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For the Love of the Land

Barbara Bensoussan

Financier Ari Bergmann may live thousands of miles from Eretz Yisrael, but he’s found a special way to express his love for the land through the mitzvah of shemittah.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

You might expect Ari Bergmann, the Brazilian-born financier who founded hedge fund Penso Advisors LLC, to be an eminently practical, feet-on-the-ground kind of person. To have achieved his level of success, one has to be deeply connected to the material world. But Bergmann, who also earned a PhD in comparative religion from Columbia University and teaches Talmud there (and at Harvard come fall), is also a dreamer — on an equally large scale. When he developed an interest in the mitzvah of shemittah about seven years ago (concurrent with the last shemittah cycle), he had a vision of a mitzvah that could simultaneously unite the people of Eretz Yisrael, raise awareness about economic equality there, draw attention to environmental stewardship, and revive enthusiasm in the Diaspora for a mitzvah that had largely gone unperformed during 2,000 years of exile. “This is a reset moment,” Bergmann says animatedly. “Shemittah is a mitzvah that can speak to people — to all people. It’s a way to speak to nonreligious Israelis. It’s about sharing and giving instead of looking at profits.” Wait — are we really hearing a hedge fund manager calling for sharing instead of profits? But Bergmann is obviously sincere, and he believes that he can make a valuable contribution to a very special mitzvah. Until recently, Israelis had two imperfect choices for observing shemittah. The first is to support farmers to let their fields lie fallow, through Keren HaShviis, an agency that raises money to support farmers during the sabbatical year. The alternative is to rely on the questionable leniency of heter mechirah, in which fields are “sold” to non-Jews for the year and hence permitted to be cultivated. Those Jews who do not rely on heter mechirah produce — which includes most of the chareidi public — are obliged to obtain their produce through Arab farmers or foreign imports, which is a burden on everyone, but especially the poor. Buying from Arab farmers carries its own risks. During the 2001 and 2007 shemittah years, some in the chareidi community contracted hepatitis originating from Arab-produced vegetables grown in contaminated water. Further, some of the “Arab” produce sold to chareidi Jews was discovered to be produce that Arabs had bought from nonreligious kibbutzim and relabeled. Buying vegetables from Arabs also means strengthening the Palestinian economy. When Bergmann discussed with his family one evening the many fraught issues around shemittah observance, his mesivta-aged son exclaimed, “Abba, do something to help!” That was Bergmann’s trigger to get involved, in a very hands-on way, with shemittah observance. Since then, his involvement has grown exponentially on many different levels.

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