MILWAUKEE COUNTY – Adam Hellman stood at the top of a 16-foot extension ladder, holding steady in blowing snow and biting cold.
An hour before Shabbat, when he’d have to stop working, Hellman was struggling in the Wisconsin winter wind to connect a nylon cord, to repair an eruv. “I’m asking myself, why am I here again?” he recalls.
Here’s why. An eruv is essentially a perimeter of telephone wires, nylon cord, cliffs – anything that rabbis say is acceptable – which is interpreted as enclosing personal space, almost like being at home. It’s a symbolically enclosed area that allows observant Jews to carry items within it on Shabbat. Hellman’s commitment, on that ladder in Bayside nearly a decade ago, and the commitment of others in the local observant community, have created several local eruvs. Now, in addition to that Bayside eruv, plus eruvs in Sherman Park, Glendale and Mequon, a local committee is working to create a very large, new eruv on the East Side. They hope to have it done this year.
Advantages of an eruv
Because Jewish law restricts carrying items on Shabbat, observant Jews may feel compelled to avoid carrying a prayer book or pushing a stroller to a friend’s home or even to synagogue. The answer for some is to extend one’s private domain, where carrying within the perimeter is permitted, by designating a community-sized enclosure of wires, ropes or other physical barriers as an eruv. This extended space frees up the observant to engage in more activities on Shabbat and it can be an important attraction when choosing a home or a synagogue — it’s nice to have both inside the same eruv.
“Your wife and your kids don’t have to stay home,” Hellman said. “You can push them in a stroller. You can go to visit friends. You can go to synagogue.”
Rabbi Dovid Brafman, a member of an East Side eruv committee, said the East Side eruv will benefit him and a small number of local Jews personally but that there’s so much more it will also provide. It relates to Shabbat, which he points out is of core importance, and the eruv’s existence introduces other Jews to more of the language of Torah.
Brafman imagines a secular Jew walking to his car on Shabbat, within the proposed east side eruv: “While he’s carrying his keys to his car he’s not transgressing anything.” Small spiritual things like that have a “massive, massive, massive effect,” he insisted. “Don’t ever belittle a small step.”
Making an eruv
This being Judaism, there is not universal agreement on the acceptability of eruvs and what forms a legitimate eruv. Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, for example, issued an edict last summer to void an eruv there. It had been created by a nearby modern Orthodox community, with fishing line on lampposts, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The rules for what makes an eruv are complex, but at a basic level, already-existing barriers like power lines will typically help make up much of an eruv. Enter We Energies.
“As long as you can try and make it so that you have a connection in every place, from line to line to line, you essentially use the power line to make that couple square mile fence,” Hellman said.
The utility company’s staff was good-natured about helping with the eruv when Hellman approached them in 2008, determined to create an eruv for Bayside. “They didn’t get hung up on: ‘Why do you believe this? This is strange,’” he recalls.
“We could get a little bit of an idea of what we think would work just by driving around,” he said, but when utility officials sat down with Hellman and showed him schematics, it helped a great deal.
“It’s their property and people can’t just start messing around with their poles,” he said. “We drafted up contracts. They allowed us to do what we needed to do.”
It took about 18 months to create the Bayside eruv, which roughly has its boundaries along East Green Tree Road, East Fairy Chasm Road, I-43 and fencing along the Schlitz Audubon Center. Most of the work completing connections in the perimeter came at the hands of Hellman and other volunteers from The Shul, which was previously at the Audubon Court Shopping Center, 383 W. Brown Deer Road, Fox Point and is now at 8225 N. Lake Drive. Local donors gave about $10,000 to $15,000 to pay for some additional work, performed by the utility and private contractors.
An eruv requires maintenance and to this day, volunteers will drive around Bayside, checking just before Shabbat to make sure it’s all connected.
The East Side eruv
The East Side eruv committee is comprised of Lorraine Hoffman, Rabbi Nisan Andrews, Larry Pachefsky, Rabbi Yisroel Lein, Jay Beder and Rabbi Dovid Brafman. Rabbi Shmuel Rennert has also been a longtime investigator and advocate for the idea, Brafman said.
The committee, with a budget of $75,000, will purchase materials and has hired Rabbi Micah Shotkin of New Jersey, an expert who physically builds the small extra connections that are needed to create eruvs.
The East Side eruv perimeter is expected to run roughly along the natural slope near Lake Drive to North Avenue, Silver Spring Drive and Port Washington Road.
“If people are considering moving to your community or anywhere, one of things observant families are quite concerned about is whether an eruv is available,” Andrews said. “An eruv is key.”
Also, as a local Orthodox rabbi, he seeks to “make life easier for the people who are already here,” he said. “We’re really excited.”
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Eruvs in Milwaukee County
- Milwaukee – East Side (planned)
- Milwaukee – Sherman Park
What’s an eruv?
An eruv is a symbolically sealed area, extending the private domain of Jewish homes into public space. This allows activities within its boundaries that are otherwise forbidden in public on Shabbat.