In Israel, Values of a Holy Respite Are Adapted for a High-Tech World
“Though in the Torah, shmita only applies to the land of Israel, diaspora Jews are also on board. Amichai Lau Lavie, an Israeli-American rabbinical student who runs a pop-up synagogue in New York, has created a website called Fallow Lab encouraging “digital detox” for shmita.”
JERUSALEM — The printers at Energiya Global sit idle as the company, which promotes solar power in developing countries, tries to go paperless. Energiya is also throwing open the doors to its funky, colorful headquarters for yoga workshops and Talmud classes. And instead of ordering in for the weekly staff lunch, employees this year will rotate cooking duties, donating the savings.
These are not typical efforts at corporate consciousness, but part of a new Israeli experiment with alternative observances of shmita, the sabbatical that began Wednesday night with the Jewish year 5775. Translating biblical concepts of renewal and responsibility to a knowledge-based economy, they are part of a broader push to infuse Jewish values and rituals into secular or at least non-Orthodox strands of society.
Shmita comes every seventh year, a required rest period for the land. The Torah commands farmers not to till their fields and to let poor people and animals feed off what grows; separately, it mandates that all debts be forgiven during shmita years.
During the last two shmita cycles, controversy erupted between the religious and the more-religious in Israel over a century-old workaround that enables Jews to temporarily transfer ownership of their lands to non-Jews so it can still be cultivated. That fight continues this year as people protest the military’s move to buy produce only from non-Jewish farms. But in its wake, a separate set of initiatives that have nothing to do with agriculture is taking root.
“People are thinking, this is just too good to remain in the area of arcane Halakhic arguments, the values here are really important for any modern society,” explained Julian Sinclair, a vice president at Energiya who is also an economist, rabbi, and author of a new book on shmita, referring to debates over Jewish law. “It’s about the sources of our wealth and letting go of our control and the hold on the things which make us wealthy, and the absence of which leaves other people behind.”
The reinterpretation is also a response to the radical changes in Israel’s economy, where a booming high-tech sector long ago replaced the collective farming culture of the state’s founding. Less than 2 percent of Israel’s G.N.P. came from agriculture in 2011, down from more than 60 percent in 1949.
So Yossi Tsuria, a founder of NDS, a video-software company now part of Cisco Systems, has been promoting a list of 49 things technology firms might try to fulfill the shmita spirit. They include a patent pool, where companies could donate patents not part of their core business to be used by any entrepreneur; required rotation of business models and management positions, and: “A year without exorbitant bonuses. The money can be directed to social causes.” (No. 32). “The workday will be no longer than eight hours and the work week will have no more than five days” (No. 40). “Email only works during business hours. If an email is received out of hours, a message will be returned explaining policy.” (No 41).
Mr. Tsuria admitted that he does not know of big outfits that have actually adopted any of the measures (even at Energiya, the shmita committee dismissed the email time limits as impractical). But 100 tech workers have enrolled in a special shmita program where they will spend a half-day each week studying at Hebrew University, which Mr. Tsuria sees as a start.
“High-tech as a whole is running faster than regular people can accommodate, and stopping for a year — don’t try to push a new iPhone 7, O.K., let the people breathe — has real value,” he said. Noting that Jewish Sabbath observance today “is totally different” from what it was during the First and Second Temples, when animal sacrifices were the centerpiece, Mr. Tsuria added: “Shmita was stuck in 2,000 years ago — it didn’t have any evolution to adapt itself to the life of the people.”
Einat Kramer, who has spent the last two years promoting alternative shmita, told of an online time bank matching volunteers with certain skills with people in need, with each hour completed marked with a blue dot on a map of Israel. One man told Ms. Kramer he planned to purchase monkeys used in laboratory experiments and set them free.
Ms. Kramer herself recently bought a 500-square-foot, $500 white tent she plans to bring to public squares across the country as a sort of “Hyde Park for dreamers.” Inside will be a lending library, a recycling center, and free coffee, tea and fruit.
Though in the Torah, shmita only applies to the land of Israel, diaspora Jews are also on board. Amichai Lau Lavie, an Israeli-American rabbinical student who runs a pop-up synagogue in New York, has created a website called Fallow Lab encouraging “digital detox” for shmita.
Some initiatives are more direct descendants of the biblical dictates. Four nonprofit groups have enrolled 1,500 families each with debts of about $25,000 into an eight-month budgeting seminar. Those who complete it will have to pay only a third of their reduced debt; the groups promise to collect donations to cover another third, and convince creditors to forgive the rest.
At Energiya, shmita fits with the socially-conscious, environmentally-friendly ethos, but clashes somewhat with the intense start-up culture.
For example, one idea being debated is a prohibition on assigning projects with a deadline of less than 48 hours (current practice, as at so many companies, is that managers often ask for things “right now”). Going fully paperless would save the firm of 14 employees about $3,500 a year in paper and toner. But they are not yet unplugging the printers because the founder is something of a paper addict.
“Next time he hands me a document with his chicken scrawl in the margins, I’m going to say, ‘I do not accept that,’ ” said Sara Halevi, the communications director, whose personal shmita commitments include exchanging the yellow pads she brings to meetings for a laptop, and leaving that laptop at the office four nights a week.
“I can’t push it to the point where I get fired, that would be counterproductive,” she added.