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A 21st Century Response to the Shmitah Year: Forgiving Medical Debt

By October 15, 2021CARING, COMMUNITY

By Rabbi Sam Kaye, The Temple
By the reckoning of our sages, this Jewish year 5782 is what we call a shmita or sabbatical year. Shmitah literally means a “release.” Just as Shabbat occurs every seven days, a day of rest, every seven years there is a shmitah. While most people connect it to agriculture, there is another tradition of the shmitah which has nothing to do with produce or farming — the forgiveness of debts.

I know this in a personal way. In rabbinical school, despite having health insurance, a late-night visit to the emergency room and cancer scare left me with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. The Temple gave me an advance on my salary; enough to pay those off. My family and I have had the chance to start over. As we enter into the shmitah year our Jewish community is fulfilling this mitzvah for others and inspiring a new 21st century shmitah.

I gave a sermon about this topic over the High Holy days kicking off a major fundraising effort between The Temple and RIP Medical Debt, helping people with serious medical debt have their debt erased. The results have been beyond all expectations!

RIP Medical Debt is a non-profit organization that purchases, and then forgives, medical debt. During the yamim noraim, the days of Awe, The Temple partnered with RIP and, through our members’ incredible generosity, raised over $75,000. At a rate of $1 donated to $100 of debt purchased, this will erase more than $7,500,000 worth of outstanding medical debt right here in the city of Atlanta.

None of this would have been possible without the generous hearts of our community.  The Helen Marie Stern Fund offered a $10,000 matching grant. Congregants sent more than $10,000 directly to the Temple, which is being forwarded to RIP.  And a sold-out gala, with Ebenezer Baptist Church for young professionals brought in another $2,500.

Learn more about this 21st century Shmitah initiative here, and may this shmitah year bring a sacred release for us all.