taring at that monstrosity from the ground up we wondered how on earth we’d be able to scale its tower to make the climb. When we initially embarked on this excursion we just assumed there would be an elevator to gracefully lift us up into the control cab of the crane operators we were to meet.
But there are no elevators to be found on these construction cranes. Access to the control cab is through a ladder staircase threaded through the vertical shaft supporting the crane’s arm. I tried not to look up (and after a few minutes of climbing not to look down either) and soon realized why they gave us gloves — it was for those metal hooks we were grabbing on to for support during the ascent. But I didn’t complain: Eli Segal our brave photographer managed the climb with all his photography equipment strapped on.
Yet after countless stairs and even more huffing and puffing there we were in the cab 240 feet in the air feeling a bit like when the Ferris Wheel stops at the top of the arc and leaves you swaying in the sky. This particular crane is at a construction site near theAshdodbeach with the entire city spread out on one side and the port and expanse of theMediterraneanon the other.
We didn’t come for the view though. We were here to meet Israel’s two most unconventional crane operators — both bearded with peyos clad in white shirts and tzitzis. And no they are not up here to fix the city’s eiruv.
Reb Chaim Leib Schwartz a Belzer chassid fromAshdod is the regular crane operator here and his friend and colleague Reb Yitzchak Alberstein a Gerrer chassid joined us today although he usually operates a crane at a different site.
Chaim Leib gives a quick demonstration. There are two levers — one moves the crane up and down while the other moves it from right to left. Outside there are two arms. The long front arm is called the horizontal jib which is the operating arm and then there’s the counter jib the shorter back arm which serves as a counterbalance to the weight on the crane. That’s it in a nutshell.
“The principle of a crane is really quite simple” explains Chaim Leib of those mammoth contraptions that are planted at every major construction site. “The horizontal jib enables you to move loads from a location on the ground to a location higher up on the construction site such as in a building that is going up. The modern cranes have a hoist rope wire ropes or chains and sheaves that can be used both to lift and lower materials and move them horizontally. We raise construction materials cables concrete cement and other raw materials. I once even lifted a tractor.”
According to Chaim Leib 80 percent of the construction process relies on the crane operator. If he’s diligent he can advance the pace of construction significantly. “But if he schleps he can hold up a project and 30 workers can be sitting and doing nothing because they can’t proceed without him.”
It might seem simple enough but the profession has seen two tragic high-profile accidents in the past year alone — one in Manhattan where 25-mile-per-hour winds and a weight imbalance took a 565-foot crane down onto the street below instantly killing David Wichs a young Orthodox Jewish mathematical genius on his way to work; and another in Tel Aviv where a crashing crane caused the collapse of a parking facility under construction killing two Palestinian workers.
From 240 feet up the workers below look like plastic toy figurines; I can hardly see what they are doing. But the crane operators have to see better than that: how they tie the load to the crane and how the weight is balanced. Chaim Leib looks down as workers attach a load to the cable connected to the crane and soon enough the signal will be given and the crane will raise the load and transfer it to the proper place. Reb Chaim Leib’s eyes are fixed on the workers tying the load. He can hardly see them but his eyes are constantly scanning the whole area. It’s the crane operator who is ultimately responsible for the pace of the progress on the building site.
“If something isn’t right I could lose my license. The responsibility is on our shoulders” he says. “If the load falls because it hasn’t been tied well if someone gets hurt they come to us for accountability. In the best case we’d be fired.”
Reach for the Sky
Chaim Leib and Yitzchak have entered an admittedly uncommon profession for the chareidi sector in Israel even as former kollel yungeleit have begun to enter all sorts of fields. “Crane operator” isn’t usually high on the list. Reb Yitzchak was in another business altogether that collapsed when a flood of manufacturers entered the market so he decided to look for something else. He signed up with a manpower company that sent him to work in various areas of the construction industry until he decided to try training as a crane operator.
“Before the course you need to go through some practical training so they sent me to a construction site for a trial” Yitzchak remembers. “During the day I worked on the crane and that night the crane operator called me to tell me that the foreman threatened that if a ‘doss’ showed up at the site again he’d be thrown out — so the operator begged me to de-emphasize my chareidi appearance. I had to show up with a cap and without a suit.”
That wasn’t the only bit of religious harassment though. “They told me I needed nine years of education. I asked if cheder and yeshivah ketanah were counted and they said yes. But then they demanded a detailed breakdown of the years and their parallel ages to the general public. I went to the yeshivah and brought them paperwork but they demanded original documents from more than 30 years ago.
“Only after that did I discover that I had an age exemption because after a certain age you no longer have to detail your years of studies and that’s how I was accepted. In the end I’m happy with this choice of profession but I want to warn anyone thinking of going into it that very few actually stick it out — so don’t even try if you don’t really love it. It might look like fun but it’s actually very exhausting and stressful work. You wind up fighting with everyone because many of the construction laborers you’re working with are looking for the easy way out. You have to stand your ground in order not to endanger your license and when you do that — meaning you refuse to do unsafe work — you make a lot of enemies from laborers to the foremen who want you to pick up the pace.”
Chaim Leib initially worked at an abattoir that went out of business. “It was my friend’s idea to learn the profession of crane operator. I assessed the costs and time frame and realized I had to move forward so why not? Of course I didn’t do anything before I went to the Belzer Rebbe. I was deliberating whether to become a bus driver or a crane operator and the Rebbe advised me to go for the latter. I’ll admit in Belz some people were shocked. ‘You’re going to be a crane operator? What will be with shidduchim for your children?’ But the Rebbe is very open-minded about these things and another chassid is currently training for it as well.”