Eruv Awakening

An imaginary line around north central Phoenix would grant Orthodox Jews more freedom on the Sabbath

Although the Phoenix eruv has been in the works for more than a year--and discussions have involved representatives from the City of Phoenix, Salt River Project, the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the Arizona Department of Transportation--there hasn't been a word about it in the local press. Most Valley Jews are unaware of the activity. Even the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix has purposely ignored the story, bowing to the wishes of the eruv organizers who had intended to keep their plans quiet until the eruv is completed.

Why such secrecy over what gentiles--and even non-Orthodox Jews--would view as an imaginary boundary?

In most communities, creation of eruvin does not spark controversy. But there are notable exceptions. In the mid-Eighties, cities in New York and New Jersey were sued by private citizens and the American Civil Liberties Union for approving eruvin. And two years ago, Orthodox Jews in London unwittingly riled gentiles--and some less-observant Jews--with a request for an eruv.

In each case, the non-Jews were worried about funny-looking people moving into their neighborhoods. And the less-traditional Jews are simply skittish about boundaries, real or imagined. Some felt that the act of denoting territory and ascribing it Judaic significance was akin to re-creating the ghettos and death camps they or their forebears suffered under Nazi domination.

The courts upheld the right of the Orthodox Jews to construct their eruvin, and the London eruv was eventually approved and built.

But Goldstein and his committee don't want to take any chances. After all, this is Arizona.

The Israel Connection, at Seventh Street and Missouri, is probably the largest purveyor of Judaica in town. You can buy a pin that says "oy!" in rhinestones, or a Slinky-esque toy shaped like the Star of David. The fragrances of challah and cookies from Karsh's Bakery next door hang in the air. And although bookshelves line the back of the store, labeled with categories from "Anti-Semitism" to "Shabbat," the clerk has never heard of an eruv.

Neither has the woman who answers the phone at the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.

While eruvin exist in most major cities, they are largely unfamiliar to all but Orthodox Jews. In Phoenix, that's a small group. The Jewish Federation estimates that the Jewish population of metropolitan Phoenix is about 60,000. There are no statistics that tell how many of them are Orthodox, but national tabulations indicate that Orthodox Jews make up about 7 percent of the Jewish population.

While the Jewish presence and population have grown in the Scottsdale area--the Jewish Community Center and well-known synagogues such as Temple Beth Israel are in the process of relocating there--most of the Orthodox Jews remain in north central Phoenix.

That's where the eruv would be.
The proposed eruv would be bound by the Arizona Canal to the north, the Grand Canal to the south, Interstate 17 to the west and Squaw Peak Parkway to the east. For the most part, the parkway's sound wall and the canals would serve as boundaries, but it would be necessary to erect physical markers at all street intersections along the outer edge of the eruv.

A specially trained rabbi must inspect the potential eruv site to be sure it follows the prescriptions of Jewish law, as set forth in the Talmud. A number of such experts have visited the Phoenix site, including Rabbi Barry Freundel of Washington, D.C., who oversaw creation of that city's eruv in the Eighties.

Freundel calls the proposed Phoenix eruv ". . . doable without being obtrusive."

Jewish law requires that the constructors of the eruv gain permission from authorities who control property on the perimeter. In this case, that's the City of Phoenix, Salt River Project and the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Phoenix deputy street transportation director Don Herp says his department is reviewing the eruv plans, and will probably issue a revocable use permit. SRP spokesman Jeff Lane says his company is expected to issue a license this month. ADOT spokesman Robert Johnson did not return repeated calls from New Times.

Goldstein's committee has proposed placing posts approximately five feet in height at the affected intersections. Each post would be topped by a spool of Mylar line that could be strung across the street, although that never would be done. This arrangement would satisfy Jewish law, which requires that doorways be created along the perimeter of the eruv but does not mandate that they be closed.

This would be less obtrusive than stringing wire, Goldstein argues, and more practical. In 1992, a blizzard broke the wire denoting the eruv in Jerusalem, and Hurricane Andrew tore down the wire and other barriers around Miami Beach's eruv--it could not be repaired for a month. Goldstein worries about Phoenix's monsoon season.

Even without the wires, the eruv would have to be checked each week to make certain every part was intact. Most eruvin committees operate a hot line--in Washington, D.C., it's 202-338-ERUV--to allow people to make sure the eruv is operable before each Shabbat.

Perhaps more important than the physical boundary of the eruv itself is its ritual of dedication. The concept of the eruv, as recorded thousands of years ago, was for Jews to create a community by sharing food. People living within a courtyard would bring dishes of food to one another's homes, and in so doing transform the entire area into one home. Today, the ritual continues with the sharing of food at the dedication of the eruv.

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