West LA’s eruv, the hidden wall built and maintained by Orthodox Jews

Orthodox Jewish communities are not allowed to carry belongings on Shabbat, unless it’s within their own home. They’ve found a way around this law by creating a “wall,” often a barely perceptible thread, around their neighborhood, known as an eruv. In West LA, a team of rabbis patrols the borders of the eruv every week to inspect and repair it.

The eruv in West Los Angeles is a kind of ritualistic fence that allows Orthodox Jews to perform daily tasks on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. There are all sorts of prohibitions against working on Shabbat, the day of rest, that include pushing a stroller or wheelchair, or carrying a baby or a cane. And the rules apply differently whether you’re in a private or public space. The eruv makes everything within it a private space. The word eruv literally means “blending” in Hebrew.

The eruv dates back 3,000 years to the reign of King Solomon. The West LA eruv is one of the biggest in the world, even bigger than the eruv in Jerusalem. The wall encloses much of West LA. Its perimeter is about 60 miles, and it covers about 100 square miles. It was created in 2003. There was a smaller one that preceded it that began in the 1970s.

A maintenance and repair team oversee the eruv. There’s a four-person crew of checkers that are rabbis who specialize in the law surrounding the eruv. They drive the perimeter and look for breaks and if there’s a break, a three-person maintenance crew of paid staffers that are fully permitted by Caltrans fixes them. Then the rabbis go back out to approve it.

The boundaries of the West LA eruv

Every week they find breaks, and fix them right away. About three quarters of the wall is made up of fencing and hillsides around the freeways. The other quarter is poles and heavy fishing wire – to be specific, 200-pound monofilament line. There are all sorts of reasons for breaks in the eruv, said Elliot Katzovitz, the board chair of the Los Angeles Community Eruv.

“Cars run into fencing in poles and take them down. Trees grow over the lines that need to now be cut back. When you’re talking about the twine itself, it gets old and brittle and breaks. When there’s construction along any of the streets that our eruv runs along, contractors will naturally take down whatever is in their way which includes our eruv lines. As well as at times things that we’re using disappear quite literally. So when they were widening the freeway, the 405, which is one of our boundaries, all of our fencing went away and it had to be recreated,” Katzovitz said.

He added that the eruv was only down for Shabbat three times in the 15 or so years since it began.

And in fact there were news stories then reporting on how Caltrans helped out and it raised questions about taxpayer expenditure on what is a religious practise.

The eruv is paid for by donations, and some synagogues actually build their fees into their membership dues.

There are thousands of Orthodox Jews that use the West LA eruv. About 10 percent of Jews are Orthodox. There are about 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, so that means around 60,000 Orthodox Jews live here, and the Pico-Robertson area is their hub. They can’t drive on Shabbat, so they move within walking distance of their synagogues.

A lawn sign in Hancock Park expressing support for the LA Community Eruv. Photo by Ira Belgrade.

There are eruvs all over the world. Just here in Southern California they exist in the West Valley, Orange County, Long Beach and at USC.

Now to someone who is not of the community, it does sound bizarre.

Na’amit Nagel, a modern Orthodox woman and resident of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, relies on the eruv every week.

“At times I do feel silly. The ridiculous minutiae of it makes me ask, ‘What am I really doing? I’m a rational person.’ But other times I think there’s a lot of value in the laws and our traditions. And I think there’s something fun about the creativity that’s involved in working with tradition but also, that’s where modern Orthodoxy comes in, in this belief in working with tradition and modernity together and being creative about that and trying to meld these two worlds,” Nagel said.

So there’s this question: are we just looking for loopholes here? Are we ignoring the commandment for our own convenience?

“I am not one who believes that you please God by observing the eruv or offend God by not. But there are many Jews who do think that, who think that the minutiae on this level does impact, elate and irritate the creator of the world, and how you do it. That’s not my approach but I’m one rabbi,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am.

The eruv has come into community opposition. About a decade ago there was an effort to create a coastal eruv in Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey. The organizers got approvals from the cities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles, L.A. County and the California Department of Fish and Game. But the problem came with the California Coastal Commission. Environmental activists worried that endangered birds would get entangled in the wires, and that the poles used to prop up the lines would ruin their views of the beach. Marcia Hanscom of the Sierra Club’s Angeles chapter spoke to NPR about their problem with the eruv.

“It’s a privatizing of our public land for one segment of the community. And there are a lot of people who think that’s inappropriate,” Hanscom said. “We’re even trying to get the power lines taken down near here because we’ve seen so many rare birds ending up with broken wings or dead on the ground because they haven’t been able to get over the power lines.”

Supporters agreed to place metallic streamers on the fishing line near the nesting area to warn off birds. Eventually an activist group of three people sued the Coastal Commission, citing that the wires could pose harm to coastal birds. The lawsuit requires an environmental impact study, which is expensive.

The fishing line marks the southern border of the eruv, near the intersection of Overland and National Boulevards. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

If the West LA eruv goes down, the folks who run the eruv update their Facebook page and send out an email every week, and you’re supposed to check it every week. Of course not everyone does. So they’ll also call synagogues and they’ll call their members.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, a modern Orthodox congregation, said that if the eruv is not operable it creates a challenge for the communal and social character of Shabbat.

“It is because of the eruv that whole families can come to synagogue, bringing strollers and carrying children and what have you. It is because of the eruv that people are able to bring wine or challah or other food to one another’s homes when they have a Friday night meal together or the Shabbat lunch together,” Kanefsky said. “And were it not for the eruv, it would be impossible to transport any object at all.”

It gets tricky if the eruv goes down on Shabbat. According to the law, you’re not supposed to tell people if it goes down. Because if you don’t know that it’s down, then you’re not breaking the law. You can plead ignorance. So if you see a car plow into a fence of the eruv on Shabbat, you’re actually required to keep your mouth shut.

And this is why some ultra-Orthodox do not use it. Doniel Berry is a Hasidic Jew who doesn’t use the eruv, and he explained why.

“There is a practical concern that it might fall down over Shabat and that possibility doesn’t make it not kosher or not usable, but it does make it a possibility that it might not be kosher. So for that extra precaution I am not alone in the community that we choose not to use it, basically just out of an extra layer of protection that in the event it should go down, we won’t accidentally be transgressing the prohibition of carrying on the Sabbath,” Berry said.

So that means that he walks with his older son to synagogue and his wife stays home with their baby, and unless they invite people over, they’re having their Shabbat lunch alone.

Now, there are other ways Orthodox Jews get around the laws of Shabbat. For example, what if you’re in an area without an eruv but you need to carry your child?

“So the thought process is that if a kid can walk and now he’s stuck, you can’t leave a kid on a street corner. But with an eruv this becomes a real problem. Because technically you can’t carry him home. So you have to carry him three steps, put him down, because you are allowed to carry three steps without the eruv. So if the kid can walk you put him down, let them walk one step then pick them up again. There’s a way around functioning without an eruv, but it’s hell,” Katzovitz said.