Having studied engineering in college, I often get asked if I felt it was a waste, if it has anything to do with my work now. And my answer is always that, in fact, my work has a lot to do with engineering – thinking about optimizing systems, about solving problems, and about building solutions using data. I say my Jewish communal work is basically the same as bioengineering, except instead of working with cells and limbs, I’m working with Jewish people and communities. That includes using my data skills to develop formulas to optimize H2H’s effectiveness on campus, thinking about ways to redistribute resources across campuses, and conceptually thinking through everything with the eyes of an engineer. I sometimes say that my title should be “Jewish community engineer”!
One area I’ve found really connects my training and my current work is the area of Jewish law called Eruvin. It’s related to a specific law of Shabbat that precludes carrying objects into a public area, and eruvs are an early rabbinic invention to rectify that problem. Practically this entails building an architectural boundary, as well as ritual ways to create shared space. I was involved in running the Eruv at Penn, and am involved in running the Eruv in Washington Heights – which includes checking the eruv each week to make sure it’s still standing.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that Eruv actually has a lot to teach us about community – and specifically about including others in our community. I have a whole source sheet and shiur on the topic (contact me if you’d like to hear more) but the basic idea is that the point of an eruv is to join all the Jews in a geographic area into one shared communal domain. The boundaries of an Eruv serve to include, not to exclude – and not just ceremoniously, but in a real way. This entails knowing who’s in your neighborhood, and what it means to share community with them, and ways in which we could be doing that better. That’s part of why I constantly am asking religious college students how many Jews are on their campus — because it’s important to remember that we’re part of a greater Jewish community, that we have a responsibility towards, that our destiny is shared with theirs. It’s a nice idea, and it’s also at the core of how the rabbis established Eruvin.
I’ve recently gotten more interested in developing these ideas, so stay tuned for more on this topic. For now, let this be a reminder that a) areas of study and Torah and life can connect in unknowable ways, and b) especially if you live in a community with an Eruv, make sure you’re thinking about how to reach out to and include Jews in your neighborhood!