sabbatical spotlight

‘Shmita’ competition winners explore Jewish land sabbatical through art

From a high-desert retreat to an original Ladino tune, artists reflect on an ancient commandment for modern times

Artist Mira Burack has conjured a vision of what a sabbatical looks like: In the high desert mountains of New Mexico, three permanent artistic, cabin-like spaces will house a family, a couple and a single person, for personal retreat, restful contemplation and communion with plant life and natural elements. Handmade bedding, plant-based sleep remedies, sound installations and sculptural, personal care objects will create a complete, restorative experience. These three structures do not yet exist yet, but the large-scale land project, “Sleeping Huts,” has received a boost in visibility and funding because it captures elements of the Jewish custom of land sabbatical, or shmita.

“Sleeping Huts” is one of the winners of an inaugural art competition, the Shmita Prizes, named after and themed on the Jewish custom of taking a land sabbatical every seventh year; the competition is sponsored by Hazon, the Jewish Lab for Sustainability, an organization that has centered on Judaism and the environment since its founding in 2000.

The project — which spurred artists, teachers, and religious leaders from around the world to explore what a “shmita ritual” might look like amid a changing world and global pandemic — received nearly 250 submissions from 11 different countries over 10 months. Following an anonymous review process that evaluated submissions on quality, connection to shmita, and contemporary relevance, Hazon’s panel of expert judges awarded first-place prizes of $1,800, honorable mention prizes of $250 and at least one youth winner in each of five categories: fine art, ritual object, written word, video and performance art/music/liturgy. 

While the prize will not fully fund her project, Burack said she was grateful that “Sleeping Huts” was selected.

“It will support the growth of my art practice and propel my first large-scale, land-art project into being,” Burack said. “The funding will allow me to conduct on-site research and engage collaborators [such as architect, artists, designers, healers] in developing building plans and drawings for the project,” which, as Burack writes in a project description, creates “a reverent relationship between the natural world and rest, allowing guests to release, reset, and reconnect with the land.” 

Shmita offers a unique and timely framework for addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time,” Hazon’s founder, now global ambassador, Nigel Savage told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Shmita is about our relation to land and food; to community and boundaries; to work, overwork and rest; and to debt relief and the amelioration of inequality. Each of these topics is a significant issue in contemporary life,” Savage added. “So it is especially vital that we take the topic of shmita out of the realm of religion, narrowly construed, and begin a wider conversation on the topic. That’s why it is so necessary to involve artists of all sorts when we think about shmita — and why it is so exciting to see how these Shmita Prizes have unfolded.”

The first-place winners ran the gamut of age, experience, background and medium. The winning project in the video category was “Shmitah: Brick By Brick,” a stop-motion animation using Legos, crafted by Levi Selig, Simon Zeitlin and Eitan Marx, a trio of middle school students at Oakland Hebrew Day School. Jessi Roemer, a composer, musician, poet and cantor ordained through ALEPH Jewish Renewal, won in the performance art/music/liturgy category for a music video for her original composition, “Seij Años,” a musical setting of a Ladino translation of Torah verses from Parshat Behar, which gives instructions for how to observe the shmita year.

“I don’t enter competitions often but this opportunity excited me,” artist Idelle Hammond-Sass, who won in the ritual object category for her “Renewing Shmita” piece, told eJP. “I had engaged with the concepts of shmita but had not explored them visually. It was compelling to identify the elements that could lead to a meaningful ritual and still leave room for others to bring their story to the table and bring the ritual to life. The Shmita Prize will allow me to create time to carve out a sabbatical for creativity, perhaps by taking a workshop or travel. It encourages me to develop as an artist and to deepen my Jewish spiritual practice.”

Rabbi, writer and environmentalist Liz P.G. Hirsch received an “honorable mention” prize for her essay, “5781: A Shmita Year,” in which she reflected on her experience being pregnant during the pandemic and how her experiences mirrored aspects of shmita.

“I was immediately drawn to write for this competition, which elevated the literary and artistic engagement with shmita across the Jewish community,” she explained. “As a rabbi, writer and environmentalist, I am encouraged and inspired by the community conversation about this important topic.”

The judges who reviewed the entries hailed from a variety of artistic endeavors and Jewish backgrounds: writer and journalist Anita Diamant; writer, musician, composer, performer and Torah teacher Alicia Jo Rabins; poet and director of education and programming at the Bronfman Fellowship Jake Marmer; Abigail Meyer, a research assistant for Judaica at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; actor, singer and Jewish educator Rebecca Fletcher; and queer Ashkenazi video and performance artist Julie Weitz.

The prizes are part of Hazon’s larger effort to raise awareness of the sabbatical year through its Shmita Project, a collaboration of a wide and growing range of organizations, including leading educational institutions and arts partners, as well as many organizations that work in the Jewish farming and environmental space. Sponsors include the Covenant Foundation and a number of individual supporters. 

“Thinking about shmita’s concepts from 2,000 years ago also means thinking about how our world should look today,” said Sarah Zell Young, Hazon’s director of strategic partnerships, adding that the artists who submitted work to the Shmita Prizes “all helped us do this by making shmita‘s teachings and traditions into tangible works of art to help us ritualize, remember and integrate this important practice into our lives.”