Emerging from an Organizational Shmita

By Nati Passow

11 months ago, I posted a piece on the Jewish Farm School website about how we were choosing to embrace Shmita as an organization.  You can read the entire piece here, but the final paragraph sums up the gist.

We are using the Shmita year as an opportunity for fewer programmatic commitments, more organizational reflection, and a focus on building a strong local foundation in Philadelphia.  It is our hope that in this year of rest and renewal, we are feeding the soil that will, in turn, feed thoughtful, inspired, and sustainable organizational growth for the next Shmita cycle.

shmita-collageWhat played out over the following 11 months has proven to be incredibly significant as we enter into a new phase of organizational growth, in line with the beginning of the next Shmita cycle.  Since 2013, we have been making an organizational pivot, turning our focus to our Urban Sustainability Programs in Philadelphia.  We saw the Shmita year as an opportunity to complete this shift, and do so in a way that would create a strong foundation for this next phase of our work. We would not look to grow our programs or our budget, and would instead dedicate time toward relationship building amongst our current and potential partners and colleagues.  We would build a new board of directors comprised of people in the Greater Philadelphia area.  And we would ask important questions about the most effective and responsible use of our resources to impact our local community.

Now, as we are in the final weeks of this Shmita year, and on the cusp of the next Shmita cycle, we are beginning to emerge from this process and awaken to a new stage of our organizational growth.  We are fortunate and grateful to have received some new funding for our work in Philadelphia, which is enabling us to initiate the process of sustainable growth precisely at the beginning of the next 7 year cycle.  We have begun the transition to a new board of directors.  And we have strengthened several important relationships with partners, including Repair the World: Philadelphia, Heritage Farm, Hazon Philadelphia, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.  

And we have begun to explore some of the more complex issues of our work here in the city, such as the connections between race, class, food, and sustainability. We are digging deep into the rich Jewish traditions of food and farming as a tool for social justice, and exploring how these practices can manifest in our contemporary context.  

And lastly, we are emerging from the Shmita year with even greater clarity on the need to design and run our organization at a pace that nurtures and supports our staff to grow on both professional and personal levels.  This means dedicating time to staff learning, and balancing administrative and computer-based responsibilities with hands on work such as farming, gardening, and building projects.  

It is our hope in the coming years to develop an urban sustainability center, a space for a range of programs, workshops, and trainings.  A place for community to gather, to celebrate shabbat and holidays.  And a model for urban sustainability technologies, food production, and social permaculture projects.  

The underlying message of the Shmita year is that of “release.” We release claims of ownership over the land and its produce.  We release any debts that we may be holding.  And we release ourselves from whatever shackles and constraints that have been imposed over the previous six years.  As an organization, we’ve used this year for deep visioning and expansive thinking, and we are excited and curious to see how this will serve our work over the next seven years.


nati shmitaNati Passow is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Jewish Farm School.  He has been a leader in the Jewish environmental field for over ten years and has been a driving force behind raising Shmita consciousness in the Jewish community. Under his direction, JFS was named by Slingshot as one of the most innovative Jewish organizations in North America for three years. Prior to forming Jewish Farm School, Nati ran an award-winning garden construction program for the Urban Nutrition Initiative in Philadelphia and led service–learning trips in the developing world for American Jewish World Service. Nati has studied sustainable building design and natural building and is a certified Permaculture designer, and holds a B.A. in Religion and Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.