By Jackie Hajdenberg and Gabe Friedman

VSHICAGO — More than half of bankruptcies in the United States are related to medical debt. For some Chicago-area families, however, this debt is forgiven in accordance with the Jewish law of shmitathe sabbatical year.

Pastor Chris Harris and Rabbi Ari Hart have teamed up for a fundraiser for shmita debt relief. (Screenshot from Facebook)

That of the Torah shmita the laws prescribe that, every seven years, all agricultural activity in the Land of Israel is prohibited and that the land must be left fallow. There are many specific rules, including no plowing, pruning and planting. A lesser-known custom respecting the shmita year is the release of all debts. In biblical times, a year’s poor agricultural production could indebt a person to slavery.

Pastor Chris Harris, who leads two churches on Chicago’s South Side, is a longtime supporter of debt relief to help low-income people in difficult circumstances.

But he didn’t know the details shmita concept when Rabbi Ari Hart, who leads the Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Orthodox Synagogue and often works with Harris congregations on service projects, came up with an idea.

“I fell in love with it. And I said listen, let’s keep this thing going,” Harris said, referring to their service partnership.

The couple have launched a fundraiser through RIP Medical Debt, an organization that buys people’s medical debt in the debt collection market – with the help of private giving campaigns – and then releases it.

Since its inception in 2014, RIP Medical Debt claims to have cleared over $6 billion in debt. In 2020, Mackenzie Scott donated $50 million to the organization.

Through a campaign that began in January and ended last week, members of Hart and Harris congregations raised more than $10,000, which RIP Medical Debt used to purchase $1.9 million in debt. dollars.

This will result in medical debt relief for 2,327 people in the Chicago area who: earn less than twice the federal poverty level, have debts that are 5% or more of their annual income, or have more than debts than assets.

Recipients don’t know help is coming and will be surprised by the news with letters in the coming days.

“In Jewish life today, we talk a lot about values, we teach values, and that’s great, but I like it because it was real for those 2,000 families,” Hart said.

“These are very religious biblical concepts that people can be trapped in debt,” he added. “It can ruin your life.”

Hart says he has noticed an increased interest in shmita within one’s own community, usually related to environmental concerns. But interest in debt forgiveness is relatively new.

“It’s starting to happen in the Jewish community,” he said. “It’s cool to see this happening in the Christian community as well.”

A Methodist church in Wahoo, Neb. also partners with RIP Medical Debt in honor of the “jubilee”, which is the end of a 49-year cycle, or seven shmita rounds.

The word “jubilee” comes from the Hebrew word youngbut the jubilee is a typically Catholic concept related to the forgiveness of sins.

Harris, who runs Bright Star Church in Bronzeville and St. James Church in West Pullman, has a long affiliation and fondness for Jews and Israel.

He is about to undertake his seventh trip to Israel; on one of his first visits, he was impressed with the NATAL Center in Tel Aviv, which helps veterans deal with PTSD. He has brought lessons from the center and trained counselors who work in the communities he serves on NATAL protocols.

Hart’s congregation has partnered with Harris’s to address “racial injustice, anti-Semitism, mental health, violence prevention, literacy” and other issues.

In a recent example, the Hart Synagogue helped design and build a digital literacy center for children on one of Bright Star’s floors. So while the shmita The project touched on a core value for Harris, he also saw it as a way to further one of his other passions: Black-Jewish cooperation.

“Whenever I’m on college campuses, people always brag about the fact that black people and Jews have worked together for a long time. And I tell them, you know, stop taking credit for what Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel did, that’s 50 years ago. . . Let’s keep the old frames and put new photos of us working together in that old frame,” he said.

“Rabbi Ari Hart is one of the rabbis who said I’m very serious about this. And every thing we did, he showed up, it’s amazing.

Hart and Harris announced the results of the fundraising campaign on May 22, during a joint worship service in which Harris and Rabbi Seth Limmer of the Chicago Sinai Congregation led a sermon on debt release.

(Limmer plans to return to his post at Chicago Sinai after a four-month furlough, during which an independent investigative firm investigated allegations that he created a hostile work environment while serving as senior rabbi.)

“Believers have been aware of this for a while, but I think it’s time to start talking about it more,” Hart said. “Debt is not just a financial problem. It’s a spiritual issue, it’s a mental health issue. We know how crippling long-term debt can be if people can’t get out of it, at all levels of life.

“It’s just a new frontier and a shared value,” he added. “I’m excited about it because it’s just something really different.”