Last Shabbat, my son-in-law, Rabbi David Vaisberg, hosted a minister, the Rev. Dr. Ronald L. Owens of Metuchen’s New Hope Baptist Church, at his shul, Temple Emanu-El of Edison.
The Rev. Owens is a good speaker, charismatic, exciting, and elegant. It was the Friday night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the Rev. Owens talked about the strong connections between his faith and ours, and how the strength of that connection, the Exodus story that speaks to all of us — them far more recently — has profound meaning for all of us, then and now.
The Rev. Owens spoke forcefully about bridges and walls, and about how what we need now — what we need always — are bridges. Walls can be important, he said. Sometimes there are external threats, and they keep those threats out. But bridges make the kind of connections between people that can obviate the need for walls.
Of course it’s much easier to be metaphoric than real. The stakes are far lower. But I thought about bridges the next day, as I drove between New Jersey and New York — to be specific, from Metuchen to Lake Success to Manhattan and back, over — this is not the right order, but I’m too geographically challenged to do it right — the George Washington, the Throggs Neck, the Whitestone, the Triboro, the Outerbridge, the Goethals, and the Verrazzano. (Yes, it cost an absolute fortune.) (And fun fact — the Outerbridge is actually the Outerbridge Crossing, because the family name was Outerbridge. And a scion of that early American family married a Horsey; Outerbridge Horseys have been senators and congressmen for centuries, although the last one, the father of no other Outerbridge Horseys, Outerbridge Horsey VII, is an architect, not a politician. But once again I digress.)
We know, for example, that once the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank — which is controversial — was built, the number of terrorist attacks went down and fewer people died as a result of suicide attacks.
Walls are an ancient protective device — Jerusalem was walled, and we remember the story of Rahab, who lived by the wall, was not reputable, but saved the Israelite spies. We also know that walls traditionally have been used to keep people — as in Jewish people — in fetid ghettos, in the medieval period and during the Holocaust. On the whole, they have not been good for Jews.
Bridges, on the other hand, are high and open and free; you soar above the water and watch the small boats and hustling ferries and huge freighters below. (If you are driving, of course, you do that carefully.) Some of the bridges seem to be working-class — they are somehow muscular, more solid than graceful, made of great slabs of steel, and they tend to be set next to railroad bridges, over industrial areas.
Others are made of swoops of cable, going up to high arches and then back down toward the road, then up again. Your eye soars with them, and so does your spirit.
The Verrazzano is perhaps the most beautiful of the bridges, similar to the George Washington but narrower, steeper, and even more dramatic. When you drive over it, you see New York Harbor on either side of you, heading out to the ocean on one side, and on the other presenting you with the city, many boroughs of the city, all open to you, all connected by sparkling water. You could go anywhere. The bridge connects everything, and it lets you fly.
It was through those waterways, into that harbor, that many of our grandparents and great grandparents entered the city. It wasn’t easy for them, but it gave them life.
So while there certainly is a need for walls, we should remember that the human heart and mind and spirit infinitely prefer bridges.