In her excellent book “The Green Bride Guide,” environmentalist Kate L. Harrison talks about how a wedding provides a tremendous opportunity to save energy, conserve resources, decrease pollution, support green businesses and educate others about your eco-conscious values. So does a bar or bat mitzvah.
“Community celebrations have marked the rhythm of Jewish life throughout the ages. And for nearly as long, Jews have been asking the question, `How much is too much?’” says the “Green & Just Celebrations” guide published by the Washington-based group Jews United for Justice. The authors cite a decision made in 2002 by a group of Orthodox rabbis in New York City, who were growing concerned about the increasingly extravagant wedding receptions in their Hasidic community. To rein in spending, they issued strict guidelines about the number of guests and type of food and entertainment permissible at these affairs. Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, told The New York Times, “The concept of modesty, not only in dress but in behavior and expression, is central to the Torah. Limiting excess, whether in general lifestyle or celebrations, is an inherently Jewish ideal.” You can read the story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/25/us/religion-journal-a-big-wedding-with-a-smaller-bill.html
If you decide to make your bar or bat mitzvah green, the general principles you will follow are the Three R’s of the environmental movement: reduce, reuse and recycle. Reducing might mean forgoing a fancy paper invitation with inserts, vellum and bows, reusing might mean reusing a centerpiece from another teen’s bat mitzvah, and recycling might mean composting garbage and leftover food after the reception and party.
Arm yourself with skepticism when evaluating products and services claiming to be green. The trendiness of the eco-movement means that there are a lot of unscrupulous (or unknowing) vendors out there trying to make a buck. Some eco-conscious hosts will want to participate in carbon-offsetting programs, which often means planting trees to compensate for the production of the carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming , and a by-product of so much of the energy we burn in our industrialized society. But it is also important to keep in mind that greening your event shouldn’t add undue layers of anxiety to what may already be a stressful process. To paraphrase Harrison, a green bar mitzvah “is about making sustainable choices where possible and practical and doing what you can to lessen the impact of your event.”
One of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether to go the traditional route and send paper invitations or rely on electronic communications. It’s possible to use e-mail for almost everything these days, from “save the date” notices to invitations and thank-you notes. Many bar and bat mitzvahs decide to set up a Web site through a company like www.myevent.com (which charges a modest monthly maintenance fee) where guests can RSVP and the family and bar/bat mitzvah can post important information about the event, including downloadable directions. Even if you choose to send a traditional paper invitation, it’s still possible to reduce your carbon footprint by printing on unbleached, recycled paper and using soy-based inks. When considering recycled paper products, look for ones with the highest post-consumer content, which means paper that has been reclaimed from someone’s recycling bin. And eco-savvy shoppers always try to “pre-cycle,” which means choosing items with a minimum amount of packaging.
Picking a Site
In our mobile, car-centered society, one of the easiest ways to cut down on energy consumption is to keep bar or bat mitzvah-related activities as close together as possible. Also, pick venues that are energy-efficient and practice recycling. Set up car pools to transport guests between activities. Weather permitting, consider holding some events outdoors. Some families may want to schedule their party during the day to take advantage of natural light. Others may prefer an evening celebration but pick a site that uses energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs or even solar panels. One of the most important things to do is to have a frank conversation with the facilities manager to make sure he or she understands your commitment to conserving energy and reducing waste.
Food and Catering
If there’s one thing Jews can agree on, it’s that food is a central part of any Jewish celebration. Families can embrace the green-is-good ethos by serving organically grown, locally produced food, buying in bulk and making sure that food waste is composted. Ideally, and we stress ideally, no meat will be served. This guide isn't the place to describe in detail the environmental degradation that is associated with meat production – but the environmental effects are severe and well-documented.
Nonetheless, while we recognize that some families will be comfortable offering only vegetarian or dairy fare, others will want to stick with traditional menus built around an entrée of meat or poultry. If that’s the case, try to patronize local farmers whose livestock were raised on a healthy, hormone- and antibiotic-free diet of grass and grain.
Check to make sure that your caterer has eco-friendly principles and is equipped to recycle or donate leftover food. Plan to recycle as much trash as possible, keeping in mind that you’ll cut down on waste if you use cloth napkins and tablecloths, china and glass tableware, and stainless steel utensils. For the sake of convenience, many families will use some disposable tableware. In that case, look for a company that sells biodegradable dinnerware made from recycled materials.
For many families, no bar/bat mitzvah celebration would be complete without flowers on the bimah and centerpieces on the tables. Here, too, eco-conscious event planners can have an impact. For starters, you could choose plants instead of cut flowers. If your heart is set on the latter, consider buying local, seasonal, organic blooms. By doing so, you’ll cut down on the amount of pesticides in the environment, and you will not be subsidizing an industry that exploits poor workers in Central and South America.
Consider, too, the afterlife of such festive decorations as balloons. If allowed to escape into the wild, they can wreak havoc on the digestive tracts of animals. And Mylar balloons, which are made from foil, take a long time to break down. But there are still plenty of green ways to create a vivid, imaginative and memorable setting for your event. On lunch, dinner or buffet tables, you could have edible centerpieces made from fruit, nuts, candies, cookies or cupcakes. For party favors, consider using tiny trees in tubes, seed packets or organic chocolate bars. Find candles made from soy, palm or beeswax instead of paraffin, which is a petroleum product. A number of Web sites at the end of this guide offer dozens of terrific ideas about how to decorate in an environmentally sustainable way.
Gifts for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah
Part of the Jewish green movement is connecting tzedakah and service to the celebration of rites of passage. A bar or bat mitzvah can invite his or her party guests to bring a donation to a local charity in lieu of or in addition to a gift. Some teens have organized community service activities for their friends instead of a party. Teens who expect to receive gifts of jewelry can launch a discussion on their Web sites about eco-friendly guidelines for buying jewelry, which can be found on a number of environmental Web sites. Some young people have used part of their cash gifts to create a philanthropic fund or to invest in socially responsible mutual funds or stocks.
Perhaps the easiest way to perform tzedakah is to allocate a portion of gift money to organizations already working to help heal the environment. There are hundreds of community, national and international environmental groups that do great work on behalf of environmental issues, including some that focus on projects in Israel. The Jewish National Fund supports water projects in Israel and will issue certificates for contributions. One family in Los Angeles used the certificates as invitations to their child’s bar mitzvah. You can see how this works by clicking on the JNF Store tab on the JNF Web site (http://www.jnf.org/work-we-do/). Another program in Israel, Table to Table (http://www.tabletotable.org.il/english/about.php), distributes leftover food from catered events, cafeterias and farms to the needy. You could also support the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a research program dedicated to Arab/Israeli cooperation on environmental issues (http://www.arava.org/). Even if you ask guests to make contributions to charity instead of buying gifts, it’s almost certain you will receive some presents. In that case, tell them not to use wrapping paper, or wrap the items in recycled paper or newspaper.
In its pamphlet “Caring for the Cycle of Life,” http://coejl.org/celebrate/Caring_Cycle_Life.pdf , the Coalition on the Environment & Jewish Life (COEJL) suggests that the bar or bat mitzvah focus on the environmental aspects of the passage when discussing his or her Torah portion. In what season and landscape does it take place? How do people relate to the natural world around them? Are there any lessons to be learned about how we should relate to the environment?
Canfei Nesharim offers environmental commentaries on every Torah portion at http://www.canfeinesharim.org/community/parshas.php.
Not just the d'var Torah, but even something as simple as the kippot worn during the ceremony can be greened. The most obvious way is to bring your own or reused kippot from the synagogue or other religious services you have attended. If you want to buy new ones, there are Web sites that sell eco-friendly kippot made from organic cotton, recycled cardboard or, for the leather look, vegan suede. The “Green & Just Celebrations” guide encourages families to consider union-made head coverings (www.unionmadekippot.com) or those from worker cooperatives in the developing world (www.mayaworks.org or www.globalgoodspartners.org or www.weavafrica.org ).
Consider how deeply entwined environmentalism is with Judaism, beginning with the story of creation in Genesis. Our agricultural roots in Eretz Yisrael connect us to the land, and our calendar is grounded in the natural world. Our liturgy is rich in natural imagery, beginning with the image of the Torah itself as a tree of life. Consider Deuteronomy 20: 19-20: “When you besiege a town … you are not to bring ruin to any trees …” or Leviticus 23:22: “When you reap the harvest of your land … you shall leave the corners for the poor and the stranger.”