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Hand-Me-Downs

Read this story in the Washington Jewish Week

No one warned me about the T-shirts.

To be honest, some moms did try. I just thought they were exaggerating.

They weren’t.

It all began late May of eighth grade. My daughter had just returned from her first BBG chapter convention. Among her laundry were several new T-shirts. By “new” I mean new to us. They were, in fact, hand-me-downs from the girls in her chapter who were graduating high school and BBG. Among the honors given to the senior girls (and it is the same for the boys in AZA) is the chance to give “lives.” I was not in BBG, so I will try to explain this ritual as best as I can from my knowledge as a mom.

During “lives,” the senior is allowed to speak as long as she would like (to give you an idea of what I’m saying — one girl spoke for seven hours this year. Seven hours! Not a typo. And she was not attempting a filibuster). To continue, she speaks as long as she needs to about her life in BBYO. I have never sat through one of these speeches and cannot begin to imagine how one could fill seven hours, but I know that songs are played and tears are shed and candles are burned.

Significantly, during these marathon sessions, younger girls are singled out and T-shirts are distributed.

“This T-shirt was from my first summer program and you remind me of me and you’re going to your first summer program and I know you’ll do amazing things in BBYO, so, here’s my T-shirt.”

(That’s how I imagine this conversation going.)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a HUGE deal for the kids. The older ones really think very hard about to whom to give what and the younger ones are made to feel truly special by the notice. There are even special designations awarded, something like “past,” “future” and “life.” From what I understand, these are given to younger girls (or boys, for AZA) who the senior believes is likely to carry on her work in BBYO — these are the girls they truly see themselves in. To be given a senior’s “life” is viewed as a high honor. The younger girls look up to the older and to be told that these older peers see them as future leaders is an incredible motivator.

These T-shirts are more precious than anything my daughter could buy at South Moon Under.

So, I thought I was being smart and went out and bought an under-the-bed box to house them. But, I was barely finished patting myself on the back for being so organized when the box was filled to capacity. I bought another, that quickly filled. And, like the Barbie dolls of her toddler years, these T-shirts have somehow procreated under the bed and have now taken over the guest bedroom and basement. Now I understand why, when I was congratulating a mom on her daughter’s graduation, her response was, “At least now I got all those T-shirts out of my house.”

One of my friends suggested to her daughter that she tell the seniors that she has enough shirts and to give them only to the other girls. But no, each shirt is precious. Each one tells a story and has a meaning.

It’s a little ridiculous.

On the other hand, I have also wondered why they had to give all of them away. The T-shirt from the national summit she coordinated — isn’t that special? The sweatshirt from her year as an international board member, shouldn’t that be saved for a granddaughter? No, I’ve been told. These shirts belong to the chapter. They have to stay with the chapter.

This past May, my son came home with his first big green bag filled with shirts (this time, I knew enough to send him to his chapter convention with an empty garbage bag). One of the guys had given him a T-shirt with the chapter name “Melech” written into a drawing of a fish. It was made the year the members were big fans of the band Phish. My son, a salt-water tank hobbyist and the one who convinced the chapter to raise money for the coral reef, was a natural recipient of the T-shirt. The boy who gave him the shirt made him promise that he wouldn’t keep it — that he would pass it on to another member when he graduated. When he showed the shirt to his sister, she told him that it was a rare shirt — only a few were made and are still in circulation. She was impressed that he had received it. It has become his favorite shirt.

A few weeks ago, even though it was very hot outside and even though it is a long-sleeved black shirt, he wore it to the Federation’s Israel@65. A young man in his 20s approached him. “Are you in Melech?” he asked my son. “That was my T-shirt!”

Turns out, he was in the chapter the year the T-shirt was made. The two started talking — a connection of brothers made by a T-shirt.

I think I’m beginning to understand.

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