The green bar mitzvah: a cautionary tale

Guests revel at the eco-friendly bar mitzvah of Brendan Schwartz. (Charles Kozierok)

Guests revel at the eco-friendly bar mitzvah of Brendan Schwartz. (Charles Kozierok)

BENNINGTON, Vt. (JTA) — In keeping with my son Brendan’s bar mitzvah project on energy efficiency, I was committed to the idea of making the event eco-friendly.

With a little research, I found many ways to do this: a local venue with sustainably designed buildings and fueled largely by solar; compostable plates and cutlery; even kipot made from recycled cardboard. The green choices added little, if anything, to the cost.

As we headed into Brendan’s big weekend, I was feeling quite virtuous about it all, even rather pleased with myself.

Glimpse ahead to two days after the party: My husband, Tony, and I are standing on our driveway, which is radiating midsummer heat, up to our elbows in trash bags. We’re trying to tease out what of the remains from a weekend’s worth of celebrating goes into recycling vs. what can be composted vs. just plain (and now smelly) garbage.

I can assure you, I wasn’t feeling so smug now.

What happened? Simple: a classic case of “I thought you were going to label the bins …”

Our hosts at Pompanuck Farm Institute had done such a great job of identifying what went where for other events we had attended that I assumed they’d do the same for mine. They likely thought that since the caterer was running the show, she would arrange disposal. The caterer, in turn, thought that since we wanted the party to be green, we would green it. (Only later did friends say, “I knew you wanted it green, but we didn’t know where to throw things.”)

So in order to keep ourselves honest about our minimal-impact pledge, we had to get up close and personal with the weekend’s waste. While we were able to streamline the amount destined for the landfill down to three medium trash bags, I could have done without the extra confrontation with the swill.

The lesson: Making something green involves not just good intentions and deft purchasing, but also the more down-to-earth tasks of planning, implementing and following through on how to get rid of the garbage you generate — inevitably a higher volume than you’d ever guess.

The service, afternoon kiddush and Saturday night party went off beautifully. (I trust in this company it’s OK to kvell that Brendan did a fabulous job, chanting well despite a weeklong head cold, delivering a speech that revealed a depth of thought about Judaism that surprised me, and performing his own songs on his solar-fueled electric guitar.) Sunday we said goodbye to folk and in general recovered. And on Monday, Tony headed over to Pompanuck and met his nemesis: a bunch of steaming mounds of trash.

“Maybe we’ll just leave it and let it go out with your regular pick-up,” he said, wiping his brow, to Pompanuck ‘s co-director, Scott Carrino.

Scott shrugged.

“You can,” he said, “but around here it all goes into an incinerator.”

Oh no! Our refuse — compostable, recyclable and otherwise — wouldn’t just go quietly to the landfill and benignly decompose. It was to combust and become fumes in the air! How “green” was that? Tony called me and, resigned to our fate, agreed: He’d haul it back.

The Jewish life cycle and yearly cycle are full of celebrations; that is something we as Jews cherish. God willing, minimizing the environmental impact of our celebrations will become second nature, so that we’ll automatically think to compost, reuse and recycle before throwing things away just as many of us are trying to buy local or organic, switch to low-energy lighting, cut back on driving.

But we’re now coming off decades of institutionalized indifference to what happens to debris: We throw a party, the trash goes out and no one’s the wiser. I can regard our post-bar mitzvah adventure not as a failure but as one small arc on our collective learning curve.

I can see that things already are changing. There is now a Green bar mitzvah Web site, www.greenbarmitzvahs.com, with ideas like renting digital cameras rather than supplying disposable ones. Where was this resource six months ago when I needed it? (Full disclosure: Brendan’s bar mitzvah is noted on the blog.)

Who knows? Maybe soon one of the first questions people ask about an upcoming bar/bat mitzvah — after “Where is the party?” and “What’s the parshat?” — will be “Where are you composting?”

(Judith D. Schwartz writes, and composts, in Bennington, Vt.)

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