It’s not every day that one learns that the project leader on a major Manhattan bridge project is a Fair Lawn-based mechanical engineer, but it’s much rarer to hear that she is Orthodox Jewish mother of three. But that’s just who Aviva Oppenheim is. This coming December, her project to integrate cashless tolling gantries at all six bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey, a multimillion-dollar capital investment project, will be completed at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In fact, Oppenheim just won a staff award for the qualities of “strength and resilience” for her work on the cashless tolling upgrade project. She was one of 13 winners of the 2022 Pillars of the Port Authority Awards, which honor the spirit, skill and strength of the colleagues who were lost after the two bombings of the World Trade Center—February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001—by recognizing current employees who embody inspiring qualities.
A native of Queens and a graduate of Bais Yaakov of Queens and SKA High School, Oppenheim was inspired in high school to study theoretical physics. However, her father, Rabbi Richard Bieler, today of West Hempstead and a longtime fundraiser for Ohel Children’s Services and Yeshiva University, cautioned, “If you go into theoretical physics, you may only get a theoretical job and make theoretical money.” There also weren’t as many opportunities for students to learn about jobs in engineering fields in the late 1990s when Oppenheim was graduating from high school.
“I see so many schools today with engineering and STEM programs. I really didn’t have that when I was a kid. My parents were both liberal arts majors. Taking calculus in college helped convince my father to become a rabbi,” she joked to The Jewish Link. Now, she participates in an engineering mentorship program at SKA High School called MAGIC (More Active Girls in Computing) Mentoring, which enables girls to study engineering alongside someone with practical experience. She also participates in a first-grade project at her children’s school, Ben Porat Yosef, where they work on blocking sound from room to room, testing out which materials work best.
“I was always really into science and math. I loved physics. When science and math got really interesting was in middle and high school. I didn’t know anything about engineering at all. I remember reading an article about six-dimensional shapes, and deciding ‘this is what I want to do.’”
What happened next, Opppenheim described, was a mix of hashgacha pratit (divine providence) or mazel (luck). “I was thinking about colleges: Stern, Queens, Columbia. But the person who sat behind my father in shul … Ysrael Seinuk … was a founding partner of a well known structural engineering firm. He taught engineering to architects at Cooper Union. I still didn’t know what an engineer was, but he gave me my first engineering job as an intern.
Oppenheim realized that there were career opportunities for her in engineering that would help her do what she loved and also raise a family and live an observant Jewish lifestyle. “It is a practical career for someone who loves science and math,” she said.
She shared that she’s heard people ask whether engineering is a good profession for a Jewish woman. “It’s not so common, but it’s a great career. You can make a living here. You can balance your work life very easily. I need to be building things, so this is how I express my creativity.
“If I had one message to send to today’s Jewish students, it’s that engineering should be on that list of good professional opportunities for Jewish women. It’s a good field, and I feel like a lot of people’s reluctance is that it’s uncommon. It’s true, you can’t be a slacker. Engineers are trained as critical thinkers and problem solvers. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the career. If you like that, then it’s a good field to consider,” she said.
Beginning university at Cooper Union did give Oppenheim a bit of a shock. “I went to girls’ schools my entire life. In high school I was ‘the weird one,’ but here everyone was reading Stephen Hawking in the hallway and discussing why the Titanic sank. I thought to myself, ‘These are my people.’”
When Oppenheim was a senior in college studying mechanical engineering, she felt she got another lucky break, or, in her words, “Hashem was watching out for me.”
“My parents had moved to West Hempstead when I was a senior in college. My dad was walking to shul and met a fellow congregant who was the chief electrical engineer at Port Authority. He’s retired now, but he was ultimately deputy chief engineer. That’s how my resume got delivered to the Port Authority.
“I started working there right out of college. I’ve been there for 20 years.”
Another piece of advice Oppenheim shared is for all students who might consider a career in engineering: “I would encourage people to work in the public sector. It has good advantages. One of my role models in this case was my mom. She was a lawyer at the district attorney’s office. It was an interesting, fulfilling career [someone could have] while also being a Orthodox Jewish mother, and I saw that balance growing up.
“She specifically stayed in the public sector because she knew it provided a better work-life balance. There were different pressures and hours than a private law firm. That is a big advantage for working for a public agency. There is more flexibility and less pressure when it comes to balancing your work with your life.”
Oppenheim started out at Port Authority in mechanical engineering design, designing heating and ventilation systems, elevators and escalators, generally as she described it, she worked on things that move. “In 2002, this was right after 9/11, everyone I was working with had escaped from the building that day. Remember, the World Trade Center was a Port Authority building. Every part of that building, including the fans, was meaningful to the people who worked on these projects.”
Oppenheim got to play a part in rebuilding the WTC site. “Right off the bat it showed me how meaningful the work could be. We were helping the world recover … even just designing ventilation systems. We rebuilt the PATH station there. It was a great program to be a part of.”
Today Oppenheim works at 4 World Trade Center, but now she works quite a bit more with people than with design. She explained that she noticed very early on, in her first engineering job, that at a certain point one must move from working with data and information to actually working with people and managing people.
“You can’t do these projects in a vacuum. Teamwork is key. Things don’t get built by crunching numbers. I like solving problems on a computer, but the real work is people going out there and building.”
In 2014, Oppenheim moved to the department managing tunnels, bridges and terminals, where she went from designing mechanical systems to managing larger construction projects. “I worked on a project where we installed an escalator and an elevator lobby in the midtown bus terminal to help make the commute easier for customers. It is very rewarding to walk through something and say, ‘I built this.’”
In 2019, Oppenheim was assigned to the cashless tolling program. Her title is now Senior Program Manager for the Holland Tunnel, Staten Island Bridges, and Technology and Special Projects for the Tunnels, Bridges & Terminals Department of the Port Authority of NY & NJ.
She came into the program while the new toll systems were under construction at the Staten Island bridges—the Bayonne Bridge, the Outerbridge Crossing and Goethals Bridge. “Then the Port Authority authorized funds for the Hudson River crossings, and the job got a lot bigger.”
Applying Engineering Ideas in Shul
An important aspect of Oppenheim’s identity is her Judaism, and specifically the Jewish woman’s davening experience. Over the last two years, she was able to apply her engineering skills to help build a new kind of mechitza (the separation between the women’s and men’s section) at her shul, Congregation Shomrei Torah. “Women’s experiences in shul have always been something that’s important to me. I think the reason I got involved in the project was I saw it was something I was uniquely qualified to work on.
“The mechitza is the window through which we look at the shul, and I wanted to make improvements, but it is challenging. Now, I am used to dealing with someone installing a structure on a roadway that can’t be shut down, or to have limitations like the work can be done only at night. The mechitza had to be a certain height, and made of specific materials. Women want to be able to see and hear what is going on through the mechitza.
“I do not want to imply that women in shul do not want to be seen. That is how some women feel, and it is important to be aware of and respect that perspective when designing a mechitza. However, many others feel it is important for women to have a visible presence in shul, and that need must be addressed as well. This is an excellent example of one of the many balancing acts you need to consider when building a new mechitza.
“Passions also run high in terms of what a mechitza should be. My skills and affinity for projects at the Port Authority helped me see through challenges in shul mechitza design. The mechitza design work also helped me in my job.”
Oppenheim’s article in Jewish Action in Summer 2021, “The Making of a Mechitza,” (https://jewishaction.com/opinion/the-making-of-a-mechitzah/) has impacted many people beyond the Fair Lawn community. “People are still calling me with questions about it as they design their own mechitza,” she added.
What’s It Like Being Jewish at Port Authority?
Oppenheim couldn’t pinpoint exactly when she became a point person for Jewish issues at Port Authority, but at some stage she realized that she had the potential to be an ambassador for her community. “In every profession, every person in their own realm can play a role in that,” she said. Sometimes she was faced with natural curiosity, and sometimes engineers presented her with actual questions about Judaism. She was once queried with: “I was reading my oven manual the other day and read about Sabbath mode. What’s that?”
“One of things I enjoy about working with fellow engineers is that these are people who are usually not materialistic; they just want to know what the facts are; they want answers.”
Generally, she works with a very diverse group of people, who have the characteristic of integrity in common. “Materials don’t lie.” This thought is inspired by a favorite sci-fi author of Oppenheim’s: Lois McMaster Bujold.
“Here’s the original quote, from her novel ‘Falling Free’: “‘The laws of physics are implacable lie detectors. You may fool men. You will never fool metal.’
“If something breaks because of bad materials, it has consequences. This makes it easier to be different because we have a shared characteristic of integrity and interest in integrity, and it’s easier to be respected for our differences since we have that in common. This is another positive thing about engineering in general.”
Professional questions started when she was going through construction contracts and answering questions. “You see, there are certain days you can’t do construction on the roadway because heavy traffic is expected: Labor Day, Yankees game days, and all the chagim (Jewish holidays) are listed. Erev (the day before; all Jewish holidays begin at sunset) Rosh Hashanah and Erev Pesach are days when lane closures are restricted.
“The phone calls I get now are about Jewish calendars, because it is not clear when the chag starts, it just lists the chagim dates. “I started getting phone calls—from the managers of the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel—about when the Yom Tovim actually start.”
Engineering and Work-Life Balance
Another thing people might not know, Oppenheim said, is that with a four-year degree in engineering, people can begin work right away, as she did, or they would also have a strong advantage if they applied to law, medicine or business school. “All those roles pull from engineering school because there’s no ‘easy As’ in engineering … It’s a very good choice as a major.
“If I look at my peers, one of things that frustrates me is that it’s not a common profession in my community, like law or medicine … I think it should be on the list. It’s a great and fulfilling career and comparable to those others, with a very strong work-life balance.”