is to make the concept of shmita relevant to the people of today, because I feel very sad when amazing ideas like this in Jewish tradition get lost, and it’s only meaningful to the rabbinate or very Orthodox people, and even then it’s done in ways that are not appetizing for all Jews.
“In this way, we understand what Shabbat is. It’s all connected – Shabbat, shmita and yovel (Jubilee). The whole idealist and economic system of the Bible tries to teach us every seven days on Shabbat and every seven years on shmita and every 49 years on yovel to let go, to chase less after materialistic things and not run all the time, and be more quiet and more with the family and to close the cellphone. The project is also trying to introduce this idea that at the same time is so ancient and so up-to-date to both Israeli Jews and Jews of the Diaspora.”
Calderon has already done a tour of Australia and spoken to British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis about the idea, and she plans to speak about the project when she celebrates Succot in New York.
“I want this project to be something that unites us with Jews in the Diaspora,” she says. “I don’t see how Judaism today can ignore economic injustice. It’s just not Jewish, as I understand it.”
How is the project connected to Succot? “I think the succa is a very good metaphor,” Calderon says. “I think we all live in closed houses. We don’t know each other and have drifted apart. I think the succa is a symbol of coming out of your comfort zone to an outside place where there are many guests, and I think the main issue we are facing is that we are losing each other in the Jewish people.
“And davka now, when we have a Jewish state and the Internet, when we have more tools to connect, I am afraid that the Jewish state does not always give Jews in the Diaspora the respect they deserve, and the open hand to say, ‘We are one. We appreciate and respect the way your different communities live and understand conversion and kashrut and all that, and we must stay together.’” Calderon says this is not just an empty slogan. In 1996, she founded ALMA, the Home for Hebrew Culture, which serves as a cultural studies center for Jewish texts.
“I initiated ALMA and worked in New York for a few years, and there I learned that the Israeli concept of Hebrew culture is extremely relevant to the Israelis who live in the Diaspora, who are a huge group, to American Jews who are not affiliated and do not have a connection to the community, and also to the ones who are affiliated [with a synagogue], while their other needs of affiliation with the Jewish people and being connected with the State of Israel leave a lot to be desired.”
How does Calderon see her role today? “I see myself as a voice in the Knesset for Jews in the Diaspora. When the government does something to the Turkish government or the Turkish ambassador, I think about the Turkish Jewish community. And when liberal or pluralistic Judaism is not respected here, I think about communities in America, and how we want them to go on not just supporting us, but feeling that we are one even if we don’t see them. I try to – whenever I have a chance – to voice that and find ways in which any Jew who lives anywhere in the world will feel that he or she has a share in this project called Israel.”
Asked for her response to rising anti-Semitism against Jews around the globe and especially in Europe, Calderon answers: “First of all, I feel that they are on a kind of frontier, and I appreciate every one of them that stands up as Jewish. I understand that it’s very difficult today in France or England or anywhere to be a Zionist or a Jew or a Zionist Jew. My message to them is that we are doing our best to be a good home for them too, and I don’t mean home as a refuge.
“I mean a home as a place that even if you live far away, you can be proud of it. That is the reason I came into politics, to bring more power to the Zionist project.
The first generation made the country possible, but now it’s our job to make it meaningful, to make it moral, and to reconnect.
People left their homes in New York and elsewhere to come to Israel, but now that Israel is already in place, it’s a job of reconnecting to people abroad, and not being judgmental about living outside of Israel.”
Calderon was born in 1961 in Tel Aviv, where she still lives, to a mother from Germany and a father from Bulgaria. She earned MA and Ph.D. degrees in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in 1989 established Israel’s first egalitarian Beit Midrash for women and men.
She joined Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party in 2012, and became an MK in the 2013 election when the party won a whopping 19 seats (she was in the 13th slot.) Her maiden speech in the Knesset, in which she issued a passionate plea for mutual understanding and respect, was well received in Israel and around the world, going viral on YouTube. She is divorced with three children.
Asked if she is optimistic about Israel’s future, Calderon laughs.
“I must be optimistic on this issue as I’m raising children here, and my son is in a few years going to be of army age and I hope that by then we will have a beautiful peace treaty so that he will do civil service and not army service,” she says. “But to be less romantic and more realistic, we in Yesh Atid are doing everything we can to come back to the table of negotiations.
“We do live in a very challenging neighborhood and what we see around us is crazy extremism in the Muslim world, things we haven’t seen before, in ISIS [Islamic State] and even Hamas. We didn’t expect such things in the modern world; we thought we’re going to a more and more positive world, and it is very, very frightening.
“So on the one hand, I believe in going on with the peace process, but what we believe in is to sit together, not just us and the Palestinians, but together with the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia and of course Egypt and maybe Turkey, and any power in the region that is willing to try to finally find a solution and begin to enjoy the new Middle East, which could be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I still support the two-state solution, mostly because if we talk about one state, we won’t have a majority of Jews in the land, and I want us to be a Jewish state. We can only be a Jewish state if we have a majority of Jews.
“I’m genetically optimistic, [I take] after my mother, and that’s why I went into politics. I had a very comfortable life but I believe that it is an amazing honor and privilege to be living in this generation, and I think our fathers and grandfathers have done the impossible, and now we only need to do the possible. So yes, I am optimistic. And also my birthday is on the eve of Succot, so how can I not be optimistic?”