The Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan passed its first hurdle in a quest to create an eruv, a symbolic enclosure that enables Jews within its boundaries to carry on simple acts that are otherwise prohibited outside the home on the Sabbath.
An eruv extends the boundaries of the home by creating a simple border around an entire community, using natural elements and wires that are usually attached to utility poles. The proposed eruv would encompass the entire city.
The nine-member Palo Alto City Council gave its collective nod May 10 to further study after hearing a presentation by Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of the Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan.
"We have to study the legal issues and questions around the use of utility poles," said Councilwoman Sandy Eakins. "The question of legality has to do with the California Constitution, which has much higher standards for separation of church and state than the U.S. Constitution."
Since the May 10 vote, the council has heard from "quite a number of people who are upset at the prospect of a religious symbol and what may appear to be special treatment based on religious practice," Eakins said. "It's too soon to tell whether this will become a groundswell or will remain a self-limited group."
Feldman said, "The legal scrutiny we're not too worried about."
According to a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision, an action must meet three criteria to be judged a violation of the separation of church and state. First, the action must not have a secular purpose in addition to a religious one, and an eruv "doesn't just enable people to go to shul, it allows them to go to parks and other public places," Feldman said.
And, while the state is prohibited from advancing a particular religion, it may accommodate the practice of religion.
Lastly, the action cannot involve "excessive entanglement" between a religious organization and government agencies.
"This is a very simple request," Feldman said.
No public funds would be used for the project. And, although Jewish law requires that the lechis, thin tubing attached to utility poles, be inspected weekly, this job is done by religious organizations.
According to Jewish law, unless a neighborhood has an eruv, observant Jews may not carry items — keys, combs, umbrellas or even prayerbooks — when they leave the house on Shabbat. The practice stems from a law proscribing work on the Sabbath, including carrying objects outside the perimeters of home.
But the main reason Orthodox Jews want an eruv is that the law also prohibits carrying a baby outside the home or pushing a carriage — in effect, keeping the mother of small children at home.
"The most important is the mother's being confined to the home, not being able to bring the children to shul," said Rabbi Yosef Levin of Palo Alto's Congregation Ahavas Yisroel-Lubavitch. An eruv would benefit at least 15 families in Levin's congregation immediately "and many more who would consider moving here" if one were erected.
For the most part, boundaries for the Palo Alto eruv already exist in the form of creeks and freeway sound walls, but gaps would have to be bridged by stringing wire between poles.
While Eakins said she first questioned the constitutionality of the practice, she was mollified when she learned about successful efforts in other cities. There are roughly 100 eruvim around the country in such cities as Los Angeles; Houston; Phoenix; Binghamton and Albany, N.Y.; Atlanta, Ga.; Hartford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; and Chicago. Most are several hundred square feet. One, in Baltimore, encompasses a 28-square-mile area.
Constitutional questions have arisen around the erecting of other eruvim, but appellate courts in two states, New York and New Jersey, have ruled that eruvim do not violate the constitutional separation between church and state.
But more frequently, it is the tangle of government agencies and their sometimes conflicting rules that quash the best-laid plans. It took eight years for the Greater Boston Eruv Corp. to wade through a bureaucratic morass before eruv wires were finally strung in 1993.
A 1985 attempt to erect an 85-square block eruv in the Richmond District of San Francisco ran aground and never got off the ground, according to Rabbi Jacob Traub of the Orthodox Adath Israel. Another proposal surfaced in 1989, this time in the Sunset District. It would have encircled 574 square feet and four congregations. But it, too, failed.
"It's not a difficult thing to do if you have everyone working together," Traub said.
In addition to complying with city regulations, eruv advocates must also get permission to string wires from utility companies.
The city of Palo Alto owns its utilities, with a few exceptions, along city borders, "and that changes everything," according to Eakins.
Levin and others say Palo Alto has the greatest concentration of affiliated, practicing Jews in the nine-county Bay Area. In addition, "the city of Palo Alto prides itself on being eclectic and diverse," Levin said.
"At first it seemed an odd anachronistic idea," said Eakins, who is not Jewish but once worked at a Jewish Community Center outside Boston. "Many of our people were Orthodox, and I never heard of this. I don't know where the revival comes from, which is a personal curiosity for me. But we have a highly educated work force in the [Silicon Valley] area, and actually, many are observant Jews."