Lessons learned on the playground

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In May, our congregational community (with a lot of help from friends) built a new playground. In the middle of winter we asked our kids to draw pictures of what their dream playground would include; our design team from Play by Design drew up a plan, using our theme of Jerusalem; on a Sunday in May, under Play by Design’s professional direction, volunteers started the project and on the seventh day we ceased from work and rested. We have the best playground in the world.

A lot of people took responsibility for a lot of pieces of the project, but the most important lessons I learned were during the building itself. I have a casual friendship with power tools, mostly limiting myself to the one that makes holes and fills them with screws. But when I showed up to work, Barry, one of the professionals, insisted that I was capable of mastering whatever was put into my hands. Like a lot of people, I used jigsaws, routers, belt sanders, bolt cutters (yes, I know, not a power tool) and the familiar drill with a lot of unfamiliar bits for the first time, entrusted with bite-size tasks that contributed to the larger whole.


It was a practical lesson in leadership and community building. Barry and the other professionals promoted two messages: “You can do it and I am here to back you up,” and “Every contribution is essential.” The work site was filled with people whose skills were decidedly uneven, but it was egalitarian in the most profound sense. Willing hands performed whatever task was put in front of them, and they received encouragement and appreciation from people who knew what they were doing.

That model is a great one for life in general and Jewish life in particular. The construction professionals were responsible for keeping us on task and moving forward. They had the plans, and they knew the process. The rest of us were enthusiastic participants in the endeavor, encouraged and supported by people we trusted. Suggestions were welcome and often incorporated. In turn, if there were questions that the professionals could not answer, they looked to the people whose skill sets off the playground were valuable in the situation.

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We walked away having constructed a dream playground for the next generation and having gained much more in the process. Every worker can walk the playground and point to a screw, a painted piece of wood or an area of mulch and say, “I did that,” and the folks whose interests were in serving meals to the volunteers or making sure the insurance waivers were signed can point to the workers and say, “I made that happen.”

There are, of course, other kinds of leadership. As a rabbi, I am quite familiar with the hierarchical models on which I and my colleagues rely. With my title validating both my expertise and authority, it is usually simpler to issue an order than invite a discussion. When it comes to Jewish law or just local custom, our excuse is how much is at stake and why only people with established credentials should be entrusted with decision making. (Then, how much is at stake when a precious 4-year-old is on a platform eight feet up?)


And how many of us have encountered leaders in other circumstances who meet disagreement or discussion with dismissive behavior and non-negotiable marching orders.  The short-term result may satisfy the immediate circumstance, but the diminishment of the worker is almost certain to demoralize anyone tasked with future endeavors.

A story that makes the rounds in business circles is about the new manager who is brought on to revive the stalled building of a cathedral. He asks each worker what his task is, and he receives a variety of replies: I lay bricks, I mix mortar, I saw wood. Within a week of his arrival, the construction project suddenly is alive again. A visitor asks the manager the secret of his success, and he invites him to ask any worker what his task is. The answer from each one is the same: I build cathedrals.

Our playground is a marvel to behold and a ton of fun. People of every age can look at it with pride, and, just as important, they can look to each other as a comrade in arms. The Torah of the professional construction workers is what made it happen: “You can do it, and I am here to back you up” and “Every contribution is essential.”

As for me, I used to lead a synagogue. Now I build playgrounds.

Rabbi Jack Moline is the spiritual leader of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria.

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