Photo Credit: Wikipedia
An eruv boundary, Airmont, New York. Note the white plastic lechi at right of nearest pole.

It is an irony of colossal dimensions that the device which means “to merge” has become the catalyst for so much division. Why eruvs have become the powder keg of dispute among so many religious factions is beyond the scope of this article, but the wedge this eruv inserted between those pro and con would be reflective and legally groundbreaking for many other communities.

Map of Bergen County, N.J.

Torah law forbids transferring objects (easier referred to, although not as precisely: “carrying”) between a private and a public domain, or vice versa, on Shabbos. An eruv refers to the device the rabbis devised to permit such carrying by rendering a public domain symbolically enclosed (and hence private) and not subject to the prohibition. The laws concerning an eruv are exceptionally complex, but in its most simplistic description it is usually composed of a taught wire run along straight poles that must also have a lechi (sidepost) adjacent to the entrance(s).

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Despite the halachic hurdles entailed in erecting and maintaining an eruv, it is vital to a growing observant Jewish community. A young couple looking to put down roots will inevitably prefer a community with an eruv. This rationale was essential in the planning of a religious community in Tenafly, New Jersey.

The initial idea evolved in the late 1990s when some religious couples living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side began to talk about creating a new community in suburbia. Part of the appeal of “creating” meant the absence of the need to conform to what already existed; it was an opportunity to mold a community from scratch centered around a synagogue of their particular likes and aspirations.

In October of 1999, Chaim and Yosifa Book purchased a home in Tenafly; others followed. In short order there was a nuclear mass of religious families, but they were situated too far for a comfortable walk to the nearest shul in neighboring Englewood. The solution was to build a new, local synagogue. But for this to be financially viable it would require many more families moving in. However, that was a non-starter without an eruv.

A telephone pole with black lechis, Upper Saddle River. Seen in September 2018.

The most cost-efficient and neighborhood-friendly way to wire off a section of a town is to use existing wires, such as those on utility or telephone poles. Jewish law requires, however, not only the existence of physical wiring, but permission to use them. Meaning, a telephone cable that moonlights as an eruv – even though the wire remains as it was before, untouched in any way – still requires permission from the telephone company to use.

The religious families of Tenafly hired an individual to get the eruv underway. The first person that he approached, naturally, was the Jewish mayor, Ann Moscovitz. Her honor was very supportive, as she understood how the eruv would be a magnet for wholesome families. Not coincidentally, the eruv would trigger a boon to real-estate prices, which would translate into an increase in tax dollars, which ultimately would beautify the town.

Her enthusiasm, however, chilled rapidly. What caused the mayor to change her mind is not known, but she began to stonewall. She was no longer ready to sign off on anything, and apprised that whatever the Eruv Association would wish to do would require the local council approval.

The noted halachic authority, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, ruled that the mayor did not have to be the one to grant permission to utilize and rent the utility poles. It was adequate for anyone who had political authority over the area – even the police chief. Ultimately the Bergen County Executive (Tenafly is in Bergen County) was pleased to accommodate.

The man coordinating the eruv’s construction in Tenafly, New Jersey in 1999 erred one day as he was mapping out the boundaries and wandered onto someone’s property. The property owner was incensed, and a host of apologies could not appease him. The eruv representative innocently explained what he was up to in the hope that this would keep the landowner from pressing charges of criminal trespassing.

Wrong again. The irate landowner complained to a local councilman, revealing the full story of what the newcomer-Jews were planning to do. The councilman sprang into action to perform his elected duty. But as the Eruv Association had already acquired permission from the utility companies to use their poles, the adequately-prodded Town Council dispatched an angry letter of protest to Verizon, Cablevision and PSE&G (electrical services). By what right did they grant permission to utilize items that weren’t theirs?

The answer, although worded a tad more diplomatically, was by every right in the world. They owned the poles and they could thus determine how to utilize them. The town of Tenafly disputed this claim and asserted that they were the sole owner of the poles and they would see to it that they were not involved in any eruv business. Alas, a claim does not a telephone-pole-owner make, and the town and utility companies (that did not withdraw their permission to the Eruv Association) remained deadlocked.

But the town of Tenafly was not looking for a deadlock; they were looking for an elephant stomp. Thus, they pursued a different avenue, making the first – in what would be a series of aggravated attempts – to pit Jew against Jew.

A complaint was lodged with the local United Jewish Appeal about a group of religious vigilantes that had settled in Tenafly and were advancing with the construction of an eruv without permission. The UJA viewed the matter very gravely – how dare the newcomers take matters into their own hands and act unilaterally!

The head of the UJA called Shmuel Goldin, rabbi of the largest Orthodox congregation in Englewood, NJ. Rabbi Goldin promised his assistance and called Chaim Book who was spearheading Tenafly’s eruv committee. Both Rabbi Goldin and the head of the UJA were affronted at the good relations that were being eroded because of the eruv.

It did not take Rabbi Goldin all that much time to realize that the Eruv Association was being unjustly accused. All they wanted was to make matters easier for young Jewish families to live in Tenafly without inconveniencing or upsetting anyone along the way. To this end they had secured the permission they needed from the proper channels.

The Tenafly Town Council then decided to assert its weight and make matters fully public. On the table was whether the town of Tenafly should allocate permission for an eruv to be built within its confines.

One might have imagined such a hearing to be a forum to air disagreements as to the damage an eruv may cost the city, real or imagined. It would be the opportunity to voice objection to potential precedents this could set for projects of other interest groups of a less innocuous nature. And this would be the time to weigh in on the aesthetic fall out or conceivable ecological damage that could result from wires (albeit, already extant) suspended around the town.

But this was not to be; not even close. The above issues were never addressed as unadulterated, blanket anti-Semitism was vocalized in a hatefest conducted in a bedroom community of New York City in July of 1999! The non-Jews articulated uninhibited anti-Semitism and the non-Orthodox Jews present expressed their vehement anti-Orthodox feelings.

Portion of a lechi attached to a utility pole, Mahwah, New Jersey.

Remarkably, the one thing that the non-Jews and the non-observant Jews could agree upon was to refer to the Orthodox proponents of the eruv as “those people.” Below is a sampling culled from three town meetings, where the tone was consistent with the comment, “If those people make an eruv, I will have to move because I do not want to breathe the same air as those people.”

Many asked, “Why do those people have to come here?”

“Our town is diverse, those people want to be on their own and not patronize local businesses. They want their own stores and their own community within our community.”

The Eruv Association had a dilemma as to who should represent them at the meeting. Although there was no dearth of qualified, articulate individuals who could make a compelling case for the eruv, the Tenaflyers were not interested in outsiders. In their opinion the only one entitled to address a town meeting was a resident, and someone – even from the next town over – was an outsider.

Whoever got up to speak at the town meeting was instructed to state their name and address. Anyone who did not hail from Tenafly merited exaggerated eye-rolling, especially from the Council members, and was not afforded the time of day.

And even if someone bothered to tune in to the frequency of the non-local speaker, the next person to ascend to the podium would make sure to set the record straight by declaring, “That person wasn’t even from Tenafly!” (Read: press memory delete.)

A rabbi from the area, although not from Tenafly, was brought in to explain what an eruv is about and to entertain questions. This attempt at enlightenment backfired because, for starters, he was not from Tenafly. But this time instead of ignoring him, he was misunderstood.

The rabbi was much more religious in appearance than the Modern Orthodox residents of Tenafly and this caused a perceptible uneasiness in the room. In his description, the scholar spoke in terms of the Old Country and about the walled cities discussed in the Talmud. This was perceived by an antagonistic and anxious audience [picture Alvy Singer turning into a Hassidic Rabbi before Annie Hall’s anti-Semitic grandmother] as a description of a medieval ghetto. To the biased minds in the room it was as if their greatest fears had just been articulated: the erection of an eruv leads to the creation of a ghetto.

As ludicrous as it was, the process of demonization through stereotyping was already in gear. For some, horns were already emerging from the rabbi’s temples.

Some Tenaflyers expressed, “Israel is a religious state, Islamic states are religious states. We’re a democracy. We separate the private and the public. This is bringing those two together.… They start to insist that shops close on Saturday. They start to think of the neighborhood as their sole possession. The attitudes of the community change. This is not a simple issue about cables on poles.”

“I don’t think we should make an enhancement for a religious group.”

“If they want to live with their wires, let’s send them to live within wires, like barbed wires.”

The local Jews who attended the meeting had no anti-Semitism to share, but their own anti-Orthodox paranoia had no peer.

“There is a concern that the Orthodoxy would take over.”

“I am familiar with the concept of the eruv having been brought up Jewish. The concept of an eruv is not as innocuous as its implications to the community as the mayor has portrayed. I don’t think it should be kept a secret. While it does not physically change the surroundings, it has the potential to change the entire character of the community. I was brought up in Brooklyn, when the eruv came to Borough Park, our community was entirely changed. In Lawrence, where my brother brought up his family, the entire community changed over 5-10 years to the point where shopkeepers were ostracized for keeping their shops opened on the Sabbath. It is not simply a matter of being able to carry your child to synagogue. They have been able to go to synagogue with no one interfering for five years. This is something that has considerable implications in terms of changing the social community. It makes it part of their private domain. And I personally object the use of our public property to convert to anyone’s private domain.”

“If this is granted, let’s all be honest, more and more Orthodox people are going to move in here. They’re not going to buy their meat in the Grand Union, they’re going to want to go to a Glatt Kosher Orthodox store. They are going to open up businesses in Tenafly. You are going to have the same thing that happened in Teaneck. This is my concern. I am concerned about the school system and I am concerned about what will come in our local shopping areas. I think you should seriously consider this.”

“This is a very serious concern… wherever the ultra-Orthodox come in. They’ve willed a change in Israel, so much so that they stone the cars that drive the streets in their neighborhoods on the Sabbath.”

The minutes from the Tenafly Town Hall meeting concerning the construction of an eruv in 1999 sounded far more like they were taken from a KKK chapter than from a New Jersey town council. And although the residents of Tenafly had no inhibitions expressing anti-Semitic sentiments, this would not transmit well over the networks. So just as outright anti-Semitism became taboo after the Holocaust, its expression was merely altered to the cosmetic, and less-offensive improvement of “anti-Zionism.”

Likewise, in the media’s portrayal of the Tenafly Town Meetings, the anti-Jewish sentiment was couched in soothing terms, which did not emit the stench of religious bigotry. What anti-Zionism had become for the anti-Semites, reared its head in Tenafly as anti-Orthodox paranoia.

It did not take a discerning genius to realize that all of the high-minded rhetoric about the sanctity of the Establishment Clause and the need to avoid strife and preserve unity in the community was grounded in a fear of an influx of Orthodox Jews. It was the dread that Orthodox Jews would find Tenafly an attractive community in which to reside that resulted in the objection to the eruv.

Or the way the residents expressed it, “Permitting the eruv would destroy Tenafly’s public school system, close its shopping malls on Saturdays, put the supermarket butchers out of business, lead to the establishment of many small synagogues and stores that cater to Orthodox Jews, turn the eruv-enclosed area into a private Orthodox ghetto, give non-Orthodox Jews an inferiority complex and impose Orthodox Judaism on all of Tenafly’s residents.”

A vote was taken on December 12, 1999 and to no one’s surprise, the Town Council voted 5-0 (one member was absent) to bar the eruv and the next day set about getting it dismantled. All of this despite the fact that not one iota of the town would be altered and the wires were already in place. The Council sent a letter, indeed a warning, to the utility companies to rescind any permission they had already granted to the Eruv Association and remove any other accommodation with which they had complied.

Tenafly’s Eruv Association, like any community that wishes to construct an eruv, confronted two issues: legal and halalchic. Legalistically, the town of Tenafly had overstepped their bounds. They had no right to instruct and threaten the utility companies. They had no jurisdiction over the poles, which they did not own. Hence, what they were doing was illegal, although a court had yet to rule as such.

From a halachic perspective, permission was required in order to affix lechis on the poles, which had been acquired from the utility companies who owned the poles. Sechiras reshus, permission to rent the area, which had to be acquired from the County, had also been secured.

Thus, although there were no halachic impediments, the Association was fearful that the Town would tell the utilities company to revoke their permission or remove the lechis on their own – either of which would invalidate the eruv.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the award-winning producer of three films, a popular teacher in Jerusalem yeshivos and seminaries, and the author of 28 books, the latest entitled Heroic Children, chronicling the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Teller is also a senior docent in Yad Vashem and is frequently invited to lecture to different communities throughout the world.