Exploring the 'Shmita Council' Model for Your Community

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During the Behar campaign to raise Shmita awareness on a local level, one of the models we suggested was to organize a community leadership council. The goal would be to gather together community leaders, such as Rabbis, educators, activists, directors of businesses & non-profits, etc to explore Shmita from the perspective of local needs, resources, and challenges. What would Shmita look like specifically for our own community’s social and economic landscape? For our own community’s educational institutions and community organizations? As community leaders, what specific role might we each take to support this shift towards Sabbatical values? What tangible golas can we reach for, and in what timeframe? 
Guided by Jakir Manela, the Pearsltone Center hosted such a council for the region surrounding Baltimore, Maryland. Here is his recap for the event, which they referred to as a ‘Shmita Summit’:
On Sunday April 28th, Pearlstone hosted our first Chesapeake Shmita Summit, drawing together a select group of local Jewish leaders to learn about Shmita and think strategically together about how its values can be manifest in each of our organizations and throughout our local communities.  It was a wonderful conversation, with deep Jewish learning lead by Rabbis Baruch Rock and Nina Beth Cardin—Rabbi Cardin focused on the Shmita verses in Tanakh while Rabbi Rock took an unconventional approach, identifying three Shmita themes and principles within the work of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.:
1.  Scales of interplay and the need to localize: Shmita can be thought of on a national or even international scale, but the essential step is to start in your own backyard
2.  Tension between groups: Shmita levels the playing field, whereas otherwise there can be great tension and animosity between various socioeconomic and/or spiritual classes in our society, such as affiliated vs unaffiliated, farmer vs professional, etc
3.  Strengthen what already exists:  Shmita does not obligate us to form new spiritual or ethical values, rather it is a framework for synthesizing so much of what we already know to be right and true.  This should be integrative work, not redundant.
After learning the Torah of Shmita, the group brainstormed together all the different things that could unfold in our community as part of the Shmita year.  The following are some areas of Shmita we explored together, and ideas that we came up with:
-Exploring further the historical nature of Shmita—what actually happened in ancient Israel every 7th year?  Partnering with local Jewish Museum to create a Shmita exhibit perhaps.
-Highlighting poverty, hunger, and food relief efforts as part of Shmita.  Organize the largest food drive ever in our community.
-Engaging high school students of the local region by studying various kinds of utopian societies, including the concept of Shmita, then trying it out for a few days of the year throughout the school.
-Establish an incubator greenhouse and tool library in the heart of the Jewish community, bringing people together to collaborate in starting seeds and sharing gardening resources
-Take down fencing that separates two very large adjoining conservative synagogue properties, unifying them into one traversable campus at least during the Shmita year.
-Promote local Shmita Lawns—pereniallizing the outdoor spaces of own yards.
-What could our organizations give away for free?  Or thinking about it a different way, what if synagogue kiddush luncheons were not sponsored, and instead everyone brings double the prior year (only in dry goods that store well).
Emerging from all these wonderful ideas came the vision for several large events both leading up to and during Shmita, all located in major central Jewish public spaces (JCCs, Pearlstone, and other more secular space perhaps too). One such vision is for the next Behar gathering:
2014 Shabbat Behar: 2nd Annual Chesapeake Shmita Summit.  Aiming to promote widely, with the morning focusing on Torah learning around Shmita and the afternoon all about community organizing with outside experts in the realms that Shmita is most closely related to.  For example, we would partner with a local event called Barterfest to begin brainstorming ideas for a Shmita Barterfest, and/or work with the MD Food Bank to begin identifying pieces for a massive community wide food drive.  Also we would invite the Bmore local currency leaders to do a training on how that might be incorporated throughout the Shmita year.
After all this learning and brainstorming, we went outside to plant a perennial bush (hazelnut) in our orchard.  And as we planted, we coined a new Shmita greeting—just as you say “Good Yontif” on chag or “Shabbat Shalom” on Shabbat, what if we said “Tishmateinu B’yachad” on Shmita?  It means, “Let us release, together”.  Maybe not perfect but a start!
We look forward to Shmita’s unfolding here in the Chesapeake region.  Questions or comments?  Contact jakir@pearlstonecenter.org