When is a door not a door? Well, if you’re a member of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland and are tasked with helping to make a community eruv, or boundary used on Shabbat, you have to get creative.
“We call them canisters,” said Rabbi Gershon Albert, spiritual leader of the Modern Orthodox synagogue.
The devices, each a thin cylinder a few feet tall, are among the ingenious solutions the community has found to set up an eruv, something that has been in the works for two decades.
An eruv is a halachic device that essentially expands the boundaries of a private, enclosed space in which Jews are permitted to carry certain items on Shabbat. By demarcating a neighborhood with an eruv, it makes the whole neighborhood a kind of communal private space.
“We feel really fortunate, really blessed we’ve been able to arrive at this moment,” Albert said.
Within a properly constructed eruv, it is permissible to push a stroller or wheelchair to the synagogue on Shabbat, for example, something that would normally not be allowed in a public space. Without an eruv, families with small kids or older members who can’t walk to synagogue are shut out from worship services and the social life of the congregation.
The process of mapping out the eruv is painstaking, with every inch of ground surveyed for a perimeter that can be used as part of the “wall,” or converted into one. That means identifying existing wires, fences and even slopes that can be considered, halachically, as boundaries.
In many cities, utility poles and wires do the brunt of the work. Rabbi Judah Dardik, the rabbi of Beth Jacob until 2014, called telephone poles “the bread and butter of an eruv.” But in many neighborhoods of Oakland, the wires are underground.
“Underground wires don’t do you any good in making a door-frame shape,” he told J. by phone from his home in Israel. “Nobody’s going to allow the Jewish community to be putting up poles and wires, which I totally respect. The idea here is don’t create an eyesore.”
On the other hand, Oakland does have one thing that helps in making an eruv. “One of the benefits of being in Oakland, in spite of how challenging it is, is the houses are so close together,” Albert said, and small gaps in an eruv are permitted “under some circumstances.”
But bigger spaces still had to be surmounted, and that’s where the canisters come in. Like city gates, they constitute doors that can complete the integrity of the eruv. They use string and are mounted on congregants’ houses.
“If you were to open them, you’d have — from a halachic standpoint — a portable door,” Albert said. “Our community spent significant resources to work with engineering firms to create the canisters.”
One of the congregants who volunteered to help with the eruv was Raphie Shorser. After a serious bike accident in April, he began walking in his neighborhood with an eye to eruv-building. It was especially important for him, as he and his wife were expecting a baby.
“Some people care, some people don’t,” he said. “For people who do care, it can make a very big difference in terms of their quality of life.”
As he walked, he kept an eye out for wires and fences, but he said it was the canisters that were the key to making the eruv complete.
“Ninety-nine percent kosher is a hundred precent nonkosher,” he said. “It’s the same thing with an eruv. You can have 99 percent of it up, but without that last percent it’s useless.”
The new eruv covers an area with a circumference of around 10 miles in a neighborhood east of Lake Merritt, and it’s the fruition of work going back about 20 years, starting with Dardik’s predecessor and continuing under Dardik. On Sept. 10, Dardik joined Albert and the community for a virtual celebration and l’chaim. The eruv’s construction was supervised by an expert who has helped in setting up more than 60 eruvs in the United States, Albert said.
Now that it’s up, it will be checked weekly to make sure everything is correct.
“The eruv is only as good as much upkeep is put into it,” said Albert, who came to Beth Jacob in 2014. “We take that very seriously.”
Status updates will be posted on the Beth Jacob website, which also has a map of the eruv and information on tricky spots like the following: “Utility pole on Leimert Blvd.: Must walk on sidewalk between house and utility pole.”
Albert praised the community volunteers who have worked on the eruv over the years, especially their concerted effort in the last few months to get it done. A little more than half of Beth Jacob’s families live within the current eruv, so expansion plans are already in the works.
There are also two eruvs in San Francisco (in the Richmond District and in the Sunset), one that encompasses parts of Berkeley and Albany, and one in Palo Alto. All mark places where Orthodox families have created a community. But Dardik said it is important not to think of the eruv as an enclosure, and especially not as something meant to separate Jews from the world at large.
“It’s not about walls, or blocking anyone,” he said. “It’s about demarcating the footprint of a community.”
For Albert, getting it done just in time for Rosh Hashanah is very special, especially considering the years of work that have gone into it.
“It just feels like the hand of God giving us something to rejoice in,” he said.