Pedestrians in Borough Park have noticed a few words spray-painted in white on the pavement of 18th Avenue in recent weeks. “Stop,” reads a warning in English, next to a Hebrew expression that means, “The eruv is until here.” The writing announces that the nylon string some two stories overhead, spanning the road between a bakery and linen shop near 47th Street, marks the outside limit of the neighborhood’s new eruv, a symbolic boundary that allows people to carry items outside of their homes on Shabbat.
The eruv, which was constructed this fall under the supervision of a group of local rabbis, is among a few dozen in Orthodox neighborhoods in the New York area. But it is the first eruv in two decades to gain acceptance by a sizable part of the city’s largest haredi neighborhood. Encompassing a few blocks at first, it has steadily expanded to now include most of Borough Park.
An eruv is often set up and promoted as an inducement for Orthodox Jews — especially families with children too small to walk — to move into an area. Since they do not drive on Shabbat, an eruv allows them to walk to shul or to friends’ homes using strollers or carrying infants.
In Borough Park, whose Orthodox population and Orthodox-oriented businesses have grown without an eruv, an eruv plays a smaller role in drawing new Jewish residents to the neighborhood.
Like proposed eruvs in other communities, the Borough Park eruv has attracted a significant amount of opposition. The opposition does not come, as is usual, from civil libertarians and non-Orthodox Jews who base their position on First Amendment grounds, but from other Orthodox Jews who interpret halacha, or Jewish law, to proscribe such a large area from qualifying for an eruv.
Borough Park, whose 100,000 Orthodox Jews are mostly chasidim, with a minority of so-called yeshivish and Modern Orthodox Jews, has become inundated with flyers and booklets and posters about the eruv.
“There are signs all over the place — pro and con, in Yiddish and Hebrew,” says Heshy Friedman, a Borough Park resident for more than 40 years. “You can’t miss it. It never ends.”
Friedman, whose home lies outside the current boundaries of the eruv, says residents seem evenly split between proponents and opponents.
Opponents have also spoken in synagogues against the eruv and mounted a signature campaign.
Much of the opposition, such as a sign in English posted by the right-wing Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, relies on the opinion of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, head of the Mesivta Tifereth Yerushalayim yeshiva on the Lower East Side, who was considered the pre-eminent expert on Jewish law until his death in 1986. According to the union, Rabbi Feinstein ruled against the permissibility of any eruv in Brooklyn because he felt the large traffic flow precludes the designation of a reshus hayachid, or private area.
“Anyone who relies on the Eruv and carries is a public desecrator of the Shabbos,” the sign quotes Rabbi Feinstein declaring about an eruv built in Borough Park in 1981. “I thereby warn against constructing Eruvin encompassing any section of Brooklyn.”
Proponents of the eruv are expected to issue their own statement this week, showing their halachic support and answers to objections raised by Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling, a Borough Park resident involved with the building of the eruv said. “When you talk about [Torah laws] there is a lot of passion.”
“Of course, all controversy is uncomfortable,” Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum wrote in a recent column in The Jewish Press, which has a predominantly Orthodox readership. “However, the side effects of heightened interest in the laws of eruv and the aggressive exploration of alternative viewpoints and Rabbinic ruling may be considered an integral part of acquiring Torah knowledge.”
Rumors of vandalism against the eruv have spread in Borough Park, but “there have been no reports” brought to the attention of the police, says Officer John Polizzano, community affairs liaison at the 66th Precinct in Borough Park. “I’ve heard whispers,” he said.
As with all eruvs, the one in Borough Park is being inspected each Friday afternoon by an expert hired by the group of rabbis who constructed it.
According to traditional Jewish law, it is forbidden to carry an object — that includes wheeling a baby carriage — outside of a private domain on Shabbat. An entire tractate of the Talmud is devoted to the intricate laws that allow the construction of an eruv, usually a network of elevated strings but sometimes manmade or natural barriers which give vast areas the designation of a private domain in which carrying is permitted.
Some halachic authorities consider the entire island of Manhattan, surrounded by water, to be automatically in an eruv. Other authorities disagree with that view, but allow the construction of smaller eruvs around individual neighborhoods; and others, for various reasons, do not accept the halachic legality of any eruvs in Manhattan.
Landlocked Brooklyn, part of Long Island, is in a separate category.
Rabbi Chaim Leib Katz, a Borough Park resident known as the Serdehaly Rav and the organizer of the Borough Park eruv, declined to discuss the eruv with The Jewish Week.
He heads a group of Borough Park chasidic rabbis who support the new eruv. While respectful of the opinions of Rabbi Feinstein, who was considered his generation’s leader of non-chasidic Orthodox Jewry, they have their own chasidic authorities and do not feel obliged to follow all of Rabbi Feinstein’s rulings, according to a Borough Park resident familiar with the eruv case.
“Not all of them go with Reb Moshe’s psak,” or halachic decision, said the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“They feel it is a big mitzvah to make an eruv. There is a need for it,” the Borough Park resident said. “People have large families today. They live in small quarters. They just have to get out. The people who are carrying are very happy.”
An eruv is usually particularly helpful to Orthodox women, who can take their children for a stroll on Shabbat, rather than remain indoors with children, while husbands are at shul or study classes.
Unlike the 1981 Borough Park eruv, which gained little acceptance, the new one has support from a wide circle of area rabbinical authorities and is likely to remain, the Borough Park resident said. “It’s here now. It’s a metzius [existing situation]. The probability that it will last is strong.”
Because of the stigma of being seen as flouting Torah laws, the number of people carrying within the eruv’s boundaries so far is still small, Borough Park longtimer Heshy Friedman said. Many people are waiting for the majority of Borough Parkers to use it.
“I will probably use it,” Friedman said. “[But] I don’t want to be the only person using it.”