Eruv Maintenance Tricky in a Pandemic

man fixing eruv
Tzvi Merczynski-Hait checks on a section of the University City Eruv at 43rd Street and Chester Avenue in 2019. | Photo by Bracha Dubiner

Maintaining an eruv in Philadelphia before the COVID-19 pandemic was already a juggling act.

Those charged with overseeing the various eruvs throughout the city had to schedule weekly check-ups, making sure that sections that didn’t rely on an existing physical structure had remain strung up in the proper way. If the checkers found an issue, someone with knowledge of both halacha and local law would have to be called in to fix the problem.

And whether the eruv was up or not, those who depended on it for their Shabbat routines had be to notified before sundown on Friday. Adding a pandemic on top of that, then, was a bit like graduating from bean-bag tossing to chainsaws.

Still, according to Jonathan Gradman, director of the Center City Eruv Corp., and Tzvi Merczynski-Hait, president of the University City Eruv Corp., some extra work and scheduling magic have kept their eruvs in something approaching regular-season shape.

“Thank God, it’s a sturdy eruv,” Merczynski-Hait said.

Merczynski-Hait is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania. About 150 of his classmates at Penn depend on the University City Eruv Corp., Merczynski-Hait said, in addition to about 50 students at Drexel University. Jews visiting the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania from out of town rely on a well-maintained eruv as well.

Typically, Merczynski-Hait said, there is a list of about 20 volunteers who check weekly on the eruv’s boundaries, working in small group rotations. Walking the boundaries from 43rd Street to 31st, and then Haverford Avenue to Baltimore Avenue, volunteers check that the wires demarcating the eruv’s area are properly secured. If satisfied, Merczynski-Hait notifies those who depend on the eruv that it’s good to go for Shabbat; if repairs are to be made, and they can’t be done in time, then he will make that announcement, too. Rinse and repeat, every week.

With the majority of the students maintaining the eruv out of town since the pandemic began, he said, the frequency with which check-ups are done has decreased. Weekly checks have gone to about monthly.

“We have been fortunate to have people really step up to make sure that we could at least check it that often, to have some idea of what’s happening there,” said Merczynski-Hait.

For the Center City Eruv, weekly maintenance has been upheld, outside of a short blip at the beginning of quarantine. Acting fast, Zev Berger, the scheduling coordinator, surveyed the typical checkers to see who was healthy and comfortable enough to continue checking the boundaries of the rather sizable eruv, which stretches east-west from Interstate 95 to the Schuylkill River, and north-south from Washington Avenue to Poplar Street.

For those who responded in the affirmative, according to Gradman, it was with the understanding that they would be following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines about protective wear and group gatherings. Thus far, that’s been sufficient for the typical weekly maintenance.

“Most people that are in a younger age bracket and have access to a vehicle have been very willing to be on the regular schedule and just take the precautions necessary,” Gradman said. “I don’t want anybody checking the eruv if it’s going to put them at risk.”

Maintaining an eruv for people with different ideas about what an eruv should be, stretching into parts of the city that might have different rules about stringing wire on public streets: Sounds complicated, right? How about expanding that eruv deep into South Philadelphia, as Gradman and the other volunteers are doing, and doing it during a pandemic?

Expanding the boundary of the Center City Eruv into South Philadelphia was approved by City Council in December. Planning was arduous, and the project itself was to take six weeks, to be completed around Passover. Gradman hopes now that the expansion will be finished by the end of summer.

“All this,” Gradman said, “has slowed it to a snail’s pace.”

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