Inspired by Biblical Principle, Interfaith Group Reduces Medical Debt for 2,000 Chicagoans


JTA — More than half of bankruptcies in the United States are related to medical debt. For some Chicago-area families, however, that debt is being erased, in accordance with the Jewish law of shmita, the sabbatical year.

Torah shmita laws prescribe that, every seven years, agricultural activity in the Land of Israel is prohibited and the land must be left fallow. There are many specific rules, including bans on plowing, pruning and planting. But a lesser known practice in the observance of the shmita year is the release from all debts. After all, in Bible times, a year’s poor crop 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 specific concept of shmita until Rabbi Ari Hart, who runs the Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Orthodox Synagogue and often works with Harris congregations on service projects, pitched him 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 this week, members of Hart and Harris congregations raised more than $10,000, which RIP Medical Debt used to purchase $1.9 million in debt . 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.”

These are very religious biblical concepts in which people can be trapped in debt. It can ruin your life

Hart said he noticed an increased interest in shmita within his own community, usually related to environmental concerns. But interest in debt relief is relatively new, and at least partly inspired by growing calls for the White House to write off student loan debt.

“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, Nebraska, is also partnering with RIP Medical Debt in honor of the “jubilee,” which is the end of a 49-year cycle, or seven shmita cycles. The word “jubilee” actually comes from the Hebrew word “yovel,” but 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, Hart’s Synagogue helped design and build a digital literacy center for children on one of Bright Star’s floors. So while the shmita 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.

Stop taking credit for what Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel did, it’s 50 years ago… Let’s keep the old frames, and put new pictures of us working together in that old frame

“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 some new pictures of us working together in this old setting,” 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 Sunday, during a joint worship service in which Harris and Rabbi Seth Limmer, formerly of the Chicago Sinai Congregation, led a sermon on debt release. (Limmer recently took a leave of absence, during which an independent investigative firm investigated allegations that he created a hostile work environment as a senior rabbi.)

“People of faith have kind of 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.”

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