Jewish Swag

Swag from JFNA GA 2018

By Erica Brown

Now that the semester’s ending, I’ve decided to take up quilting over the winter break. Specifically, I’m making a quilt out of tote bags I’ve gotten at Jewish conferences. You know the ones; representing the entire span of Jewish organizational life, they tumble out of your hall closet, making you feel like you just came back from the G.A. every time you open the door. By the look of it, my quilt is likely to cover a small state, possibly Rhode Island or New Jersey. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this quilt, just like I’ve never been sure what to do with all these bags.

Use them, you’re thinking. Not a chance. Even those of you who sprung for the two-toned gusseted, heavy-gauge 12 ounce canvas with a pocket, two-ply 28” handles and attached key holder, I will not be wearing your tote bag. I will not even wear it if Prada produced your tote bag … well, I’d think about it.

Here’s why: First of all, every organization in our community is important. Why would I privilege one over another? You’re right, I could wear a different one every day. Good compromise. Problem: I’m the type who always forgets to transfer my wallet from one bag to another so this arrangement would not work. Plus I have a small hall closet.

Second of all, I’m not a billboard for your organization. If you work tirelessly on behalf of a specific denomination, I cannot wear your bag, and if you don’t have a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator, I am, in principle, not wearing your bag. Decades ago, to amuse myself, I sent one of my sons to his Lubavitch pre-school with a change of clothes in a bag that said “The Courage to Be Modern and Orthodox,” given out by a now defunct organization from one of their conferences. I know. It was a little snarky. But it gave me a laugh, and it made me feel good to re-purpose the bag.

Here’s reason number three: In doing research for my new quilt project, I looked up the cost of the two-toned gusseted bag. On sale with the logo, it was $9.39 each for a quantity of 25. That’s close to a thousand dollars for a conference of 100 participants. You bought the bag to house all the material that you want to give out. Reams and reams of paper. Color brochures that will be skimmed during your plenary session and tossed into a recycling bin without a hesitation. Annual reports that need to stay on your website. Don’t think color. Think content. If a hard copy of your educational material helps people learn, print that. But if someone is reading all your literature during a plenary, the problem isn’t the literature; it’s that your plenary may not be sufficiently engaging.

While, we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Jewish pens. Either your organization is getting the cheap pen that will not even write without aggressively pressing it down in continuous circles until it punctures your notepad, or you’re buying a really expensive pen that makes me feel, well, uncomfortable. Please don’t spend money on that pen. We all own pens. And then there’s the journals with the stretchy elastic marker. Everyone who’s anyone has one of those. I have a library of them, empty sentinels to well-intended reflections that didn’t make it on to the page. Sometimes, if I’m feeling really pluralistic or naughty, I use a different tote, pen and journal just to confuse the enemy.

Here’s reason number four and the most important reason to stop with the tote bags: the Bible contains a prohibition against waste: baal tashkhit. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 prohibits the cutting down of fruit trees during war. Needless destruction is unwarranted. Thus, the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud extended this principle to chopping furniture, ripping clothing unnecessarily, and wasting oil [see BT Shabbat 67b, BT Hullin 7b, BT Kiddushin 32a]. Had they been around today, I wonder what the sages would have to say about our conference USB flash drives, mugs, our monogrammed stressballs, our water bottles (so many water bottles!) our caps and t-shirts. We all own these already. Too many of these.

It is a profoundly Jewish value not to waste. But there’s a Jewish value far deeper: the waste of human resources. Those tote bags are produced cheaply because someone overseas is getting paid a pittance per day to make them for the huge maw that is the American consumer. That person may be a child. Is your tote bag worth that? If you told me that in lieu of your tote bag, your organization has sent the same amount in a charitable donation to support education for children who would otherwise have to work in Africa or the Far East, I’d smile broadly, go home without shoulder pain and think to myself, “Finally, we got it right. “

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.