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Friday, February 17, 2006 | return to: news & features


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Wire to wire: Religious boundaries ease Shabbat restrictions in Berkeley area

by joe eskenazi, staff writer

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You see the power lines. You see that blasted transformer blocking your bay view. You see the BART train whistling back and forth, interminably, between Richmond and Fremont. You might even see the lush, green vines of ivy snaking up and down the elevated tracks.

Rabbi Yair Silverman sees all that, but he sees more. Specifically, he sees doorways. Lots of doorways. Symbolic doorways.

And because of them, he can carry his young daughter to synagogue on Shabbat.

No, seriously, it all makes sense.

That's because the tracks — and the power lines on the poles supporting the blasted transformer — are part of a Berkeley-Albany eruv, up since Labor Day, one of hundreds in the nation and almost certainly the first the Bay Area has ever seen (but not for lack of trying).

Why would Silverman see doors on the BART tracks? Aren't they supposed to be on the trains? And just what is an eruv?

When confronted with the barrage of questions, Silverman can only smile. "In Orthodox Judaism, there are a lot of quirky rules," he says, and then pauses for quite a while and grins. "And you can quote me on that."

And that's where the eruv comes in. Anyone who's ever seen "The Big Lebowski" recalls Walter's profanity-laced explanation as to why being "Shomer Shabbos" means he can't bowl on Saturday. That's not a pressing problem for too many members of the observant Jewish community, but the Torah states that it is forbidden to carry "a burden" outside of one's "place" on Shabbat.

Unfortunately for young parents, that precludes carrying a child or pushing a stroller to synagogue.

In fact, an observant Jew isn't permitted to carry much of anything, even if it's just a loaf of challah and some Shabbat schnapps. And that is a pressing problem for many in the community.

What an eruv does is exploit the textual ambiguities of the term "place," and create a communal place that belongs to everyone. ("Eruv" literally means "to bring together" or "to have joint ownership.") Tangibly, it allows the rabbi, or any other observant Jew, to carry his toddler (or tallit) to shul and back on Saturday morning, just as he's allowed to carry her around inside his own home.

It is done through the creation of a boundary zone — most often accomplished with wire atop poles — but fences, walls, train tracks and even creeks are acceptable. Those boundaries represent "symbolic doorways," as Silverman puts it, with their two vertical sides and horizontal top resembling the lintel over an entryway.

Since the area encircled by the eruv's series of conceptual doorways is a common space, Silverman has blessed a loaf of bread ostensibly owned by everyone in the community.

Think of that communal loaf — or, in Berkeley's case, a box of matzah, which has a longer shelf life — as something like the HAL 2000 mainframe running the entire eruv. If the matzah is lost, stolen or eaten, the eruv loses its validity until a substitute "loaf" is properly installed.

The box of matzah is crammed away in a remote corner of Beth Israel, still sealed in plastic and emblazoned with its own "What do you think you're doing, Dave?"-style warning, instructing in no uncertain terms to keep one's hands off the box and immediately contact Silverman if anything happens to the matzah.

At this point, readers familiar with the way things go in Berkeley may be wondering: How could this possibly have happened here?

As j. reported last year, Berkeley is a bastion of organized religion, and not the city out-of-towners imagine it to be — where unwashed radicals spontaneously grab placards decrying Israeli apartheid and conduct a sit-in on any random weekday morning. Old stereotypes do die hard.

Berkeley is, however, a place where a homeowner may be forced to attend six different Zoning Adjustment Board meetings if he wishes to put a ceramic gnome in his garden, and then withstand the full might of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association if he opts to remove it.

The notion of a wire attached to power poles creating a city-approved "communal space" for Jews, on first glance, looks to be just the sort of thing that would get wrapped around the gears of city politics for months, if not years, oozing through various committees with glacial rapidity and devolving into a verbal fracas in the audience gallery as the Israeli-Palestinian situation was inevitably dragged into the morass.

But that's not what happened. That's not what happened at all.

Like most Berkeley residents, members of the city's 40-plus political commissions probably don't even know there's an eruv in their city. And, if anyone's harboring any ill intentions, there's not a thing he or she can do about it.

That's because the eruv was already there when members of the Eastbayshore Eruv Corporation went looking for it. Between the BART tracks and power lines, a contiguous boundary was already extant. They just needed someone to scope it out.

Leora Lawton is the CEO and president of the Eastbayshore Eruv Corp., the nonprofit 501c3 she formed in order to pursue her longtime goal of getting Beth Israel and a large swath of Berkeley under an eruv. People had been talking about how nice an eruv would be for more than 15 years, but it took a critical mass of congregants at the Orthodox shul and nearby Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom simultaneously to be rearing toddlers simultaneously — including Silverman, not coincidentally — for real work to be done.

So Lawton, Silverman and others discreetly raised money and began following the power lines and train tracks.

In the past year, Lawton and the corporation kicked things into high gear. They spent about $8,000 of their $20,000 kitty to bring in eruv experts to ensure the snaking route through Berkeley and Albany is contiguous and fits the halachic requirements of an eruv. And a 2005 measure introduced by District 5 Supervisor Keith Carson, at the behest of eruv proponents, acknowledging the eruv's existence was unanimously passed by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

The corporation pays inspectors $12.50 an hour to ensure that no downed power lines or, conceivably, train tracks, have broken the eruv's contiguity. (Silverman notes that, because of the indispensable nature of power lines and train tracks, any breaches will be repaired quickly by the powers that be, whether he asks for it or not.)

Inspectors patrol the streets of Berkeley and Albany on foot, by car, on bicycles, rollerblades and, if one applicant is soon hired, atop a unicycle. A Web site, http://www.berkeleyeruv.org, has kept observant Jews up to date on whether the eruv is up and running since Labor Day.

Without the need to string up wire — and, most notably, bypassing the costly and time-consuming ordeal of receiving permission to string up that wire — the eruv was a financial steal; Lawton said others in the country have run as high as $70,000. For around $5,000 a year in inspection and other miscellaneous costs, the eruv will stay up permanently.

Berkeley's observant community feels lucky, and for good reason. In Tenafly, N.J., an eruv dispute made national news when the Tenafly Eruv Association's legal battle with the borough of Tenafly advanced all the way to the Supreme Court in 2003. The court denied to hear the case, however, so a district court ruling in favor of the eruv association stood.

Closer to home, a proposed eruv in San Francisco's Richmond district seemed to pick up steam in the mid-1980s. Berkeley's Lawton said she's been a member of several communities where momentum for an eruv grew only to gradually fizzle, and that's just what happened in San Francisco.

"The reason it didn't come to fruition is that there wasn't enough support in the area. None of the lay people were interested enough to carry it through," recalls Hebrew Academy Dean Rabbi Pinchas Lipner, a major proponent of the San Francisco eruv.

Rabbi Jacob Traub, former spiritual leader of San Francisco's Orthodox Adath Israel, agrees: "There just wasn't enough support."

It's a shame, he adds, because there would have been a lot less red tape to deal with then than there is now.

In Palo Alto, in contrast, the momentum behind an eruv didn't fizzle but was squashed.

Six years have come and gone and Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman is still gritting his teeth.

The spiritual leader of Palo Alto's Orthodox Congregation Emek Beracha has plenty of foul recollections of his 15-month campaign to convince his hometown to allow him to undertake the remarkably simple task of erecting an eruv.

He's got the memories of the city council waffling, the power company wavering, and "concerned citizens" who could never tell an eruv from a telephone pole spouting in letters to the editor that Palo Alto's endorsement of the wire would transform their houses into communal property.

But he's got no eruv to show for it.

"When you look back, it's absurd," he says. "Absurdity is funny in literature, but if you lived through it and were caught in it, it's different."

At the outset of Feldman's struggle, in the late 1990s, it all seemed so simple. Halachically, he notes, Palo Alto already is "a walled city," replete with plenty of power lines, fences, noise barriers and creeks. A full 90 percent of a Palo Alto eruv is already in place; all that remained was placing a few golf tee-sized plastic clips into the sides of a few power poles and stringing a bit of innocuous, non-conducting wire.

Easy, right?

Wrong.

How hammering a hunk of plastic into a telephone pole took on the gravitas of breaching church-state

parameters is beyond Feldman, but that's how it went. Plus the power company claimed the plastic tees might cause the occasional electrocution, a claim along the lines of Gov. Ronald Regan's assertion that trees contributed to air pollution.

Without meaning to, Feldman had inadvertently stumbled into a two-front war. He was simultaneously taking on layers of municipal bureaucracy while coping with a wicked onslaught of Not-In-My-Back-Yard activism.

With the letters section of the Palo Alto Weekly as the front lines, pro- and anti-eruv forces waged a war of words. Those opposed to the erection of an eruv in Palo Alto voiced objections ranging from claims that city recognition of a Jewish religious vestige would constitute favoritism, to assertions that an eruv was a de facto Jewish annexation of chunks of Palo Alto. An anti-eruv Web page went so far as to brand Feldman a "Zionist conspirator."

Eruv supporters countered that eruvs exist in hundreds of American cities and to date no one has been forced out of his or her home by marauding Orthodox Jews.

Faced with a Solomonic task, Palo Alto's City Council, to the chagrin of the Jewish community, split the baby neatly in half. The eruv was permitted, but not in a way that would satisfy Jewish law. For one, no plastic tabs would be allowed on the power poles, but a dab of paint would be permitted. Paint, last Feldman checked, will not support wire.

That Feldman and other eruv proponents speak of their setback with bitter humor shouldn't veil the fact that real bitterness is still there. The convoluted rationale behind rejecting what they considered a slam-dunk proposal hurts deeply, and the hare-brained alternative offered by the city council added insult to that injury.

"Imagine getting a permit to open a restaurant," Stan Sussman, founding president of the Palo Alto Community Eruv Inc., said shortly after his dream was struck down in 2000.

"But the city says there can be no chairs in this restaurant, because people could fall off them and hurt themselves. And there can be no silverware, because they could be used as weapons. Lastly, there shouldn't be food, because people could choke. Other than that, feel free to open a restaurant."

Six years ago, Feldman said he was "mulling over" his options. And now? Still mulling.

"Is there ever going to be an eruv in Palo Alto?" he asks.

"I don't know."

Berkeley celebrates its quirkiness, but its eruv, other than being the first in the Bay Area, is run of the mill (unicycle-mounted inspectors notwithstanding).

"It's standard," says a succinct Rabbi Yaakov Love, a New Jersey-based expert on eruvs who oversaw the Berkeley-Albany project as well as eruvs in Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tenn.

When queried if Berkeley's eruv is the only one in the western United States other than Los Angeles, Love said yes — except for the ones in Seattle, San Diego, Irvine, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Edmonton, Alberta and the two apiece in Denver and Vancouver. Oh, he almost forgot. There's one in Las Vegas as well.

In fact, there are an estimated 200 eruvs in the United States and more than 1,000 worldwide. Nasty controversies like the ones in Tenafly and Palo Alto are the exception, not the rule, according to Love.

Silverman estimates that 98 percent of his congregants utilize the eruv. As a result, empty seats at services are harder to find, as both parents can now attend.

And Rabbi SaraLeya Schley, a congregant at Conservative Netivot Shalom, notes she's seeing more toddlers and young families at services there, too.

"A lot of people can go out for lunch, intermingle with their friends and get the kids out of the house," says Lawton.

"People don't just say 'thank you,' they say 'THANK YOU!'"

Silverman, meanwhile, is ecstatic that Berkeley's sizable observant Jewish population finally has a service it was clamoring for.

"I don't think you'd see this in Topeka," he says with a laugh.

Then he grows pensive.

"No, maybe they do have one in Topeka."


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