Opinion: We are in a Shmita year. So why aren’t American Jews talking more about student debt relief?
Judaism has a tradition of debt relief that could help solve a pressing political problem in the United States, writes Rabbi Emily Cohen.
When I finished rabbinical school in 2018, I entered the “real world” with $ 40,000 in student loans. I acted quickly, prioritizing reimbursement over everything else. In six months, I paid almost $ 10,000 to eliminate interest, and continued to allocate three times my scheduled monthly payment. Interest hasn’t had much of a chance to grow, and by the time we hit the pandemic break, I was on track to write off my loans in two years.
I am incredibly lucky. My parents were able to help me with the first cycle (due to the generational wealth resulting from the fact that many Jews were coded as white after WWII). I had a scholarship covering half of my rabbinical studies and my financial education enabled me to make the decision to devote as much as possible to my loans upon graduation.
One of my closest friends? Not so lucky. To pay off the loans he took out for his graduate degree, he would have to pay twice his rent each month just to scrape the principal off the principal. His best hope (and his current plan) is public student loan forgiveness, but problems with this program have been well documented, and it’s scary to see his balance disappear at the top every month as interest continues to grow.
When our current president campaigned, he recognized the burden of student loans and promised to forgo $ 10,000 per borrower. There are also calls for student loans to be canceled entirely due to predatory lending practices coupled with the often-false promise made to my generation that it is because of school (and the “good debt” of student loans) that we. achieve financial stability. Yet the White House announced that a moratorium on pandemic-induced loan repayments will end in February.
While it’s never a good idea to pretend that a Jewish text has only one opinion on a topic, debt is a topic with clear boundaries. In the book of Leviticus, our ancestors are educated on shmita, which literally means liberation. One in seven years, the Jews were to let the earth rest and its voluntary products would be eaten by all. In-depth instruction in Deuteronomy, with the call to: “… release, any possessor of a loan of hand, what he has lent to his neighbor. He should not oppress his neighbor or his brother, because the shmita [release] of God has been proclaimed! (Deut. 15: 2)
As you can imagine, the practical aspects of shmita were difficult to apply, and over time the practice of shmita largely disappeared from Jewish life. It is only in the last decades that it has returned to public consciousness. Which brings us to 5782.
This year is a shmita year. Jewish organizations from all faith and political backgrounds are tackling this problem by intentionally reducing programming and fundraising to alleviate medical debt (another shame of this county). But I haven’t heard from many Jewish organizations asking for student loan cancellation.
I don’t blame Jewish organizations for having other priorities. We enter the third year of a public health crisis as reproductive justice, equitable housing, access to the vote and the right of minorities to simply live in safety are all threatened. And even? We are a quarter of the way from a tailored opportunity to engage Judaism in addressing this pressing public policy issue that deserves our attention.
What if we applied this debt relief every seven years to student loans? What if every seven years loan service providers had to write off their debts? You go to school, pay a reasonable amount for up to six years after graduation, and then you’re free?
This may be wishful thinking given the priorities of our current society. Here’s a more realistic idea: write off the interest. Get student loan borrowers to pay off their principal if you owe it; but allow their balance to fall each month instead of increasing. After all, we also have this instruction in the Torah: “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, do not act like a creditor to them; does not require any interest from them. (Exodus 22:24)
Student debt affects people of all ages, but it particularly affects millennials. I have talked to friends about what they would do without the weight of their student loans. They could save to buy a home or pay their rent without fear. They would quit the higher paying corporate jobs they held to afford to pay off their loans and work for nonprofits. They would adequately support their aging parents and young children. They might think beyond their next paycheck, maybe for the first time.
What a dignified release that would be.
Rabbi Emily Cohen is the spiritual leader of the West End Synagogue in New York City, a podcast producer and artist. She tweets @ThatRabbiCohen.