Center City's eruv, a device that creates boundaries allowing observant Jews to carry on Shabbat, requires a great deal of work and care by a dedicated few.
On a cold Thursday afternoon in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla sits atop his bicycle and ducks from sidewalk to street, staying close to the utility poles. He wears a bright orange vest and a yellow hard hat. But he does not work for a telephone or electric company.
Rather, Szmerla, from Lakewood, N.J., oversees the maintenance and repair of 16 eruvin — devices that create the boundaries that allow religiously observant Jews to carry items within a public area on Shabbat — in the Philadelphia area and New Jersey.
“It’s important for a Jewish community to have an eruv because on Shabbat, a Jew is not allowed to carry anything from his house to the street” because of Jewish law, “and in today’s day and age, in most communities, people find it very difficult to manage under those circumstances,” said Szmerla.
The devices mark boundaries, which can be denoted by pre-existing structures like buildings or fences, considered “natural,” or by strings and material that Szmerla and others construct between poles.
Spotting an eruv or figuring out how it works can be difficult. As a description on chabad.org states, “It is one of those traditions which has blossomed from a basic Torah principle into a highly complicated legal matter.” Hence the need for someone like Szmerla, who also leads an Orthodox congregation in Lakewood.
He helps to maintain eruvin, which serve a spiritual purpose, by spending plenty of time dealing with the practical challenges related to the required permits and public infrastructure. Eruvin can also have an impact on the secular world because their existence can draw Orthodox Jewish families to an area and, in some cases, boost property values.
That connection could soon play out as members of the Center City congregation Mekor HaBracha work with Szmerla and other rabbis over the next couple of months to expand the Center City eruv south of Washington Avenue to an area that includes the Point Breeze neighborhood.
Thirty years ago, Szmerla, 52, moved from his native Paris to Lakewood, a New Jersey city with a large Orthodox community. His involvement with the Philadelphia eruvin began about 15 years ago when he was learning at the Bensalem Community Kollel. While studying at a yeshiva in Lakewood, he had learned the laws of the ritual enclosure — something that not all rabbis do — and Orthodox leaders approached him about checking the eruv in Northeast Philadelphia because the rabbi who had done so previously no longer could.
About five years later, when an electric company said it could no longer handle the repairs for the Philadelphia eruvin, Szmerla considered taking over. He wasn’t sure it would be lucrative enough, but then he helped the Bensalem Orthodox community construct an eruv and used the money he earned from that project to purchase a bucket truck.
A typical day for him begins with a ride around the border of an eruv to make sure the “walls” are still intact.
During the winter, wires and string can snap under the weight of snow, so the eruvin require extra maintenance. In Northeast Philadelphia, the city recently upgraded its poles and traffic lights to be able to better withstand a storm like Superstorm Sandy. As a result of those changes, he said, “All the strings and all the attachments on the old poles crossing Bustleton Avenue had to be changed.”
As he rode through Fairmount, Szmerla scanned the poles and made mental notes of where he would need to make repairs. His bicycle had an electric motor, but its battery had died after he started the ride at I-95 and the Ben Franklin Bridge, so now he was just peddling with extra weight.
After completing the lap around the Center City eruv — down along I-95, west on Washington, north following the Schuylkill River and east on Poplar — he returned to his bucket truck and then drove to make the repairs. He can’t just do it all from the truck, he explained, because he can’t get close enough to the poles or stop and start the way he can on his bike.
Before he started doing the work himself, he said, he had been “frustrated to see that repairs weren’t always done properly. It was an electrician — who was non-Jewish — and he didn’t know too much about the halachic requirements, so he did it according to his understanding.”
“I get the satisfaction of knowing that the repairs are done well in a manner that is satisfactory according to halacha,” said Szmerla, who has nine children.
Police have stopped Szmerla many times and asked him what he’s doing, he said. A few years ago, one officer even requested his permit papers, which Szmerla always carries.
“He looks at me, and he tells me, ‘Are you kidding me? These are 20 years old.’ So I told him, ‘Yes, officer, but look — it says it’s valid for 25 years.’ He looked again and said, ‘Oh, right.’ ”
Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch, who leads Mekor HaBracha, said Szmerla wears the hard hat and vest for a reason.
“Even though we have permits from the city and it’s sanctioned, he tries to look as official as possible,” said Hirsch. While Szmerla usually comes at least once a month, Hirsch and his congregants fill in in-between, rotating weekly volunteer shifts to check the Center City eruv before Shabbat. Members of the Center City Orthodox synagogues Mikveh Israel and B’nai Abraham also volunteer.
After the weekly check and repairs have been made, the Center City volunteers then update a website and send an email to let residents know whether the eruv is up.
When an eruv is down, it can have a profound effect on an observant community. Jewish law prohibits people in public spaces on Shabbat from even carrying a baby, not to mention canes, keys and strollers.
Before the construction of the Center City eruv in 2006, “some people with families would be stuck at home — we had very few families in Center City with children” because “they couldn’t really take their children out on Shabbas in a way that is halachically permissible,” said Hirsch, who moved to Center City a year before the eruv went up. Without it, he explained, he had to wear a Shabbat belt, a device that allows you to, in effect, “wear” — not carry — your keys and other items.
Since then, the Orthodox community in the city has grown considerably, to the point where there is now talk of opening an elementary school and building a mikveh.
“If we didn’t have an eruv and told people to move to Center City, we would be a laughingstock,” said Hirsch, who also lives on the Lower East Side in New York, where there is not an eruv. He told how he once had to drop his formal clothes off at a synagogue before Shabbat, then return home and walk to a synagogue uptown in sneakers. “How can you convince someone to move to a city without an eruv? It’s considered a staple of an observant Jewish community.”
The Center City eruv is usually down, at most, once a year, Hirsch said. And the reason is, he said, because much of the enclosure is “natural,” using highways, fences and buildings, but also because of Szmerla’s responsiveness.
“You have to be very handy and very creative” and know the halachic rules “in order to do what Rabbi Szmerla does. He is incredible at figuring out what to do and actually building what we need.”
Jon Gradman, a member of Mekor HaBracha who coordinates the schedule for the volunteer checkers of the Center City eruv, said people can take the convenience for granted, not realizing the work that Szmerla and others put into it.
“A lot of people assume that there is an eruv in Philly, and it’s just up and that’s how it is,” said Gradman. “And they don’t realize that the reason there is an eruv is because people went out and checked it and maintained it.”
Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla helps maintain the following area eruvin, as well as others in New Jersey:
• Beth Solomon (Northeast Philadelphia)
• Bet Harambam (Northeast Philadelphia)
• Northeast Philadelphia
• Elkins Park
• Center City
• University City
• Lower Merion
• Cherry Hill, N.J.