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On a recent Friday morning, Rabbi Gershon Albert ran an errand that some might think a bit odd. The Orthodox rabbi stood on the sidewalk near Corpus Christi Catholic Church, at the top of Park Boulevard in the Glenview district, inspecting a few simple wires.
It’s a new task that he and several community members at Oakland’s only Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Jacob, now take on each week before the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, which begins at sundown on Friday and ends an hour after sundown on Saturday, to make sure there are no gaps in their new eruv.
An eruv is a manmade border, often consisting of electrical wires stretched across existing utility poles, that, according to halacha, or Jewish law, extends the private domain of any Orthodox household within its bounds. Its largely invisible presence gives observant Jews more space to carry a book or a water bottle or push a child in a stroller on the Sabbath, when all these activities and more are otherwise forbidden. The new eruv in Oakland encloses approximately three square miles. The word “eruv” means mixture or mixing in Hebrew.
“The Torah talks about the prohibition of doing labor on Shabbat, but the specifics of what that means is defined in the Mishna, a rabbinic text from 2000 years ago,” Albert explained. “There are 39 categories that we refrain from, and one of them is the prohibition to not carry or move items from one domain to another. The function of an eruv is extensively talked about.”
A simple wire can greatly add to the quality of life for observant Orthodox Jews. For this Oakland community, it was a long time coming. 130 years, to be exact.
There are already several eruvs in the Bay Area. There’s one in Berkeley, around its Orthodox synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, and two in San Francisco. There’s also one in Palo Alto. And now, since the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah, which was observed on September 19 this year, Oakland’s Beth Jacob members have an eruv of their own.
It’s very difficult to calculate the number of Jews in Oakland, or those who consider themselves Orthodox. In 2018, the then Jewish Federation of the East Bay (it has since merged with its counterpart in San Francisco) performed its most recent community survey, but didn’t ask what city people live in. That year, there were an estimated 122,000 Jews living within the entire East Bay, including parts of Solano, Contra Costa, and Alameda counties. But the survey did show a one-third increase in Jews moving to the East Bay since its last iteration in 2011.
About 200 households are members of Oakland’s Beth Jacob, but not all of them identify as observant enough to require an eruv. Some of them even drive to the synagogue on Shabbat, which is forbidden among Orthodox Jews. “We’re proud of the fact that we have a very diverse community, with different levels of observance,” said Albert.
An observant Orthodox family might look for an eruv when considering a potential place to live, along with a Jewish school, such as Oakland Hebrew Day School, and, if not kosher restaurants, which Oakland doesn’t have, at least a kosher market, which it does, in Oakland Kosher Foods on Lakeshore Avenue.
“The rules that are set in the Bible and Talmudic codes are something we take very seriously,” explained Albert.
And the rules that exist about an eruv are many. The Talmud contains hundreds of pages about it, Albert said. For example, a horizontal wire that meets a vertical pole can count as part of the eruv’s border, as does a very steep incline of 25 degrees or more. An electrical pole a bit east of the church holds up the Oakland eruv’s eastern border, and it continues alongside the Leimert bridge. There can be an 18-foot gap from one place to the next, but no more than that.
“An eruv is something that’s taken for granted in most Orthodox communities nowadays,” Albert said. “It’s understood that it’s an essential piece of infrastructure needed to function, and yet we’ve been able to grow even without one.”
The presence or absence of an eruv certainly affects young families who can’t push a stroller to synagogue, and the elderly, who can’t be pushed in a wheelchair during Shabbat. Without one, on Shabbat, a parent can’t carry a snack or drink for their child, and a congregant can’t even bring a ritual prayer shawl to synagogue.
And given that shared meals were such a big part of communal life in the pre-Covid era, the lack of an eruv made it impossible to contribute a dish to a Shabbat meal by carrying it to a friend’s home; one had to bring the dish in advance.
When Rabbi Judah Dardik accepted the job as Beth Jacob’s rabbi in 2001, his predecessor, Rabbi Howard Zack, told Dardik that as much as he had accomplished in his 16-year tenure, the eruv had eluded him, and he hoped Dardik would be able to figure it out. Zack had spent countless hours researching how an eruv could be constructed around Beth Jacob, he told the incoming 26-year-old rabbi, but had never landed on a solution.
Dardik’s new congregants broached the topic with him early on. “From day one, there was a concern and interest,” he told The Oaklandside in a conversation from his current home in Israel. He immersed himself in trying to understand why the community hadn’t been able to build one all these years.
Given that electric poles and wires are the “bread and butter” of what makes up an eruv in cities around the world, Dardik quickly realized why it was so difficult in his new home. “One thing that makes Oakland unique is that we have these beautiful, unobstructed views, and people really value that,” he said. “For that reason, many of the power lines are underground. My research began with the question, ‘How do you make something out of nothing?’” He left Beth Jacob and moved to Israel in 2014, without having figured out how to create an eruv. “I so badly wanted to finish this one off,” he said.
When Rabbi Albert arrived in 2014, Dardik told him more or less the same thing that Zack had told him: it was up to him to figure it out.
Six years went by without Dardik hearing anything about it. “I thought it was dead in the water,” he said.
Numerous community members had devoted many hours to studying the issue over the years. They knew they’d need to incorporate a “canister,” a tool used as part of eruvs by Jewish communities in Europe since before World War II.
“These sleek aluminum canisters are three feet tall and just need to fit on a property close to the ground,” explained Albert. “The religious principle is that the canister stays closed, but it’s a closable door, as opposed to a closed door. It’s a great example of rabbinic nuance.”
While the community knew about the canisters from their use in other cities, the question of where to place them remained the final hurdle, until a young couple, Raphael and Nili Shorser, moved to Oakland from New York and joined the Beth Jacob community a year and a half ago.
The Shorsers wanted to be able to push their child in a stroller on Shabbat (again, in normal times when they could regularly attend synagogue). Raphael joined the synagogue’s eruv committee to try and work on the problem.
When COVID-19 hit, Raphael, a software engineer, started taking many more walks around his neighborhood; he happens to live three blocks from the synagogue. Noticing that his street had electric wires, but that most of the streets around the synagogue didn’t, he thought about trying to create a boundary just between his own home and Beth Jacob. “It might not be a solution for the community, but it might be the solution for me,” he reasoned.
He started by looking for the needed poles and wires to constitute one around his house. Once he did that, he expanded its bounds until the eruv stretched from his house to Beth Jacob, three blocks away.
“It was only once I started expanding to include the broader neighborhood and community members that I needed to rely on the canisters,” said Shorser. “The fact that I was able to get all the way to shul [synagogue] using existing infrastructure is what gave me the confidence that it was worth trying to go much larger.”
Having the eruv has been a “game changer” for the Shorsers. “It allows us to go for a walk as a family, and it allows my wife to get out and get fresh air without having to coordinate between feedings” of the baby, said Raphael. “And it allows us to see friends, which especially without shul [synagogue] would be very challenging otherwise due to COVID.”
Another solution that made a wider eruv possible is that the canisters that close the gaps between the wires are located on the property of five community members’ homes, who are happy to host them.
Now covering an area of three square miles, Beth Jacob’s eruv still doesn’t include every family in the congregation. Expanding it further will require city approval, which community members aren’t pushing for at the moment; the creation of eruvs in other cities have created controversy at times. The Palo Alto eruv took eight years to get city approval, because some non-Orthodox residents considered it a violation of the separation between church and state.
Community members don’t see it that way, reasoning that most people who live within an eruv usually have no idea it even exists. “An eruv is just about creating a sense of inclusive community and not about shutting anyone out,” said Albert. “It’s a symbolic boundary that has no impact on its physical space. It only helps a community feel more comfortable in the broader society they live in.”
Albert said he could understand why those not attuned to the finer points of Jewish law might find the whole idea absurd (he pointed to The Daily Show’s sketch on the controversy that erupted over one in Westhampton Beach, N.Y. in 2008) and explained it thusly:
“The gates of Jerusalem were closed at night, making Jerusalem into an eruv city,” he said. “We’re creating a modern version with the help of engineering firms, applying a statement from the Talmud 2000 years ago.”
How they’ve created the eruv could explain how modern Orthodox Jews see their faith as a whole: “We’re taking these ancient principles and exploring how they can be applied in the modern world,” said Albert.
Oakland’s new eruv was finally approved before Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Howard Jachter, a New Jersey-based rabbi who has served as a consultant for around 60 eruvs around the country. In normal times, he would have made the trip out here to inspect it himself, but these are not normal times. With the aid of extensive photographs, Google Maps photos, and, at times, community members holding their phones aloft to capture certain views of the eruv, the rabbi gave his approval over Zoom.
Right before Rosh Hashanah, in mid-September, the community held a celebration — on Zoom, of course. Both of the former Beth Jacob rabbis, Dardik and Zack, took part.
When Rabbi Albert first called Rabbi Dardik to tell him the news, Dardik was elated.
“I was so happy for him, but most of all, for the community,” said Dardik. “I love this community so much, and I wanted them to have it. It’s like the feeling that you’ve brought the ball all the way downfield to hand it off to the quarterback, to watch him score.”