Reflections on Shmita and May Day

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At the beginning of the week, 40 JCA members gathered over lunch to build community and study ancient Jewish texts outlining the laws of Shmita. Shmita, Hebrew for “release,” are a set of laws guiding our relationship as Jews to the land we’re on, and the economy we participate in. The laws of Shmita say that every seventh year, the land shall lay fallow, slaves and indentured servants are released, and debts too, are released.As an organization that draws on Jewish values and text in our understanding of how we should treat the worker, our neighbors, or the strangers among us, Shmita is a powerful concept. We must cease working the land and leave it to its natural state. We must forgive what is owed. These ideas resonate and reverberate in our work for economic justice.

 

At the end of every week, we observe Shabbat; Jewish Community Action observes Shabbat and we hold it as a kind of perfect moment of social justice. We spend the entire week as creators and consumers. On Shabbat, we stop. On Shabbat we are not workers or bosses, we break from hierarchy and capitalism. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”

 

Shmita, too, is a kind of Shabbat for the land, a Shabbat for workers, a Shabbat for the indebted. And so, as we prepare for Shabbat, we reflect on the learning we did this week and on the crisis 

 

In the last 7 weeks, since our lives changed drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 500,000 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment insurance. Many have started receiving benefits, keeping them above water, but some who are eligible have not yet begun to receive the benefits. Others who are ineligible because of immigration status, or employment status prior to COVID-19 are unable to access any of these benefits at all.

 

Today is May 1st, and on cue, for many people, rent and mortgage payments are due. This is the second such day since the pandemic started that many Minnesotans are having to make hard choices between paying for their housing or paying for their food. Some will not be able to afford either one. We stand in solidarity with everyone having to make these hard choices today, with organizers and advocates working desperately for solutions for their communities.

 

We know it is going to be months before we can begin to even guess what a new normal will look like. Retail and restaurants may never go back to the way they once were. Organizations like ours may look different, too. But our commitment to justice and to housing as a human right will never change, and as we look to the future, we hear echoes of the past. Just over a decade ago, JCA members and allies knocked on doors to connect with Minnesotans facing foreclosure and stem the crisis threatening to render homeless the millions of Americans who were given bad, often predatory loans they couldn’t pay back. We dove headlong into fighting the foreclosure crisis, one that many have still not recovered from, and one that we fear could be reignited if careful choices aren’t made now. Without bold state and federal action to secure housing debt forgiveness, we’ll see a wave of evictions, foreclosures, and market consolidation that will deepen the public health crisis already upon us, devastate family economic security, and destabilize communities everywhere. 

 

Injustice is structural and the same communities and people at risk of foreclosure then are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic now. Our response must focus on structural change, not just temporary fixes. Emergency rental assistance is necessary now, and we also know the need is much greater than what the legislature is currently considering. 

 

Our partners in social services tell us the funds being proposed will be depleted within weeks. If the immediate economic impacts of the pandemic extend into the late summer or fall, as unemployment benefits end, we could see another debt crisis like we saw in the late aughts, with the only winners being land speculators and investors like Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). Structural inequality has starved our country’s collective resources and starved government, while enriching those already at the top. We must take on those who benefit from this inequality, banks and corporate landlords, and use every lever - from direct action to policy change in all levels of government. We must use our collective voice to say that those who have taken must forgive the debt of those from whom they have taken. 

 

We ask policymakers in Minnesota to join us and national organizers in calling for justice and accountability - Shmita - from the banks and corporations that stand sturdy as Americans struggle.

 

Shabbat is upon us, a time when for 25 hours, we live in the world as we dream it can be. This pandemic has demonstrated, so plainly, the ways the current world was built to work differently for some. So this shabbat we can dream of a new beginning, a fresh start for everyone. A shmita. 

Aaron Berc

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