Category Archives: The People

Debt, Seattle, and the Hebrew Free Loan Association

At the end of seven years, you are to make a Release [shmita].

Now this is the matter of the Release: he shall release, every possessor of a loan of his hand, what he has lent to his neighbor. He is not to oppress his neighbor or his brother, for the Release of the Lord has been proclaimed!” … – Deuteronomy (15:1-2)

Debt release is as intrinsic to the concept of Shmita as is the fallowing of the land.  And like the fallowing of the land, it is extremely difficult to imagine doing in practice. Indeed, the difficulties were foreseen by the Author of the Torah, as it were, as the verses that follow the commandment to release debt acknowledge that the tendency might be to reduce lending to one who is in need if the lender fears he may not be repaid.  The text goes on to exhort those in a position to lend to “open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted-one, and to the needy-one in your land!”

In our community we held a discussion a few weeks ago about Shmita and debt, student debt in particular. The young woman who led the discussion was a law school graduate burdened by a significant amount of student debt. She spoke movingly about the effect the debt was having on her life, on her ability to own property, and on other major life choices and options. And yet, in the end it was impossible for her to conclude that student debt should be “erased” if doing so would reduce lending for education or lead to irresponsible behavior on the part of borrowers.

As I reflected on this conundrum, I came across a (perhaps) little known (at least little known to me) institution of Jewish life, the Hebrew Free Loan Association. This institution allows Jews to borrow money at zero interest for a variety of purposes, including getting an education, starting a business, and consolidating debt.

Hebrew Free Loan Associations operate in many cities in the United States including Seattle. According to an article by Michael Feldberg in My Jewish Learning, Seattle was actually the birthplace of the Hebrew Free Loan Association in America! According to Feldberg:

In 1909, a group of Seattle Jewish women formed a whist and sewing club with dues of 25 cents per month. When they had accumulated $64, they offered to purchase a gift for their local synagogue. Because the rabbi knew that the women raised the money by playing cards, he refused the gift. Undaunted, the women started the Hebrew Ladies’ Free Loan Society of Seattle. Their thoughtfulness helped some of Seattle’s first Jewish entrepreneurs get started in business.

Other HFLAs followed, and they were generally used to assist new Jewish immigrants at a time when they had a hard time gaining access to commercial credit. To be eligible for a loan from the Seattle Hebrew Free Loan Association a borrower must:

  • Be a member of the Jewish community residing in the State of Washington or a local Jewish student attending any accredited college or university.
  • Have two co-signers.
  • Have a source of income so that he or she will be able to repay the loan.

While the HFLA is dedicated to Jewish self-help, (according to Maimonides, “A loan is better than charity, for it enables one to help oneself”) there is nothing barring the wider community from forming “free loan” associations along similar lines.

Potential donors may wish to consider gifts to free loan associations as part of their overall charitable giving portfolio. Donations are tax deductible, and membership dues cover the administrative costs of the program. (The Seattle Hebrew Free Loan Association will hold its annual brunch on February 8. This might be a good way to learn about the program, meet people, and make a contribution.)

And debtors may wish to consider converting some of their commercial “debt with interest” to the type of debt without interest offered by the HFLA.

All of this is perfectly legal, and while it does not directly speak to the subject of total debt forgiveness envisioned in Shmita, it does perhaps point a way to some significant amount of debt relief through the elimination of interest payments, relief that is available today, operating within all of our our existing institutions and laws.

Sukkot, Shmita and Vulnerability

In his d’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh, Rabbi Shai Held gets to the heart of a concept that unites Sukkot and Shmita – vulnerability.  During Sukkot, we dwell in fragile huts in which we are conscious of every breath of wind, of every drop of rain, of the warmth of the sun filtered by the shade of vegetation. Even starlight, which connects us far beyond the world of our daily experience and out into the vast universe, is intended to be part of the experience of dwelling in a sukkah.  The fragility of the sukkah is an aspect of its very permeability and connection to the world outside of itself. The entire community is enjoined to share this experience of dwelling in a fragile structure, a partially open structure, and we are called upon to offer our friendship, our hospitality, our gifts, to friends. From our place of vulnerability we build community, offering, and accepting, gifts of food and friendship.

In the end, Sukkot causes us to feel within our bones that our protection, in the end, is not in being cut off, from nature, from risk, from one another, but precisely in our immersion within the wholeness of the world – of nature, of the universe, and most importantly, of the wholeness that comes from being in relationship with one another.

The Shmita year likewise opens us up to experience vulnerability and connection. But unlike Sukkot, which lasts a single week, Shmita lasts an entire year; and whereas Sukkot provides, for most of us, only a simulation of vulnerability, the Shmita year asks for much more. Literally, the Shmita year asks us to release our tight hold, and to accept God’s gifts as gifts. We are required to deeply take in our reliance on natural processes that are outside of our control. We are asked to release our sense of ownership of productive, food producing land and to see it as, in the end, a gift from God, intended to nourish all life. We are asked to shift our focus from accumulation, to use, and then to sharing. We are asked to release our economic control over one another, or subservience to one another, that comes about as a result of indebtedness. We are asked to trust that there will be enough for all, and to make it so.

This heightened vulnerability would, of necessity, lead to a heightened experience of connectedness, with the productive landscape, with the processes that govern its bringing forth food, and with our companions, human and non-human, who share the land with us.

It is striking how often we hear about disaster bringing a community together. Think of the Oso landslide in our area – or Hurricaine Katrina. Out of a tragedy that blindly strikes a community, each person is brought to the raw experience best captured in that old expression, which I intensely dislike but find irreplaceable sometimes, “there but for the grace of God go I.”  From the authenticity of that realization emerges the response: the ones who run in with aid, with comfort, with food, with a blanket, a room for a stranger, the tools and the skills to rebuild. From the depth of awful circumstance arises a  community with a renewed sense of a purpose beyond their individual selves, and faith founded in direct experience in the goodness, the dependability, of fellow human beings. It seems to me that these holidays, Sukkot and Shmita, ask us to build these conditions, to respond, and to form this awareness, through the regular, voluntary acceptance and experience of vulnerability.

This very repetition is surely intended to develop and strengthen  our response, our willingness to stand in a gift relationship with one another and the wider world. In much of our daily life, we are asked to put our faith in the “market economy,” which enables (some of) us to purchase what we need free of any encumbrance by entangling relationships. However as Michael Sandel sets out to prove in his book, What Money Can’t Buy, “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.” Our tradition requires that we stand in a particular relationship to one another, and, I would assert, to the Earth. Sukkot and Shmita in particular provide us with regular opportunities to bring our conscious awareness to those relationships.

Rabbi Held concludes his d’var with the observation that “genuine community requires compassion, and compassion, in turn, depends on admitting our own vulnerability. … Community becomes possible … when we realize and accept that we are all susceptible to being hurt and are, crucially for the Torah, all equally dependent on God.”

This, then, is what Sukkot and Shmita have in common – the intention of building a world up from an authentic experience of vulnerability, community, and our shared dependence on God.

 

The Puget Sound: Deepening Our Connection to Local Abundance

There is simply no way to get around the fact that shmita is deeply concerned with food, as a source of life, of health, of well being, and ultimately, of peace. The shmita year compels us to express and embody our latent awareness that the true source of food is not with us. Food comes as a gift from the Creator by way of the land. And significantly, through shmita laws, the Creator infuses the distribution of food with a concern for justice and compassion for each and every being.

Shmita imagines a food system so well integrated with natural processes that it can be left to run on its own one year out of seven and still ensure enough for all, including wild nature. Furthermore the sources of these foods will be so woven into the physical environment where we live that we will be able to harvest them ourselves as needed, without the need for commercial harvesters. Surely this is a powerful vision of a return to life in a garden!

A shmita food system is local – so that we can personally access and pick from the farms where our food is grown. It is chemical free – if the food is to be shared with wild creatures, it cannot be laced with poisons. And everyone has direct access to sufficient amount to eat to contentment, “sova”. There is no waste and no stockpiling. According to Dr. Jeremy Benstein, director of the Sova Project, “the fact that our globalized agricultural system is highly unsuited to local decentralized community based solutions says a lot more about the ills of the system than about shmita and its relevance.”

To my great surprise and delight, there is a body in the Seattle area that is expressing great sensitivity to the way that a strong local agricultural system is a foundational element of community and individual health and well being. graphicThe Regional Food Policy Council is looking holistically at the interaction between local government, education, health, equity, environment, agriculture and economic development. It is made up of a broad range of local stakeholders including farmers, policymakers, academics, native tribes, people concerned with availability of food within vulnerable populations, restauranteurs, and food processors. They meet downtown monthly and the public is welcome to attend. Register at their site to receive agendas and meeting materials.

Sabbath of the Land – Foraging in the Wild

“Now the Sabbath-yield of the land (is) for you, for eating, for you, for your servant and for your handmaid, for your hired-hand and for your resident-settler who sojourn with you; and for your domestic-animal and the wild-beast that (are) in your land shall be all its produce, to eat. ” – Leviticus 25: 6-7

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The shmita year invites us to explore and rediscover our relationship of interdependence with the plants and animals that inhabit the margins of our lands and our hearts.

As we shift from eating commercial harvests purchased at market to what we gather for ourselves, we may find ourselves looking beyond the planted fields and cultivated gardens into the wilderness, the marginal lands, and the forests that border our communities.

When we are asked to join with those whom we may, in other years, consider “other,” those who work “for” us, animals, and wildlife, to share the Sabbath-yield of the land, with all of us as equals, we are invited to get to know one another. What tender herbs does the “resident sojourner” use? What insights, what recipes, what medicines? What are the names of his children? By learning and teaching one another, and by sharing our knowledge and culture with one another, how will the web of relationships within our community grow and change?

How will our perception of wildlife change (and let’s include all wildlife, mammals, but also birds, fish, and insects)? As we see with our own eyes their ways of life, their needs, their relationships with the land and one another, how will we respond? If we are asked to share with them, this surely implies that we will not begrudge them their portion with netting, or try to eradicate them with poisons. Maybe we will even look to our own marginal spaces, the edges of our property, public spaces near us, and feel moved to choose plants and shrubs for those spaces that will meet the needs of these new friends of ours for shelter and food.

During this shmita year, we should learn about and surround ourselves with the richness and abundance that we may otherwise fail to notice or appreciate, but which is all around us. Here are a few suggestions as to how to do this.

Please share your thoughts on other ways of responding to the text above.

A Share-based Economy – Join a Time Bank

First of all, what is a timebank and what does it have to do with shmita?

The shmita year is a year of enforced interdependence among members of the community. During the shmita year, we learn to depend more upon one another and less upon the money-based economy. Dependence on the money economy is actually completely suspended when it comes to the procurement of life’s most basic necessity: food.

During the shmita year, food that is not directly gathered from the field or wilderness by an individual for his or her own immediate consumption is stored in a food bank-like public storage area, to be drawn upon by each when it is needed. Waste of food, or even its diversion to non-food uses, is prohibited.

During this period of extreme interdependence, the wealthy are not protected by their wealth, but stand as vulnerable and dependent as any other member of society when it comes to food. The role of “giver” and “receiver” are erased. The only “giver” is God, as it were. Everyone alike stands aware of his or her dependence upon God’s providence alone, each equal in her dependence on that which is outside of her control. From that awareness arise empathy and trust, in God as the ultimate provider, and in one another.

The timebank builds on the same concept, by creating a “marketplace” in which people can trade their skills, an hour at a time.

By connecting people who have something to give with people who have a something they need but cannot do for themselves, it too levels the economic playing field. Moreover, the underlying premise, that everyone has something to give and also a lack that can be filled only by reaching out and allowing oneself to become dependent on another, is beautiful and both practical and deeply spiritual.

I first read about the idea of the timebank in this article published by RealChange, the Seattle area’s homeless newspaper. I learned that the Seattle/Puget Sound area already has many functioning timebanks. They are found in the Central District, on the Eastside, north of Seattle, on Mercer Island, in West Seattle, and on Vashon Island. To learn more about how to join, TimeBanks of Puget Sound has a website.

I hope to learn more about timebanking over the coming year. I would love to hear from anyone who has participated in a timebank and can share news of what it’s like from the inside.

Participating in a timebank could be one action we might take during the shmita year.