Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
Last March those big electronic traffic information signs began to appear in the Albany neighborhood where I live and work. They warned motorists and pedestrians alike of the construction project which was to take place on the route 85 overpass bridge that connects Albany and Guilderland. The State’s Department of Transportation would repair and widen both sides of the bridge, as well as knock down and rebuild other overpass bridges nearby. Our bridge, open to non-motorists during the project, would be closed to vehicles in each direction at different times. Everywhere we would be dealing with detours.
Detours are the price we pay for improvement, so my friends, family, and I were ready to put up with the inconvenience. Yet I became keenly aware of just how disruptive the repairs might be to the life of the synagogue community of which I am the spiritual leader, since our congregation is right near the bridge. The work and the detours began the day after a popular Jewish holiday. As if descending from heaven, a makeshift congregation of construction workers, engineers, and contractors filled the area around the bridge and near the synagogue, bringing with them jack hammers, cranes, back hoes, portasans, hard hats, trucks of all shapes and sizes: the tools of their work. My kids were overjoyed by all this cool construction stuff. I was overwhelmed and a bit put off. As a rabbi I live in the quiet, though very intense world of worship, counseling, education, and spirituality. I help people to examine their inner lives and their spiritual commitments. This construction crew was the exact opposite of my daily experience. Here were strong, tough looking people doing the hard physical labor of building that bridge with machinery whose sheer size and power could be intimidating.
Each day, driving to work near the construction site I see the same people out there building, repairing, tearing things down, and directing traffic. From one’s car it becomes easy to ignore them after a while. You drive on to what you need to do, accepting the fact that a bunch of hard hats whose names you do not know have invaded your community to do all this endless work which becomes background noise to your busy day. You conveniently dismiss them as people with whom you have nothing in common who will soon be gone.
However, as a pedestrian without the protection of a vehicle, your perspective changes. As a religiously observant Jew I don’t drive on Saturday, which is the Jewish Sabbath. I walk everywhere, including over that bridge. Lately, the workers have been putting in a lot of time on Saturdays in order to get the project done before the Winter. As a walker I come into much closer contact with each of them. I see the details of their faces. I hear them laughing with each other and barking orders. Some of them are men; some are women. They are Black, White, Hispanic, Asian. Even for the briefest moment we stop to say hello or to exchange a lighthearted comment about the weather or their work. “So you guys gonna be finished by November, huh?” I ask one of them, trying pitifully to sound like a tough guy myself. In good weather, one of them sounds almost like a preacher when he reminds me that this is a day worth being thankful for. Walking instead of driving, I remember that each of these people has a life which in many ways is no different from my own. These workers aren’t interlopers to be tolerated until they leave our community: they are our community.
As we were walking home from worship one day, one of my friends suggested that, when the bridge is done, we should invite the whole crew to join us at the dessert reception which follows our services, and that we should say the traditional blessing which you recite upon reaching a special occasion. Thinking about what I share with this group of folks I recognize that, though it probably won’t come to fruition, this idea holds a great truth. The 19th century spiritual master Rabbi Nachman of Breslau once taught that life in this world can be compared to a very narrow and dangerous bridge. Our job is to try to never be afraid as we walk over it. I, wearing my traditional skull cap, and these construction workers in their hard hats are doing the same thing: we are working hard to widen the bridge and to make it safer to cross.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.
© 2010 by Rabbi Dan Ornstein.