NPR’s “Planet Money” recently aired a series about the life of t-shirts. One t-shirt in particular captured the imagination of the show’s producers. The shirt - once owned by Rachel Williams (a nametag was ironed on) - was a giveaway from the 1993 Bat Mitzvah of someone named Jennifer, and was discovered in a rummage bin in Kenya.
The producers set out to find Jennifer and Rachel. Within a day or two, Jewish geography and Facebook helped track down both women.
Here is what Rachel had to say:
"Three thoughts. First, I’m glad the shirt is getting used instead of sitting in a drawer or landfill. Second, I feel a bit guilty that some people have so little that they might end up wearing a silly shirt from my childhood. And third, I’m impressed that the name tag [sic] my mom ironed on for overnight camp has lasted this long!"
It is indeed impressive that the nametag lasted a journey of 20 years and some 14,000 kilometers. But I found myself dwelling more on Rachel’s first two points. It does seem better for someone in need to have the shirt than to have it languishing, unused, in a drawer, or taking up space in a landfill. But is Rachel’s shirt an exception or the rule: Do most of our simcha swag eventually end up in the hands of the world’s neediest, or do they sit unused in our closets or dumps?
I do not know how much of the simcha swag that the average Jewish American kid accumulates goes to charity, and how much gets forgotten about or eventually tossed out, but I do know the amount they amass in the first place is tremendous: Every Sunday the kids in my congregation arrive at Hebrew school wearing a fresh new hoodie they got at the previous evening’s Bar or Bat Mitzvha, and most attend upwards of 30 such events each year.
In the course of my youth, I too acquired a significant amount of Bar and Bat Mitzvah regalia, and over the years my mother and I weeded through the collection, giving away a fair amount, but not all of it. I imagine that that’s how it is for most affiliated Jews: it’s doubtful that much of our simcha swag ends up being donated.
Now consider how much of these souvenirs we actually need. When was the last time you heard a kid leaving a Bar Mitzvah party, new shirt in hand, exclaiming, “I literally had nothing to wear this summer. Thank God for Sammy Lefkowitz’s Bar Mitzvah!” This makes it hard to consider the practice of distributing swag to guests as anything other than profoundly wasteful. We know the recipients do not need it, and can safely assume most guests will ultimately discard it.
The Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) prohibits us from wasting or needlessly destroying any useful resource. That means that if one has an article of clothing that she does not need, she must give it to someone in need. But the command also means that one must be careful not to act in such a way that would lead to wastefulness, like acquiring more than one needs, or giving a gift that will likely be discarded.
Even if it were not wasteful, and most of our old gear ultimately went to the disadvantaged, I have doubts that it would yet outweigh the human and environmental costs involved in its cheap mass-production.
Moreover, it would not outweigh the negative impact the simcha swag culture has on many of our communities. Often, simcha swag embodies the empty and nefarious consumerism so prevalent in our time, subtly communicating that the only way to really love our children or honor our guests is to provide great giveaways. It turns our celebrations into competitions over who gives the best favors. Most tragically, it can generate real hurt among the kids who were left off the guest list, the ones who show up to school being the only kids not wearing the latest status symbol.
True, kids like keepsakes. And there are other elements of Bar Mitzvah parties that are at least as nefarious and wasteful. But swag seems such a nonessential element of party planning (compared, say, to the DJ, decorations and food) that parents within our communities really could join in declaring an armistice. Perhaps they could pool the money they save to do some meaningful good in the world, something deeper and more lasting than donating old clothing. At the end of the day, a Bar Mitzvah celebrates a Jewish child becoming obligated to obey the Torah’s commandments. In this small way, we can come closer to celebrating the moment in a way that upholds Judaism’s most central values.
Rabbi Michael Knopf, a Rabbi Without Borders, is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Facebook.