Today I read wonderful news written by Amy Bounds coming from Boulder, Colorado that with help of the city government a line establishing eruv for a specific Orthodox congregation that would allow for Orthodox Jews there travel in order to worship at a park where they gather once a week. I was also amazed at the ignorance and immediate bias that went towards the idea of a religious boundary, and realized just how few people understand exactly what eruv is, what it means for the whole area to be “private property”, and why it is done in Orthodox Jewish communities.
In all of Orange County, I only know of one eruv boundary – a small one in Irvine for the Modern Orthodox community known as Beth Jacob – generally passed on the way to Irvine Vally College or UCI. In the United States there is an estimated existence of about 100 eruv boundaries – if they were divided evenly (they’re not) that would only be two per state. Most people would go their whole lives and without ever noticing the boundary, because it doesn’t affect Gentiles (non-Jews), or is it applicable to any Reconstructionist, Humanistic, Conservative, or Reform congregation I have ever heard of – it is Orthodox-specific in observance and practice almost if not completely exclusively. It is so observant Orthodox Jews can easily get to synagogue for worship on Friday evenings and Saturdays on the Sabbath, the holy day for Judaism.
The eruv is set by a group of rabbis, the community, and in tandem with the city where it is being created so that the proper permits are acquired, permission is required, and in some cases where tree-trimming or other necessities can be done as required. It is a symbolic fence that allows a whole area to be viewed (again, symbolically) as private domain. This is because of Sabbath (Shabbat) restrictions that ultimately make it more difficult to get around with modern day objects such as keys – because people aren’t supposed to carry something from a private domain to a public domain on the Sabbath.
When these laws were written, it was mainly to prevent work, sales, and trades on the Sabbath – all strictly forbidden (see JewFAQ’s article on Shabbat for a full list of restrictions). In Orthodox Judaism, all laws are seen as absolute and never-changing, thus methods had to be reached to cope with Jewish law in changing times.
I can hear the outrage – “They’re staking out public property as their own!” or “Separation of church and state means the government shouldn’t do anything at all about their eruv needs!” – but the key word in the eruv boundary is “symbolic.” There is no fence, people on their own usually never notice the boundary and are only aware of it if they are Orthodox Jews walking in or out of it on the Sabbath – because it’s not meant to mark out the movement of non-Jews to begin with. Orthodox Jews themselves can come and go as they please, even on the Sabbath – it is only religious restriction that asks them not to leave carrying anything or otherwise doing things they should not be doing inside or outside of a public and private domain on the Sabbath.
I’m not sure where the frustration comes from something so discreet when the government is clearly in the right to enable a religious group to practice their religion and maintain their religious traditions within reasonable boundaries. Certainly, it is so much more unobtrusive than Christmas or Easter decorations, proselytes and other things one encounters on a daily, weekly, or an annual basis. I was surprised to read so many complaints on the article by Amy Bounds, but most of what I read was general ignorance on Jewish custom and what the eruv means.
I hope, with the explanation that “private domain” does not imply ownership, only a symbolic means of allowing Orthodox Jews to bring their keys to synagogue with them (or their children in a stroller), nor does it prevent Jews or non-Jews from moving in and out of this boundary at all; it wouldn’t be seen without looking for it, and these other general facts about the eruv boundary might ease the negative thoughts that put so many ignorant remarks in her entry. Failing that, I at least hope some people who feel uncomfortable with the idea of eruv feel free to look it up or even call a synagogue before making hateful comments. Criticism of religious practice should be saved for things that are actually harmful to society, not things invisible to all but the group who is practicing it, but failing that I hope people learn more about other religions and their customs before jumping to conclusions. Finding other people’s cultures, customs, religious practices, and other differences can come off as many as strange, but it does not eliminate their validity to be practiced within constitutional limits. Let’s save fighting against religion in cases where they actually impede in human rights.