Starting with One Small Step

In Parshas Vayishlach, we read the story of Yaakov crossing back over the river to retrieve the small vessels he left behind the night before he was due to meet Eisav. He didn’t know what he was facing the next morning; he was planning to minimize deaths in his family if the meeting turned violent while making efforts to make sure it didn’t through prayer and gifts to his brother.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I had the zechus of first hearing of the teaching of Ben Bag-Bag from Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” In turning and turning this parsha this year, I found something I had never noticed. What was the result of Yaakov retrieving those bottles? Of course, the fight with Eisav’s angel and, of course, Yaakov’s name change and his injury. But what else? Through his actions, Yaakov teaches us about taking responsibility for our belongings, using what HaShem has given us to the utmost. Yaakov didn’t just make new bottles and forget the old ones because it was too much trouble. He didn’t just dump them and assume they weren’t his problem anymore. Yaakov teaches us how to be grateful to HaShem for everything he gives to us, and sounds a quiet note to think about how the way we handle our “small bottles” impacts the amazing gift HaShem has given us in the planet Earth.

So who am I and why am I writing this blog? I am a Jewish mom in Ohio. I have three kids, and my husband and I both work outside the home. A long-time recycler, I had been making a few feeble attempts at incorporating the other sides of the environmental triangle—reducing and reusing—when a spark came to me about increasing my own small efforts to use what HaShem has given me mindfully and with an eye toward stewardship. I started reading books on “zero-waste” (an extreme I’m not aiming for) and searching out podcasts and blogs. I noticed that these resources, which all focus on being “zero waste,” are written for a subset of people. That subset doesn’t include frum Jews with our larger families, kashrus, Shabbos, yomim tovim, community commitments, and more. Most importantly (as a wise friend pointed out), zero-waste for many of its practitioners takes on the centrality and fervor we Jews reserve for our Yiddishkeit.

I can’t find the kind of resources I need, so I am building my own. My aim is to help myself and other frum Jews who also want to focus on their small bottles (and cans and more) as part of their avodas HaShem. My goal is to offer solutions that fit with our needs and that recognize all the ways Orthodox Jews already live low-waste through gemachs and through the informal giveaway groups that spring up on Facebook or in WhatsApp chats. And I wanted a place that was honest about challenges and failures and built for people to pick and choose the things that work for them while not being judged about the things that don’t work for them. Hopefully, this will grow into an online community that people both get and give help from.

One last introductory note: A lot of my low-waste tricks started during the eight years I wasn’t working full time so I could stay at home with my kids. Money was tight, so frugality and low-waste became a necessary way to live. While I will suggest certain low-waste products that I have purchased, my focus will be finding ways to use and reuse rather than buying. After all, the “greenest” product is the one you already own.

And now, let’s talk tachlis!

We spent Yom Kippur and Sukkos as guests in our friends’ house in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph (thanks Rivky Weiss), and I quite quickly noticed they don’t have paper towels. They aren’t out of paper towels, they just don’t have them, even though they have four active kids and some dogs in the mix. The first few days were rough. Wiping counters down with a kitchen cloth made sense, but what about cleaning out drain traps or food from containers that needed to be washed? It didn’t take long to figure out that a spoon worked great for most things, and for the ones that didn’t it was easy to grab a piece of paper that had been used and was no longer needed. Voila! Paper was being used as a towel, but I wasn’t using new resources or spending money.

In two weeks, I kicked my lifelong paper towel habit. When I returned to America, I grabbed my neglected kitchen rags and put them to use. Following my lead, my husband has almost totally stopped using paper towels. I’ve even gotten my kids to use the cloth rags on occasion, mostly by putting the roll in very inconvenient spots. We are not paper-towel free, but we’re very close. (I do need more kitchen rags than I used to, so I cut down some of my old dish towels and even a bath towel that was getting a little ratty. There are plenty of microfiber cloths out there that would work great, but I haven’t found them necessary.)

We learn the mitzvah of bal tashchit from the command not to cut down fruit trees, even in time of war. If every U.S. household used just one less roll of paper towels each year, it would prevent 544,000 trees from being cut down, not to mention the savings in water (paper production uses a lot of water) and energy. And at about $1 a roll, the savings add up, especially for larger families.

Until next Thursday, 
Amy

Click to see the ongoing impact of my low-waste changes (updated each week). 

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