Freedom Within Bounds: Inside L.A.’s Eruv Communities
About 15 feet high, the wires run along lamp posts in the middle of the block and disappear behind certain properties. It takes a keen eye to notice the translucent strings and, despite the able vision of young students who walk the block daily, few notice.
For Rabbi Dov Wagner, director of Jewish Student Life at the university, those clear plastic lines are a vital part of his life and the lives of practicing Orthodox Jewish students at USC. The lines form a symbolic religious boundary known as an eruv, within which many Orthodox Jews are free to gather and carry things on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
“The premise of the eruv is one of the instructions that the Torah, the Bible, gives about Shabbat, not to carry in a public domain. That’s considered one of the acts of labor that we don’t do on Shabbat,” said Wagner outside the Chabad Jewish Center on Severance Street.
From dusk on Friday until starlight on Saturday night, practicing Orthodox Jews recognize the Sabbath and follow a specific set of rules detailing their actions during the day of rest. Orthodox Jews do not work or drive on the Sabbath, but possibly the most restrictive rule is that they cannot carry things from one domain to the other. This is where the eruv comes in.
“Essentially what the eruv does is creates almost a virtual barrier, a legal barrier, so that the space within it is then considered one space and people will be able to carry within it without breaking the law,” said Wagner, pointing up to the wire connected to a pole in front of the Chabad Center.
In 2007 Wagner moved with his wife and first child out of the Center to a home across the street.
“We actually delayed moving across for a couple of months until our baby at the time could walk, when we next had a child a year later we had to build an eruv to be able to bring the baby across the street," he said.
The restriction of carrying things in a public domain on the Sabbath includes everything from children to keys. Wagner said small children are the main reason many Jews, predominantly women, are homebound on the Sabbath, unable to attend services and socialize, if an eruv is not present. Devices like strollers and wheel chairs are also prohibited outside an eruv.
Wagner’s eruv uses wire to connect the walls behind the houses on both sides of the street to create a figurative enclosed space. Though apartments and fraternity houses with non-Jewish inhabitants are included within the eruv’s boundaries, Wagner said the space inside an eruv constitutes as one domain. “This is exactly what the LA eruv is, only they’re enclosing a space with several million people inside.”
A Line Of Freedom
The Los Angeles Community Eruv, erected in 2002, is enclosed by the 405 freeway on the west, the 101 freeway on the north and east and the 10 freeway on the south. Wagner’s home, south of the 10 freeway, was outside of those boundaries, though people from the LA Eruv helped him construct his own miniature version.
The LA Eruv is one of the largest in the nation and encloses most of the Los Angeles metro area.
“In building an eruv you want to include the population that needs the eruv,” said Rabbi Avrohom Union, head of the Rabbinical Council of California. The Council, the largest body of Orthodox Rabbis in the west, oversees numerous aspects of the Jewish community, including kosher food supervision and arbitration.
On any given Saturday, the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles is filled with Orthodox families walking to and from synagogues. Following services these families socialize and carry food to and from each other’s homes. Union said this is all due to the freedom allowed within the LA Eruv.
LAeruv.com is a website dedicated to the boundary, where people can check to make sure the wires are up and running before Sabbath begins.
“One of the complicated aspects of the eruv is you have to check it every Friday and make sure it’s all good,” Wagner said. Checking the eruv is a simple task for his one block enclosure, but a much greater undertaking for those inspecting the perimeter of the 80 square mile LA Eruv.
“An eruv is an enterprise as well,” said Union, “There’s a lot of money involved in it because there is a lot of labor-intensive work to keep it running the way it should.” According to the LA Eruv website, that ‘work’ includes rabbis boarding helicopters with maps and binoculars, flying above the city and peering down to inspect the tiny wires that make up the vast boundary.
By Friday, the website alerts the community displaying whether or not the eruv is up and the boundary secured. In terms of the price of such constant observance and upkeep, Union said: “Jews are geniuses at learning how to collect money for charities.”
The LA Eruv is privately sponsored by members of the Orthodox Jewish community on a voluntary basis.
Neither Wagner nor the LA Eruv commissioners met much opposition from the non-Jewish community when constructing the eruvs. “Who’s going to notice a piece of fishing wire?” asked Wagner. “It’s not like it’s in anybody’s way or anything.”
An Eruv In Dispute
Certain non-Jewish community members near The Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach felt differently. Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center is currently in the midst of a five-year legal battle over the construction of an eruv in the Venice Beach area.
“We had met all the approvals for the Coastal Commission,” said Fink, “and just as soon as they were about to issue our permit, they were sued.” An activist group of three people sued the commission, citing that the wires of Pacific Jewish Center’s eruv could pose harm to coastal birds. Per the lawsuit, the synagogue would need an environmental impact study, an expensive requirement, in order to erect their eruv.
“When you do something in the city you don’t need to get a permit from the coastal commission, you get a permit from Los Angeles,” said Fink, “Here we need both.”
The LA Eruv cannot include the Venice area due to what Union calls a “halachic issue,” referring to the term for Jewish law.
“The 405 is a major deal breaker,” said Union of the freeway that runs between the two areas, “it creates the problem of a public thoroughfare.” According to the rabbi, the Torah states that eruvs can not encompass freeways, thus the current borders of the LA Eruv.
Fink plans on employing a new approach to gain support from non-Jews for the Venice Beach eruv. “It will help their homes’ value go up,” said Fink. He said that with an eruv, more Orthodox Jews will move to the area. “They displace people who are perhaps less desirable neighbors,” he said, adding that Orthodox Jewish communities have been resilient and stable during the recent economic crisis.
Fink said that the lack of an eruv in his community inhibits the growth of his synagogue as well as the Jewish population in the area. “There are people who say ‘why inconvenience myself?” Some families in the area have done like Wagner at USC and created their own small eruvs, freeing them to transport things from their homes on Saturdays.
For Fink, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, he said life devoid of an eruv was difficult at times. “It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s not something that’s insurmountable.”
Fink said his synagogue will persist in its struggle to create a boundary like those enjoyed by his inner-city brethren.