(From left) Eruv expert Rabbi Haim Jachter, Beth Jacob members Raphi Shorser and Michael Sosebee and Rabbi Gershon Albert out on an eruv boundary–hunting expedition in August.
(From left) Eruv expert Rabbi Haim Jachter, Beth Jacob members Raphi Shorser and Michael Sosebee and Rabbi Gershon Albert out on an eruv boundary–hunting expedition in August.

Major expansion of Oakland eruv is a ‘game-changer’ for Orthodox

An expansion of the Oakland eruv has more than doubled the size of the metaphysical boundary that allows Orthodox Jews a little added freedom on Shabbat. Aside from an increase in the total area covered, the eruv now includes streets and neighborhoods where housing is more affordable, which could make living an Orthodox lifestyle in Oakland more accessible.

An eruv defines an area inside of which there is flexibility regarding certain Shabbat laws, allowing Shabbat-observant Jews to carry objects outside their homes, such as food, ritual objects and, importantly, babies.

It’s a contiguous boundary consisting of walls and other barriers, such as changes in terrain or bodies of water. More often than not, modern urban eruvs, such as the one in Oakland, involve symbolic boundaries, such as a telephone wire stretched over two poles that constitutes a doorway for the technical halachic purposes of the laws governing eruvs.

The Oakland eruv, which is centered around Beth Jacob Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue located roughly halfway between Lake Merritt and Montclair village in the hills, was first defined in September 2020, the culmination of a 20-year process.

Though many eruvs involve erecting a pole here or adding a lechi (a small piece of wood that serves a highly technical halachic function) to a telephone pole there, the Oakland eruv relies solely on existing boundaries.

“Originally it would have involved highway boundaries, and that involved government authorities and it was a long bureaucratic process,” Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Gershon Albert told J. “We found a different path to create an eruv that used only pre-existing infrastructure [so] we wouldn’t have to put up any additional infrastructure on government property. Specific types of tension wires are bolted into the poles by the electrical companies, and with a lot of research and effort, we found a viable path that uses these bolted wires that don’t require lechis.”

However, halachah (Jewish law) does require at least some permission from civil authorities for an eruv. But once secured, it lasts for a long time.

“There was an honorary certificate from the Oakland City Council dating back to 2005, and it’s valid for 99 years, so we don’t have to worry about it for a while,” Albert quipped

The expansion covers new areas to the north and south of Beth Jacob.

“It’s a significant improvement,” Albert said. “We got the first one up with the hope that it would cover as many people as possible, but knowing that there were others beyond it who we could expand to include.”

The expanded eruv could make the cost of living an Orthodox lifestyle in Oakland more affordable, as it now includes more areas in which home and rental prices aren’t out of this world.

“In an Orthodox community where many people choose not to drive on Shabbat, you’re limited geographically by what’s in walking distance, and then on top of that there are financial limitations, especially with the cost of housing here in the Bay Area,” Albert said. “So it’s a game-changer in that regard.”

Regularly checking to make sure the eruv is intact requires a team of volunteers from the Beth Jacob community. In addition, a New Jersey–based eruv expert, Rabbi Haim Jachter, was brought in for two site visits to help define the path of the expansion.

“He supervises 60 eruvs in the U.S.” Albert said. “He’s a massive scholar, and gifted at helping smaller communities beyond the big cities like New York and L.A. find ways to make it work.”

Aside from the practicality of the eruv, Albert said it has symbolic value as well.

“It creates a smaller world for Shabbat, which sets it apart from the rest of the week when you always want to go bigger and farther all the time,” he said. “It becomes like a private but shared space. It’s a powerful thing one day a week in a very busy world.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at [email protected].