Palo Alto's long 'eruv' saga | November 2, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 2, 2007

Palo Alto's long 'eruv' saga

by Sue Dremann

The eruv is barely visible; a thin line that glistens amid spaces between trees only when the sun's rays happen to illuminate it.

One must look closely to see it: a wire that covers 13 miles around Palo Alto, from Hwy. 101 to Foothill Expressway, between Adobe and San Francisquito creeks.

Constructed of super-strength fishing line (used for catching sharks), the eruv, which was completed in early September, has been a dividing line between faith and the state to some since it was first proposed eight years ago.

Heated arguments erupted over its potential violation of the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state.

But the eruv, a linear boundary that allows Palo Alto's Orthodox Jews to carry young children and objects in public spaces during the Sabbath, is a unifier, encompassing all of the community and expanding home into the greater public realm, some said.

Its existence in Palo Alto today is an example of the First Amendment of the Constitution in action: Freedom of religion regardless of how small the minority, according to some members of the religious community.

Carrying anything in public places is considered a form of work and is forbidden on the Sabbath by Jewish law. That includes young children who are not yet able to walk, according to Rabbi Yosef Levin, executive director of Chabad of Greater South Bay. Mothers whose young children are unable to walk on their own had to stay home with the children, which limited access to synagogue services and other gatherings, since the children and belongings could not be carried.

But the eruv has changed all that for Palo Alto's Orthodox Jews.

"Rivka" (not her real name), a young mother, said the eruv has enabled her family to go out together during the Sabbath.

"It's made a huge difference in our lives. It's really wonderful. The main thing is the kids who don't walk yet. You can take a stroller. We can be out and about more. It's hard to describe the difference to someone who doesn't observe (the laws)," she said.

Before the eruv, Rivka and husband, "Jacob," had to take turns going to synagogue. And an outing to a park in the afternoon with friends meant that either she or Jacob would go with the older kids and the other parent would stay home with the baby, she said. Even diapers were not allowed to be carried, which meant leaving them in places where they could later be retrieved if the couple was away from home during the Sabbath.

When her son was born, Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon, who practices Conservative Judaism, made the decision not to observe the restrictions on carrying. But she grew up in a family that did observe the carrying rule.

"My mother couldn't go to synagogue. A big part of the Shabbat (Sabbath) experience is inviting families to get together. We couldn't reciprocate because we couldn't take the baby off of the property," she said.

The idea of the eruv dates back to the writings of the prophets -- that people shouldn't carry from the private to the public domain during the Sabbath, she said. It was designed to make the day of rest truly free of laborious activity.

But certain activities are allowed in the home, and because creating an eruv symbolically turns the whole community into the private sphere public spaces become an extension of the home, she said.

"The eruv reminds us we are all one community. ... It's entirely about the human community, not just putting up a string. There must be a sharing of bread -- of community and inviting guests and sharing foods. The eruv speaks to those three elements," she added.

While widely lauded by the Orthodox and Conservative communities, the long, eight-year struggle and the firestorm surrounding the eruv has taken a toll on many in the Jewish community.

Rivka and Jacob, like many others, were reluctant to discuss the eruv -- even its benefits -- because of lingering feelings after its controversy, and they only spoke on condition of having their names changed.

For Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha, who spearheaded the move to create a Palo Alto eruv in 1999, the pain of the controversy and anti-Semitic vitriol is still raw. Feldman would not discuss the eruv now, seeing no benefit but to stoke the passions of those who are still against it, he said.

The eruv cost more than $150,000, according to a newsletter distributed to Emek Beracha members.

As of Sept. 12, nearly $100,000 in debt was still outstanding for its construction, but $50,000 in matching donations is being offered. All of the costs are borne by Palo Alto Community Eruv, Inc., which also maintains the eruv.

Eliot Klugman, a 30-year Palo Altan and member of Congregation Emek Beracha, said the hefty price tag is worthwhile.

"As a resource, as a long-term investment, it is absolutely unbeatable," he said.

He estimated hundreds of families benefit from the eruv. While that number may seem small compared to the city's 62,000-plus population, the eruv will strengthen the city's Jewish community, as more people will want to move here now that the boundary has been constructed, he said.

"It will last 50 years. By then it will be paid for in terms of its benefits, in terms of the people coming to the area," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at


Posted by withheld by request, a resident of another community
on Dec 31, 2007 at 4:38 pm

As a Jew, I was sad to learn of the Palo Alto Eruv and the attendant controversy. The Eruv apparently intrudes enough on the lives or at least the consciousness of non-Jewish neighbors to engender vitriol. There are many other potential solutions to the "problem" of the Sabbath law forbidding the carrying of objects and small children in public places. None of them would generate tension between Jews and their neighbors (nor entail a cost of $150,000.00). Here are a few ideas:

Option #1: If one chooses to accept this interpretation of Torah by the Sanhedrin as law, then one should simply obey the law -- if carrying children is necessary, stay home on Sabbath. Coming up with a work-around like the Eruv is hypocritical, and defies the intent of the law.

Option #2: The law that prohibits carrying things (including small children) in public on Sabbath is not stated per se in the Torah. Rather, it derives from interpretation of the Torah by the Sanhedrin (a group of men, BTW, not the Almighty) based on three passages in the Torah: a) Exodus (16:29): Moses says "Let no man leave his place on the seventh day." This was interpreted as an invection against the carrying of manna. b)The Torah tells of a man who was put to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath. Although gathering wood is clearly labor, this was interpreted as an invection against carrying things on Sabbath. c) The prophet Jeremiah says not to carry on the Sabbath: "Take heed and carry no burdens on the Sabbath ... Also do not carry any burden out of your houses on the Sabbath." (Jer. 17:21-22). These passages were INTERPRETED to mean that things in general, including small children or the infirm, should not be carried (or pushed in a stroller or wheelchair) on Sabbath. In addition, permission to do so at home (later, conveniently generalized to a private space) was also established by men. In other words, men (not the almighty) made up the law and its exclusionary clause. It is not clear at all that the Torah prohibits carrying on Sabbath. One might simply choose to interpret the Torah differently and not consider this law to be valid.

Option #3: Erecting a barrier with tape or string merely creates a symbolic space. The same effect could be achieved in some other way. If one is willing to ascend the slippery slope of latter-day interpretation (e.g., carrying in public is prohibited, but carrying at home is okay, and by the way, if you enclosed a passage way between your neighborhood and the synagogue, that is a private space, so that's okay, too), then one might interpret "private space" in any number of ways, e.g., as the space around you for the length of your arm in any direction (which of course travels with you where ever you go); or private space is created if you always step off on your left foot; or whatever. Need the boundary be tangible? Need it impose upon other members of the community? I think not.

Imposing one's religious practices on others is not community-building. It is smug and divisive. The Palo Alto Eruv is an example of the kind of insanity that makes us a target for genocide.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2007 at 5:10 pm

I am amazed that this is still getting an airing.

However, I would like to know the answers to the following.

If the laws are so strict, can any jew become a doctor, an air traffic controller, or almost anything other than someone who works 9 - 5 weekdays only?

What happens if a woman starts to give birth on a sabbath? or an earthquake happens on a sabbath? or, or, or, etc.

I am not trolling, I do want to know? It seems to me that the jewish community while wanting to obey their religious laws, are also opting out on life on the sabbath, or am I missing something? I have been told that elevators in Israel are programed to stop on every floor on the sabbath so that no button pushing is involved. I also know that my new oven has a sabbath control whereby food can be put into the oven and the programming done before the sabbath starts and the food is cooked by machine automatically, but what happens when the food is cooked, can you take it out of the oven?

I respect anyone who is trying to live by the laws of their religion, but sometimes I find that I can't understand just how they do it.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 31, 2007 at 9:50 pm

Well said withheld, well said.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Dec 31, 2007 at 10:20 pm

The Eruv is up and the impact on everyone else is ... umm ... nothing. A non-issue if ever there was one.

Posted by pro-eruv, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2007 at 11:42 pm

Withheld by request--how many people that reside in PA actually remember that there is an eruv in the city? and out of those how many feel that the eruv intrudes on their life?
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by PA Native, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 1, 2008 at 2:14 pm

Well...putting up an internal border is kind of self-serving. It moves the focus from simple Palo Alto residents to those being Jews. And the funny thing is, I live in Palo Alto and am outside this fishline border. But I drive under the line every day and just have to wonder...I actually look to see if anyone has vandalized it yet / torn it down / opened themselves to hate crime remarks.

My take is the Jews are continually asking for (and apparently getting) the attention as a religious group. The eruv is just that - self serving. I feel the comments by 'withheld' would have been noticed more effectively before this eruv was put up - now it's just 'us' against 'them' again. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Sparky, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 1, 2008 at 2:47 pm

And you goyim sure know how to make a mountain out of a fishing line ;-)

Posted by PA Guy, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 1, 2008 at 4:42 pm

well...if it's just a fishing line then why did it cost $150,000? And why do we need this around our city...we're not a fishing village. Way to stoke the fire - this might end up being one expensive eruv. [Portoin removed by Palo Alto Onlines staff.] I'll bet no one notices when it's broken - fo all you know it could be right...or did you electrify the line?!? :))

Posted by PA Dude, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 1, 2008 at 4:56 pm

I believe that there were poles set up as well (on private property?), which is most of the cost. If this is like other eruvs, there are people tasked with checking it before the Sabbath and making any needed repairs.

Posted by Pro eruv, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 1, 2008 at 6:30 pm

"well...if it's just a fishing line then why did it cost $150,000?"

Does it matter and is it really any of your business? It is private money, raised from members of the community.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

I suggest that the people that are so opposed to the eruv and are so bothered by it's presence file a lawsuit and take it to court.

Posted by Stop the trolls, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 1, 2008 at 7:44 pm

You Christians... oops, I'm sorry, I mean, you gentiles... ooops, I mean, you Palo Altans... oooops, I mean you lowly trolls diminish anything of value you might have to say by taking that offensive tone.

As for the person asking how Jews can take certain jobs or have babies... first of all, there are many different ways for people who are Jewish to live their lives, interpret scriptures, make choices, and live their faith. There is no single, monolithic Jewish way of doing anything. Even within a single family or synagogue there may be variations.

Jewish law, for all it's minutiae, is very clear about basic values, as I understand it. That is to say, that human life and health come ahead of ritual. Otherwise, Jews would be unable to defend their homes or save lives on the Sabbath. Kind of common sense, right? You can't tell a baby when to be born, so if it comes during the Sabbath, so be it - there will indeed be "labor" on that particular day of rest. As for the various jobs you mention, strictly observant Jews would not accept jobs that required them to work on Sabbath. Many less traditional or less strictly observant Jews find their own ways to navigate modern life and traditional teachings - much as practitioners of other faiths do, I think.

Posted by Nem Withheld by Request, a resident of another community
on Jan 2, 2008 at 9:31 am

In response to Pro-Eruv's comments:

I don't believe that viable solutions to Anti-Semitism include a) hoping that no one notices us ("how many people that reside in PA actually remember that there is an eruv in the city?"), or b) inviting litigation ("I suggest that the people that are so opposed to the eruv and are so bothered by it's presence file a lawsuit and take it to court."). More viable solutions include tolerance and education (for those who desire it). I do believe that several of the responses to my commentary suggest that there is (at best) naievity or a wish to understand on the part of some non-Jews, and (at worst) suspicion and fear on the part of others (characterized by comments such as "you Jews..."). My point in general is that one's personal religious practices is personal business, and needn't involve the rest of the community.

We live in a secular country, built on tolerance for the beliefs of others. Tolerance, not celebration or support. Expecting people of other faiths to applaud one's personal religious practices, especially when they do impact the entire community, is simply unrealistic. I don't think that this interpretation makes me a "self-loathing Jew."

I am sorry to have stirred up this tempest in a teapot.

Posted by Pro eruv, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2008 at 9:39 am

Nem Withheld by Request:

"Expecting people of other faiths to applaud one's personal religious practices, especially when they do impact the entire community,"

Boy are you way off base with this comment.
How do they impact the entire community? The answer is that they do not impact the community at all, just like the presence of a church steeple does not impact the whole community.

There are over 100 cities in the US alone that have an eruv and I bet you that most citizens in those cities either do not know or do not care that there is an eruv--in other words it does not impact the community.

In fact courts have found that denying an eruv is wrong:

Web Link

I hardly think that setting up an eruv will set off rampant antisemitism. Antisemitism exists and it is deeply ingrained so putting an eruv in place is not the cause. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

I will repeat, if you are so disturbed by the eruv, I suggest that you do file a lawsuit to try to have it removed, otherwise just live with it, like the vast majority of citizens of PA do.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2008 at 1:57 pm

The architectural appointment of a church steeple is very different from stringing an eruv. A beautiful building as a designated house of worship to whatever faith, can be enjoyed by the community for the very reason that it is beautiful. While I have no opinion one way or the other on the eruv as it makes very little difference to me, I would not put it in the category of affecting me at all. There are many ways the jewish religion does affect me (school holidays) and I have to put up with them. Unless the string comes down and causes some form of harm to me or mine, I see no problems.

Religious tolerance is supposed to be one of the roles of being good citizens. Bringing up this old problem again and again is not helping.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 2, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Pro eruv: were you under the impression that your chip on the shoulder offense somehow promoted your beliefs? Rather, it informs the reader that you lean towards the radical fringe.

Posted by Eruvs for Israel, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 2, 2008 at 5:05 pm

I'm a tolerant person but I do not want to live in an eruv. I feel that having my home encircled by a religious boundry is an invasion of my personal rights. As I see it, an eruv is a requirement of an extreme form of religious doctrine that may be appropriate in the Jewish state of Isreal, but has no place in a secular society. I and many people I know, including Jews, are not comfortable with Israel's expansionist and militaristic behaviour. The idea of Jews erecting borders, even string ones, in our town makes me feel anxious and angry.

Posted by Sparky, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 2, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Well, tough luck, E for I, cause you are in one. So, btw, is the White House and the Supreme Court and most of downtown DC, a big chunk of Boston, East Denver, parts of St Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, and a whole bunch of Jersey! Hopefully the Supremes aren't too angry and anxious over it (I'm sure GWB and Laura are doing fine; Cheney - who knows!).

The idea that an eruv makes you feel anything at all is a head-scratcher to me. It impacts you in no way, while providing a useful convenience to some of your neighbors. I've heard of people who get pissed off about a mosque's minaret - they don't like it and find it out of place and offensive. I always chalked that up to unfamiliarity plus some bigotry. Maybe that's your issue, E for I - maybe you are not as tolerant as you think.

Posted by pro eruv, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2008 at 5:34 pm

palo parent--is there a problem with me leaning toward the "radical fringe"? Do not I have the right to belong to any "fringe" I want to?
Eruvs for Israel--do you avoid visiting the 100+ cities that have eruvs? As I suggested before, a lawsuit may be your only chance to get your peace of mind back.
of course there might be underlying issues. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Eruvs for Israel, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 2, 2008 at 6:53 pm

I'm here for a productive discussion on a challenging issue. I'm not interested in meeting "pro-eruv" in a courtroom, nor taking a pair of scissors to the eruv. The notion of spending 150K on a line of fishing wire strikes me as incredibly wasteful, though I risk being accused of anti-semitism by saying so. I propose that the Jews consider offering an olive branch as a thank you to the city for granting them this privilage. How about an act of sheer altruism toward a secular cause? $150K would go a long way toward services for needy families and individuals in our community. A free clinic, child care center, or shelter would bring much-needed services, and gratitude and good will, to the residents of the eruv. Just thinking out of the box...

Posted by Sparky, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 2, 2008 at 7:17 pm

Dude, you are a strange thinker. Should all the religious groups forgo their own facility needs (churches, even the steeples, Mormon temples, mosques, shrines, etc) and as a goodwill gesture give it to a charity you like? They wouldn't want to piss you off! And you are easily offended!

Why do the eruv-builders owe anybody an olive branch? Because you take offense at something that has no impact on you? Why don't you offer them an olive branch by making a donation?

And referring to the group that built the eruv as "the Jews" - how weird is that on this thread? Should we refer to all the eruv-haters as "the Christians?" A small sub-set of Jewish people in PA arranged and will benefit from the building of the eruv; the vast majority had nothing to do with it and many don't even know what it is.

Posted by pro eruv, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2008 at 7:27 pm

eruvs for Israel--2 points. The money is private money-- therefore the people can do what they want with it. My suggestion for you to go to court stemmed from your comments about being so disturbed by it's existence . By the way the city attorney advised the city to approve the eruv based on recent court decisions.
an olive branch? That is insulting. It makes it sound that a certain group of Jews in PA have done something wrong

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 2, 2008 at 7:48 pm

Pro eruv: please don't put your words in my mouth. I did not criticize your belonging to any group, fringe or not. I was merely pointing out the fact that you were not helping to promote your views.

Posted by pro eruv, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2008 at 7:55 pm

palo parent---I am expressing my opinions--I am not trying to promote any views. What you think of my technique is of no interest to me at all.

Posted by Palo Parent, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 2, 2008 at 9:34 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Edward Scissorhands, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 2, 2008 at 10:14 pm

Johnny Depp says, "cut it down"...and as PINK FLOYD once said..."Tear Down the Wall."
Jews or no Jews...secular or sucks. Good luck on the Sabbath...the only 'thing' you all have left to repair is the string itself...hanging by a

Posted by janette, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 3, 2008 at 4:51 am

So, I wonder if I am alone in thinking, how hypocritical, to think that putting up a piece of string absolves one of following a religious law. It clearly flouts the intention of the law.

And, yes, I also object to my community kowtowing to the religious symbol of one faith. No Christmas trees on city property, no Christmas parties in offices, but a Jewish symbol surrounding the whole community. Talk about another example of hypocrisy.

Posted by pro eruv, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2008 at 6:14 am

Palo parent--now you are putting words in my mouth--you are free to express whatever opinions about my postings that you want--I just told you that I have no interest in them. Others may find your postings informative, I do not. Feel free to insult, demean and criticize all you want. just because one is not interested in another's postings does not make them childish--I guess only those that are told that their comments are being ignored pout, like you.

Janette_If you are so much against "community kowtowing to the religious symbol", then I suggest you begin working to stop the federal government from observing christmas day as a national holiday and then you start working on abolishing all company christmas parties, whether the people object to them or not.
BTW, I suggest you read up on eruvs and exactly how they fit in with jewish law.

Posted by Sparky, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 3, 2008 at 7:52 am

Janette - huh? That is one judgmental scree you have there. How about those Christians with that absolution of sin thing - I'd say that's awfully convenient for them! And the Hindu's with that karma thing? Good for you, seeing right through people's self-serving religious hypocrisy.

Not sure why you think you are in a position to judge other people's (harmless) religious traditions. Were you appointed to that position? Shall we arrange the meeting between you and the Talmudic scholars and rabbis so you can straighten them out?

And, as the City Attorney put it: "It's not like erecting a cross or a Star of David or any symbol of any religion because all it is is a fishing line," he said. "It's not symbolic in any way..." Oh, btw, that is backed up by Federal Court cases (check out Teaneck, where they nailed plastic strips to telephone poles to form an eruv).

Actually, maybe he can join the rabbi meeting so you can explain both the Torah and the Constitution at the same time. Thank you for being so vigilant!

Posted by Rabbi Menachim Mendel Schneerson, a resident of Stanford
on Jan 3, 2008 at 11:14 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Not Dr Ferragamo, a resident of Stanford
on Jan 3, 2008 at 11:24 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]