William Levin, a.k.a. the Jewish Robot, teaches animation in Brooklyn, New York.
This was my second year attending Sukkahfest, the annual celebration of the harvest festival, Sukkot, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. But this year was different.
This year we observe Shmita—or, the Sabbath year—the seventh year in the seven-year agricultural cycle commanded in the Torah. During this period, we do not farm the land. Instead, we let the land lie fallow. Farming activity such as plowing, tilling and harvesting are all forbidden during this sabbatical year.
The concept of Shmita is especially timely for me because I have been working on a community building project involving family farmland since the beginning of 2014. Briefly, my family are descendants of the Jewish Alliance Colony, a group of Jews who emigrated from Russia in 1883 and established the first American Jewish agricultural community in south New Jersey. With my parents getting older, the responsibility of managing the farmland was recently handed down to me. Having gained an appreciation for the Jewish farming movement, I decided to put aside my family’s longtime plans to sell the land and instead explore ways to reignite the once thriving Jewish farming community.
Besides learning Torah and fulfilling the mitzvah of having meals in the Sukkah, I was also able to make valuable connections and seek advice about my family’s ancestral farmland. My wife, Malya, and I spoke with several agricultural advisors attending Sukkahfest who are involved with similar projects, including members of Hazon, who now run the retreat center. As a result, my wife and I have been invited back to Isabella Freedman to present our vision at the upcoming Jewish Intentional Communities Conference. Additionally, our vision was received so positively that we were encouraged to apply for the Hakhel Intentional Communities Incubator program.
When I applied for the ROI Micro Grant, I selected Go Learn! for a Jewish Learning Grant. Not only did I spend the holiday learning Torah, but I also ended up with a bonus Go Network! opportunity. During Shmita, while we are forbidden to sow the land, we reap spiritual benefits. Similarly, during religious observance of the Chagim and Shabbat, even while we are commanded to rest, it is still possible to harvest knowledge and build connections.