Shmita summit: Our year of living car-lessly

In reflection, I realized that the whole rather awkward conversation had a lot to do with my misguided notion of car-ness

London 521 (photo credit: Wikimedia)
London 521
(photo credit: Wikimedia)
The talk at the UK Limmud Conference this year was all about the impending shmita year. Well, this is not entirely true, the talk really seemed to be about which Star Trek species was most Jewish. But in the margins there was a palpable energy. Shmita is coming with the New Year, and it can be so much more than ceremoniously selling the field to the local Arabs.
There’s the freeing of slaves for starters, which raises the big questions about my £4 shirt at Primark (can anyone live anywhere in this world, on whatever meager cut they receive for stitching a £4 shirt?), and there’s the opening of the fields so that all who are hungry can eat, and there’s fallowing, and ecology, and time off, etc. And yet, upon returning to London, shmita began to lose its shine. What could I do for shmita? With our balding patch of grass for a field, a scraggly plot of potatoes for a crop, and no real slaves to speak of, all the passion of the Sabbatical year felt inaccessible, either too big to tackle or too Israeli for the Diaspora.
Undaunted, I called up a friend who works at DECC (the Department of Ecology and Climate Change) and asked outright: “What is the single most detrimental effect an urban family like mine has on the environment?” “Driving,” he said. “Stop driving.”
And that is why my wife and I have decided to spend the shmita year without a car. But just as every Friday afternoon is devoted to Shabbat prep, we have already been test-driving the no-car-in-the-family policy for a couple of months, to work out the kinks and prepare ourselves mentally for taking four kids on those rail-replacement buses. And for all you readers who may contemplate a car-less year, here’s what we’ve learned thus far: Use the gradual approach with the neighbors. The problem with living without a car is Sundays; the children’s school is down the road, I commute, and my wife works from home, Shabbat is car-free already. Sunday become the real bane of the week.
So, just after we hatched our scheme, I traipsed over to our neighbors, a kind elderly couple. “Hello,” I began, “we are trying to live without a car for the shmita year, and I could not help but notice that your car is always in the drive on Sunday morning precisely when we are most in need of a vehicle. Perhaps we could strike a reciprocal agreement to share your car on Sundays?” The pair stood on the threshold, gaping at me in what I can only describe as horror.
“Share our car” said the man? “Yes, just on Sundays.”
“With you and your family?” chimed in the women.
“Yes, on Sundays.”
“That,” concluded the man, “would be indecent.”
And the door closed.
In reflection, I realized that the whole rather awkward conversation had a lot to do with my misguided notion of car-ness. I had considered a car as a useful tool, a hammer of sorts. Our neighbors thought of their car as another bedroom (and certainly the number of people I have observed nonchalantly driving while digging deep into their nose as if they were in the privacy of their homes seems to attest to this attitude). Cars are the personal domain of the individual writ large on the tarmac of life, and for my neighbors, car swapping was as taboo as a wife swapping.
Live within a community. I don’t really know why it takes a village to raise a child, but I can tell you that it certainly takes a village to raise a car-less family. We ask our friends for a lot of favors when it comes to getting from point A to B. Aha, you will say. You and your liberal ideals, sucking off the diesel goodness of others! Guilty as charged; someone has got to have a car. But do we all need to have so many of them? Maybe we should ask London’s Mayor Boris Johnson to park a supply of cheap Vauxhalls at key intersections? Do the math. Even with the local taxi company on speed-deal, the cost of going car-less saves us a ton each month. Living without a car is not all bad, and adventures are often closer than you think. Do you know that a beautiful little creek with ducks and the occasional swan meanders in front of Brent Cross Shopping Centre in north London? Neither did we, until we walked there. Or that there’s a great climbing tree in the thimble-sized park down the street, or that the kids don’t mind going to the same local library every Sunday afternoon because they know each librarian by name? The Jewish Social Action Hub (JHub) is sponsoring an international shmita conference this week in London, and there are wonderful and resonant calls to change everything from business ethics to agricultural mores for 5775. Senior leaders and activists from the US, Israel and Europe are convening at JHub in London to discuss how the ancient biblical concept of shmita can be applied in the contemporary world.
Nigel Savage, founder and director of Hazon (which builds sustainable Jewish communities) in North America, listed in the Forward 50; Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair, vice president of an international solar energy development company, and previously an economist in the UK government; and Jude Williams, CEO of Tzedek (Jewish international development charity) are among the keynote speakers.
For the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF) and its 20 member organizations (of which the Board of Deputies are a part), the forthcoming shmita year (which starts in September) presents the British Jewish community with a unique cross-communal opportunity to be part of a global movement, which teaches about shmita, highlights the issue of inequality and leads on engagement through social action, through the Jewish community supporting foodbanks and campaigning against modern slavery (focusing on supporting a living wage for garment workers who stitch our clothes).
But if you should happen to pass a house in London with an empty driveway, well, that’s our small way of wishing you a happy Sabbatical year.
The author, a rabbi is interfaith and social action consultant for the The Board of Deputies of British Jews.