Finally, after more than 30 years of discussion, the East Side Eruv is in use. For Jews living within this symbolic border, observing Shabbat is now significantly easier.
The new eruv serves a large part of Milwaukee’s Upper East Side neighborhood, Shorewood and part of Whitefish Bay. Its borders roughly span from Silver Spring Drive to the north, North Avenue to the south, Lake Michigan cliffside to the east, and the Oak Leaf Trail to the west. Within the eruv are institutions like the Lake Park Synagogue, Hillel Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study.
While there are existing eruvs in nearby Mequon, Bayside, Glendale and Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, the East Side Eruv fills a gap, so to speak, by serving Orthodox Jews in the North Shore community who have long advocated for an eruv. Why, then, did it take so long to create?
What is an Eruv?
The Torah prohibits the act of carrying objects outside of an enclosed “private” area on Shabbat and Yom Kippur. This Jewish law has made observing Shabbat challenging for some. Mothers cannot push strollers to bring their young children to synagogue on Shabbat, nor can pet owners walk their dogs on a leash or pick up after them.
According to halachic law, an enclosed perimeter fits the definition for a “private” area, and carrying items within those boundaries is allowed. An eruv – which means “to mix” in Hebrew – is a construction of physical borders that combine numerous private residences into a larger “private” space.
To create what is, symbolically, a giant house, the eruv perimeters consist of walls and doors. In halachic rabbinic law, what constitutes a doorway can be as simple as stringing something like a wire strung directly over two poles.
In the modern day, creating these kinds of borders to an eruv requires a little bit of creativity. Two powerlines with wires going above them? That can be a door! Enough similar doors creates a “wall made up of doorways,” and therefore comprises the boundaries to an eruv: a visible border made of ordinary infrastructure that likely goes unnoticed by a casual observer.
Within an Eruv, Orthodox Jews can carry items from their individual residences out into this larger symbolic home, therefore “opening up so many more avenues for community,” Jane Avner, the president of Lake Park Synagogue, said.
According to Avner: “For young observant people who are looking for a new community to have children and settle down, they often will only consider moving to neighborhoods within an eruv, because they are so convenient.”
An eruv also offers protection for transgressions against Shabbat. Let’s say someone walks into a “public” space with an unnoticed item lodged deep into their pocket, even something as small as a coin. According to Ken Kapp, a member of Lake Park Synagogue, this would be breaking the great gift of Shabbat, and one “wouldn’t want to appear ungracious, even accidentally.”
History of the East Side Eruv
The advantages that an eruv can offer to observant community members led to discussions between Lake Park Synagogue and the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study to establish one. These discussions began as early as 1991, according to Rabbi Dovid Brafman, the current president of the East Side Eruv committee.
Initially, the plan was to have an eruv local to Lake Park Synagogue; but, over the years, the vision evolved. By defining a significantly larger space, natural borders could be used more effectively – like the Lake Michigan cliffside, which comprises the eastern border of the eruv. Additionally, a larger boundary invites more flexibility to look for ways existing infrastructure could be useful.
However, the size and location of the East Side Eruv – which spans a distance of almost 11 miles north-south and a total area of about 5 square miles – also posed problems for the creation process.
Taking nearly 30 years to bring to life, the East Side Eruv was “one of those projects that was very, very, very hard to finish off,” Rabbi Dovid Brafman said. “There were lots of different entities to communicate with: like the County Parks, City of Milwaukee, Department of Transportation, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Glendale, homeowners, etc. To get so many pieces aligned was challenging.”
While conversations took place for many years, the money was raised to fully fund the budget in 2019, when Bader Philanthropies approved a $50,000 grant proposal. That funding, combined with $25,000 raised by Lake Park Synagogue, is what made it possible to finally begin physically constructing the eruv.
Most significantly, the funding allowed the East Side Eruv committee to hire Rabbi Michah Schotkin, a New Jersey-based eruv specialist: someone who is well versed in all the laws of eruvim and helps physically build the borders. This position has existed for roughly the last 10 years, and so was not an available option early on in the process of building the East Side Eruv.
Schotkin’s expertise establishing eruvin across the United States is what finally brought the project to fruition. According to Brafman, “all the other rabbis who contributed to the project over the years did not have the same experience and thoroughness as an eruv specialist. Schotkin could look at a corner and recognize how to construct the border in the simplest possible way.”
Construction was scheduled to begin in 2020, but an unexpected setback, the coronavirus, stalled the process. Schotkin started coming back to Wisconsin from New Jersey when vaccines became widely available and as his schedule allowed. When here, he filled in all of the gaps in the eruv’s borders that weren’t covered by nature or existing infrastructure.
The East Side Eruv finally became operational in November 2022. Every week before Shabbat, the eruv is checked to make sure the borders are secure. To facilitate the process, the eruv is divided into three zones, with one person checking their designated area. Once confirmation comes in that the eruv is secure, the East Side Eruv website notifies the community.
The hard work of numerous key players throughout the years has finally paid off. Ronna Pachefsky, a member of Lake Park Synagogue, remarks that “having an eruv gives our wonderful community a true community feel. It’s like the final puzzle piece slid into place.”
The benefits extend to all Jews who live within the eruv’s borders, whether they are aware of the eruv or not. “The eruv is a way to help our fellow brothers and sisters keep Shabbat,” Brafman said. “The less that Shabbat gets desecrated (by carrying items into public spaces), the greater the blessing for everybody.”