Center City in Line to Get Its Own Eruv

The construction of an eruv – a symbolic barrier surrounding an area within which observant Jews are halachically permitted to carry things outside of their homes on Shabbat – has for years been a dream of many in Center City.

And now that Mayor John Street has signed into law a City Council ordinance approving the eruv, the only apparent obstacle to that dream becoming a reality is its actual construction.

Street's stamp of approval comes after a group known as the Center City Eruv Corporation had, since 2000, shuttled among a handful of government organizations in an effort to bring the idea to fruition. The parties had negotiated meticulous details with the Philadelphia Department of Streets, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Fairmount Park Commission before City Council took up the question this year.

All the while, the corporation's members were hoping to avoid controversies that had flared up in recent years in places like Tenafly, N.J., where the fight over whether or not to put up an eruv wound up in court. The case there raised questions of whether religious symbols could appear on public property, but it also sparked a backlash against the idea of a stream of Orthodox Jews moving into the community.

Stretching from Washington Avenue to Poplar Street and from Interstate 95 to the Schuylkill River, the eruv should make Center City a more viable living option for observant Jewish families, according to Justin Miller, president of the Center City Eruv Corporation.

"Since we have been working on this, a number of people I consider my dear friends have moved away to the suburbs. The drag on their lifestyle is significant with no eruv," said Miller, a lawyer who is a member of Congregation Mikveh Israel, on North Fourth Street in Old City.

Miller – who has three children, including a 2-month old son – noted that as long as his infant is unable to walk, he or his wife must stay home on Shabbat. Carrying the child – or even pushing a stroller on the street – during Shabbat is prohibited by Jewish law without an eruv, he said.

Once the eruv is completed, explained Miller, "we can go to friends for lunch or we can meet in the park or go to synagogue. It's no secret that the demographics of Center City are skewed toward unmarrieds and empty-nesters. The eruv will remove one impediment to that."

An eruv, literally meaning "to mix" public and private domains, has traditionally been designated by Jewish communities with a series of polls connected by iron wires, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica.

But Miller explained that little new construction is actually needed, and said that for the most part, the eruv will be relying on existing structures, such as telephone polls, and natural barriers like the Schuylkill River. Along Washington Avenue and Poplar Streets, a thin string will run between telephone polls, and a number of wooden polls will be put in place along the interstate to demarcate the boundary of the eruv, he explained.

Miller would not give a timetable for when it would be completed, and said only that he "will be very disappointed if it's not done in 2006."

The attorney also would not go into specifics on how much the project will cost or how well the fundraising is going.

He said little about why it took so long for the measure to come before City Council, but insisted that community opposition did not play a role in slowing down the process. He blamed part of the delay on the "hair-splitting details" that took years to iron out with various governmental authorities.

The eruv ordinance passed muster with the City Council's Streets and Services Committee on Oct. 20, and then was approved unanimously by the the entire council seven days later. The mayor signed the bill on Nov. 10.

"It's sort of like a welcome mat. It really speaks of this city as the great city of brotherly love," explained Councilman Frank DiCicco, the Democrat who sponsored the bill.

DiCicco is one of three council members in whose districts the eruv is expected to span.

The Center City eruv will not be Philadelphia's first. Neighborhoods in University City and Northeast Philadelphia have been encompassed by eruvs for some time. The Bella Vista home of Jeff and Rachel Lobman was even granted special permission by the city for the construction of an eruv across the 700 block of Percy Street; it permits the Lobmans to visit the nearby home of Rabbi Menachem Schmidt with their 11-month-old son, Joey.

But Rachel Lobman said she reacted with joy to the e-mail notifying her that Street had signed the bill.

"I'll be able to bring my son to shul," she said.

Rabbi Dov A. Brisman, who oversees the five-year-old Elkins Park eruv, is acting as a consultant to the Center City Eruv Corporation. He said realtors in Elkins Park have learned the boundaries of the eruv, and include it in their sales pitch to Orthodox families.

"There are people who have moved to the area because there is an eruv there," said Brisman, religious leader of Young Israel of Elkins Park.
More of Everything?

Rabbi Ira F. Stone of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City said that the eruv will not only benefit Orthodox Jews. Several members of his Conservative congregation do not carry on Shabbat, he pointed out.

Stone predicted that if the eruv encourages more Orthodox Jews to move to Center City, eventually more kosher restaurants, grocery stores and even a Jewish bookstore might open, serving both the general and Jewish communities.

Rabbi Albert E. Gabbai, religious leader at Mikveh Israel, who has been one of the leading proponents of the eruv since the formation of the corporation, argued that it will benefit the city as a whole by helping to attract new residents.

Using the oft-quoted line from the film "Field of Dreams," he declared: "If you build it, they will come."



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