Palo Alto History. Org

The Eruv Question: An Unorthodox Debate 

Note: This story was written in 2006

The most contentious debate in Palo Alto in the past ten years was the utterly fascinating and increasingly bitter “Eruv Debate” of 1999 and 2000. It seemed impossible that one issue could polarize two sides to such a vehement and vitriolic degree and yet seem so painfully irrelevant to so many others. But never doubt
the ability of religious proclamations to stir up the passions of the soul, or in this case, the local op-ed page.

First though, a quick religious lesson: An eruv (pronounced ay-roove) is a continuous physical boundary around a city or a portion of a city. By representing an extension of the home, it allows Orthodox Sabbath-observant Jews to “carry” and “push” outside of the house on the Sabbath, normally restricted behavior. The concept of an eruv dates back to the time of King Solomon and often consists of nothing more than twine marking the boundary. Still, it must be created in a very particular way as outlined in the Torah and while sometimes viewed by outsiders as a religious loophole of sorts, it is taken very seriously by the devoted.

Although more than a hundred U.S. cities (including the nation’s capital) have eruvs, the concept is not well known outside the Orthodox Jewish community. Largely symbolic and virtually invisible, man-made and natural-made objects can form the eruv. For instance, a Palo Alto eruv is already 80% complete just counting the 101 Freeway, the San Francisquito and Adobe Creeks, and a lengthy fence along Foothill Expressway.

The Orthodox Jewish community, about 700 strong and led by Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of the Emek Beracha congregation at 4102 El Camino Real, believed that such objects made Palo Alto a perfect location for a eruv and asked to string invisible twine between light and utility poles owned by the city. As has been done in many other cities, the twine would create symbolic "doorways,” between the “walls” to complete the eruv. Feldman’s group, called PACE (Palo Alto Community Eruv), was ready to cover the cost of construction and to be responsible for maintenance of the project. Hundreds of other cities in the U.S. had allowed such eruvs and all they needed was the city’s consent.

But that would not come so easy.

While the collection of already established barriers and inconspicuous twine has been seen as harmless in most cities, somehow all hell managed to break loose when the eruv was considered in Palo Alto’s marketplace of ideas. Even before Councilwoman Sandy Eakins officially proposed a Palo Alto eruv, local
newspapers were besieged with letters of protest against the eruv---some of which sounded such a negative tone (even anti-Semitic?), that an almost equal number of letters were generated in response. For two years, the eruv debate raged in Palo Alto, sending City Council members for cover.

The arguments on both sides were varied. Orthodox Jews pushed strongly for the eruv because without it, faithful followers would not be able to carry or push outside the home. Along with the other requirements of the Sabbath---banning use of cars or electricity for instance---it was nearly impossible for parents of young children to go anywhere on the Sabbath---sometimes even to synagogue to worship.

But this original argument began to be replaced by a second more reactive one. As the anti-eruv arguments became increasingly heated, many Jews and non-Jews began to see the issue as being about the Palo Alto community’s tolerance for a minority religion. Pointing to the city-installed red lights on Fulton Street at Christmas time, they asked, were Palo Altans unable to accept the traditions of any religion other than that of the majority?

While on the other side, arguments ranged from principled/constitutional to intolerant/defensive. Some seemed earnestly worried about the wall between church and state. They argued that by publicly proclaiming an eruv, the city of Palo Alto would be favoring one religion over all others. Indeed, California’s state constitution is even stricter than the national document when it comes to First Amendment religious issues: "Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed."

This constitutional question seemed to hinge largely on whether an eruv is a religious symbol, like the Christian cross or the Jewish menorah. In two previous East Coast constitutional challenges to eruvs, courts ruled that they would likely not be recognized as a religious display by the typical observer. Still, Dave Kong of the American Atheists Inc., as well as others, were threatening to sue the city if the eruv was proclaimed and some council members seemed to back away from the proposal for fear of costly lawsuits.

Others simply did not wish to live within a defined eruv, whether virtually undetectable or not. Some gentile Palo Alto workers said they would be personally offended by having no choice but to enter the symbolic enclosure every day. By 2000, the back and forth in the Letters to the Editor sections of the two Palo Alto
papers became increasingly hot and related to other topics (Israel, the Holocaust, religious persecution) and was lowering the level of discourse appreciably.

The atmosphere reached its nadir when the Jewish Community Center received 3 threatening phone calls praising a recent shooting at a L.A. JCC and making verbal threats. The calls all ended with the caller, later found to be a neo-nazi residing in San Jose, signing off with the phrase, "Heil Hitler."

Watching from the sidelines, many other Palo Altans were annoyed by the eruv’s prominence in the local debate. Council members began to complain that debate had raged long enough. Many wished to see the issue decided, one way or the other. As one 2000 Letter to the Editor put it, “Eruv, shm'eruv! Put up the stupid wires. Paint the darn lines. Let's get some sleep already. In 100 years from now, who is going to
know, and who is going to care, anyway?”

But in the end, the eruv never did get its due. After several delays and punts to staff, the City Manager eventually wiped the issue off the board with a disingenuous “compromise.” Staff recommended, and a Council subcommittee approved, the authorization of a painted line rather than the twine that the Orthodox Community wanted---a non-solution that everyone knew would not satisfy the Torah’s precise restrictions. As Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman raged the following week, “What's being passed off as a solution is no solution. It doesn't work, and staff knows that. The word 'solution' has to be applied only with irony. City staff were determined to kill it."

Palo Alto never did get a eruv and sadly the legacy left by this unique community discussion of two years was not the construction of a symbolic wall but the partial destruction of the atmosphere of religious tolerance in the city. []

Note: Palo Alto did finally get an Eruv in 2007.

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An eruv is usually undetectable to most residents.

Emek Baracha in 2006. 

An Orthodox Jewish family in Palo Alto. (PA Weekly)