Communal Meals Without Plastic

This week, throughout the world, synagogues and Jewish Community Centers will gather to mark Tu B'shevat, the birthday of the trees, by holding special sedarim, seders, modeled after the Passover ritual. Often directed at our children, these communal meals will feature four cups of wine or grape juice and will explore different religious teachings about our connection to the land through the varieties of fruit consumed. Seder participants will learn about the Jewish laws commanding us to be shomrei adamah, good stewards of the earth and its resources. This all sounds spiritual and worthy until you look a little closer. What is wrong with this picture? Celebrating the many gifts trees give us by serving cups of grape juice and plates of fruit -- on plastic and Styrofoam.

Too many of our Tu B'shevat seders, just as too many of all our Jewish communal meals, primarily utilize disposables. As a congregational rabbi and visiting scholar, I attend a lot of "onegs," social hours. These desserts are all pretty similar with their thick plastic plates sitting on brightly colored table covering made of more plastic. After Shabbat services or a lecture, I greet people and answer questions as they clutch Styrofoam coffee cups. Standing in these synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, I have frequently wondered why is it so hard for the Jewish community to live the environmental values we proudly espouse.

Some of my hosts realize how dissonant it is to have me speak about these values, especially environmentalism, and then to end the program with a plastic laden dessert. So, these more motivated groups revisit their usual spreads and work hard to have a meal reflecting sustainable practices. Yet, I often wonder if this one singular eco- oneg will translate into long term sustainable practices. More often than not, I still see plenty of plastic, as most institutions do not even think to hide the disposables when they are holding a program promoting ethical eating.

I am told it is too hard and too expensive to avoid disposables. I am told that in this age of super tight budgets and extreme pressures on institutional Judaism a sustainable meal must take a much lower priority to sustaining our Jewish future. These concerns are real and true, but I see it another way. Food is a force which binds us together in community and reflects our deepest values of connecting to one another and to God the source of our sustenance. When we serve in the cheapest way possible, we short change ourselves. When we skimp on the meal by stripping away the values we intend to uphold, we devalue our community.

The Torah commands us, "When in your war against a city and you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down... Only trees of the field that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced." (Deut. 20:19-20) From this the rabbis draw the value of bal tashchit, not wantonly destroying our precious resources. This text teaches us an important lesson for today; we must not forget to care for our environment even when we are engaged in priorities which seem to be more pressing at the present time.

The synagogues in which I have served and presently serve struggle with these same issues that every institution faces. Making environmentalism a priority is challenging in these days of shrinking funds and competing priorities. However, if we want to be true to our mission to make this world a better place, we need to take an honest look at our values and actions and ask if they are aligned. Every community needs to assemble a green team to look at communal environmental practices. Greening one's oneg is a process that will involve stages and compromise, and the green teams can start their work with a cup of coffee.

While all environmental values are important to embrace and we must strive to integrate them into our institutional practices, our communal meals are the perfect place to begin as we heed the imperative of protecting our environment. The focal point of our community gatherings, our meals, whether a light nosh or full spread, must showcase our values.