Jacob Gelber, center — with his parents, Anna Hackman and Bob Gelber, and brothers, from left, Joshua, Joey, and Scott — had an eco-friendly bar mitzva, from the compostable plates and reusable centerpieces to local organic food, hemp kipot, and plantable thank-you notes.
Photos by Allan Reider Studio
October 16, 2008
Hemp kipot, local organic meat, paperless invitations, and compostable place settings marked Jacob Gelber’s bar mitzva as unconventionally green.
The eco-friendly celebration also marked a crowning achievement for Anna Hackman, the bar mitzva boy’s 49-year-old mother, who writes about her “energy-efficient, nontoxic, and sustainable” lifestyle at her blog, www.green-talk.com.
“I want to push the envelope. If I do 10 things, maybe someone else will do five.”
So when it came time for Jacob, her third child, to become bar mitzva Aug. 30, she knew she would have a green affair that would not send people running either for or from their Birkenstocks.
There would be “lots of food, lots of dancing, lots of music…an elegant affair,” she said, sitting in the living room of her custom-built Georgian colonial in Mendham.
(The house was built to green standards under her direction, from materials used to energy-efficient systems. Every piece of furniture — from the classic blue sofas to the large brass-framed mirror, to the ornate secretary — is second-hand.)
There were plenty of events planned for the guests — Friday night dinner for out-of-towners, Shabbat morning kiddush luncheon following services at the Morristown Jewish Center-Beit Yisrael, Saturday night barbecue at home, Sunday morning brunch, and a black-tie-optional affair on Sunday evening at the Grand Summit Hotel, where Hackman’s husband, Bob Gelber, is one of the owners.
Given her husband’s position, she felt she had to maintain certain standards.
Among the green flourishes at Jacob’s bar mitzva party were the rented movie-themed centerpieces topped with plants rather than flowers; the arrangements were returned after the celebration.
“Could it have been greener? Yeah, it could have. I realize that,” she acknowledged, adding that the affair could also have been more casual. “I could have come in Birkenstocks and had klezmer music…but that’s not what this area is like. I wanted to do something mainstream that people can identify with. Sometimes, if you go too far to one side, people won’t embrace it.”
But the distance that she did go meant no plastic water bottles in the welcome baskets in the hotel rooms, and teenagers heading home without the usual disposable plastic goodies — no sunglasses or necklaces, no plastic anything — just an organic cotton T-shirt imprinted with non-polluting ink.
Hackman worked with caterers and a chef at the hotel to ensure the food was locally sourced and organic. They brought in local beer, and organic vodka and scotch; they served wild-caught sea bass and free-range organic poultry and meat. Even the mini-hamburgers for the kids were made from organic meat. Most of the produce was locally sourced and organic as well. It helped that the affair was held at the end of August.
“If you need to do an affair like the Gelbers’, pick a date when we can get local vegetables. If you do it in January, it’s much harder to do,” said director of catering Jimmy Thornten, who said he has seen a rise in requests for local organic affairs “in the last couple of years.”
Both the general manager and catering directors at the Grand Summit “are gardeners like me,” Hackman said, “so they truly understood me.” She did have a mild battle with her husband over the water bottles in the baskets, but ultimately she held the day.
At the barbecue at home on Saturday night, Hackman served kosher organic meat from Wise Organic Pastures. And while her dress for the Sunday night affair was elegant — a designer number with silver appliqued flowers on a black sheer overlaid bodice with a flowing black skirt and train — she bought it at a second-hand shop to avoid using more manufacturing resources.
Concerned about how much trash paper invitations create, she went to myevent.com, where she created a website ($9.95-$14.95 per month, or $99-$149 per year) for Jacob’s bar mitzva with information about all of the events.
“I didn’t want to send out e-vites for every party,” she said. This offered a more “elegant” and “personalized” solution, she said. “Ping! They could find everything on this website in one place.”
She found hemp kipot made in New Jersey through a fair-trade website run by someone in Maine ($7.95 each, $3.25-$3.70 bulk; the site is brand-new and has only taken one or two dozen orders, all in New Jersey and California). She found a weaver in Bethesda, Md., who handcrafted a tallit for Jacob out of organic cotton. She used 100 percent recycled paper for the explanatory booklet distributed at the synagogue service and even used hand-stamped recycled cocktail napkins at the party.
Hackman rented centerpieces with a cinema theme from Debbie’s Designs in Wayne — and returned them after the party to be used again. She bought used DVDs to use as place cards.
Plants, rather than flowers, made their way into centerpieces at the other events, and guests took them home to replant. In a final flourish, Jacob’s thank-you notes were made of seeded paper, so guests can plant them instead of tossing them in the trash.
Speaking of green…
While few people take parties to the green level Hackman did, party planners say they are ready for them.
Elizabeth Ngonzi, founder and president of Amazing Taste, a South Orange company that does strategic market research and event planning, said she has seen a 100 percent increase in requests for green parties in one year. She established the company in 2001 to focus on substainability.
“Last year I was pushing it on my clients. Now, every client is asking for it.” She works primarily with not-for-profit organizations and corporations, and she said many of these organizations now mandate that all events must have a sustainable element. She runs about 15 events per year.
Meanwhile, at Audience Pleasers, an Upper Montclair party planner that runs about 880 events per year, president Dennis Telischak said the company is receiving some requests for eco-friendly parties, but not in the numbers they had expected.
Telischak and his employees have attended seminars and symposia to learn how to go green. So far, about 10 percent of their customers are requesting some level of sustainability.
One reason people shy away from it is cost.
Costs for such events “are always more,” he said. “Food budgets for organic food are at least double that of non-organic events. Even some well-to-do clients have sat down and said, ‘Listen, we have to cut back.’”
Requests he called “hot” include avoiding bottled water and using potted plants rather than cut flowers in centerpieces. He’s also created centerpieces with fruit that celebrants can take home in a burlap gift bag.
“We would love to go all the way,” said Telischak. “We have three college interns chomping at the bit to do an all-out organic event. We’ve actually tried to steer customers to it from a responsible/ethical perspective. We’re a little disappointed that we haven’t been able to convince more clients to do it.”
Some vendors point out that it’s not always obvious what makes a product green. For example, Alissa Stern, who wove Jacob’s tallit, used organic cotton fiber with about 10 percent artificial dyes. She said about 20 percent of her customers request a “green” tallit, but about half of these end up with silk. That’s in part due to price, since the green fibers can approach silk in cost.
While Stern does not consider silk a green fiber, it does have staying power; since it can be passed down through generations, it ultimately conserves resources. Meanwhile, the greenest fiber, wool, has its detractors — it’s itchy and heavy, and some people are allergic. Hemp and linen are green and harken back to biblical times, but they wrinkle and require energy-intensive dry-cleaning and ironing.
“It’s difficult to be 100 percent green; green choices require a balance,” she said. They are also costly. Her hand-woven tallitot range in cost from $500 for cotton to $800 for silk. (The green fibers are somewhere in between.) Each one takes her about three months to complete.
What did Jacob think about his bar mitzva? Mostly, he said, he’s glad it’s over. But when pressed, he said the most memorable part was “going up there and reading from the Torah and holding the Torah and seeing all my cousins and friends.”
His Torah portion just happened to be Re’eh, which includes discussion of the sabbatical year — an agricultural cooling-off period that has long inspired Jewish environmentalists.
Jacob’s thought? “It’s cool,” he said. “I wish we could all observe it.”
To plan a green party
Here are some of the vendors Anna Hackman used, as well as the party planners NJJN spoke with in reporting this article.
Strategic corporate and not-for-profit marketing and event planning
Event coordinator, rentable themed centerpieces
Tallit and Judaica weaver
(She is on sabbatical through June)
Eric Odier-Fink/Justice Clothing
Fair trade kipot made by union workers
Web-based event planning
Wise Organic Pastures
Local kosher organic meat