By Claire Nacamuli, JHub social action coordinator
At the closing JW3 event of the global Siach Shmita Summit last month, Canon Giles Fraser noted: “I am not terribly interested in a shmita year that is narrowly confined or driven by my own self-interests, but I am very, very interested in a shmita year that spurs us to think more broadly about social justice and about God.”
He was right to be concerned, as in the past, shmita (the biblical sabbatical year where we are instructed to allow the land to lie fallow) has often been applied only to agricultural issues in Israel.
During the summit, global leaders from Israel, the US and Europe discussed how shmita values might be extended to include social and environmental justice issues.
Following Fraser’s comment, within two days, more than 25 rabbis from the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF)’s four synagogue member movements agreed to join Christian leaders in asking the government to fully engage in the independent inquiry into the rise of UK hunger, to challenge the rising numbers of people using food banks.
What does this have to do with shmita and social action? After all, the shmita summit at JHub convened to discuss how the ancient biblical concept could be applied in the contemporary world.
Sitting in a woven goat’s haired tent at St Ethelburga’s, 47 global leaders came together to hear Molly Hodson from the Trussell Trust and Rabbi Miriam Berger from Finchley Reform Synagogue talk about shmita and food banks.
Hodson raised awareness of the growing number of children and adults being referred to food banks in the world’s seventh richest country.
In 2012-13, 350,000 people were referred to Trussell Trust food banks; in the first nine months of 2013/14 alone, more than 600,000 people were helped. Fewer than five percent of the people they help are homeless and many are in work.
Reasons for this dramatic increase include low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices.
As Rabbi Berger highlighted, the reality is that this affects Jewish and non-Jewish people alike in the UK.
GIFT, a member of JSAF, distributes food to both Jews and non-Jews, giving away food to nearly 2000 people on a weekly basis. Recently, 27 Anglican bishops signed an open letter calling on the government to do more to stop people going hungry.
Hodson told the audience of Jewish leaders that a second letter was being written, asking the government to fully engage with the independent inquiry into the rise of UK hunger (that came out of the first letter).
There came the idea to add a uniquely Jewish voice to this call, campaigning alongside Christian leaders as part of the End Hunger Now campaign.
How does this link with helping us prepare for the forthcoming shmita year, Rosh Hashanah 5775?
We remember in biblical times, agriculture and commerce were simultaneously readjusted to enable a more equitable society. For example, staples such as food were freely redistributed and accessible to all.
Shmita requires us to reflect on how we consume and to think about those who struggle to meet their basic needs. Supporting food banks, we can learn about the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK. Hearing from organisations such as the Trussell Trust, working with different faith leaders can provide the Jewish community with more opportunities to join the public debate.
JSAF’s chosen theme on which to focus is combating inequality. The cross-communal letter from rabbis is the first of many actions to combat hunger in the UK as we prepare for the shmita year.
We say on seder night: “All who are hungry, come and eat”. This year it would have meant mean inviting more than half-a-million people in the UK to our table.
The difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us (in his Haggadah commentary) between the self-same matzah called the ‘bread of affliction’ at the seder start, and the ‘bread of freedom’ we raise up just before the meal, is only that we are ready to share the meal with others.
May we ready ourselves for a year of opening our fields, homes and communities so all who are hungry may eat.