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The Virginia-Highland Eruv

A Virginia-Highland synagogue uses power poles and wires to create community.

Signposts, roads, railroad tracks, creeks, and even gates mark the boundaries of many Atlanta neighborhoods. Some Orthodox Jewish communities, including one Virginia-Highland synagogue, use strings, wires, and utility poles to create enclosed areas that help relax strict religious laws that prohibit carrying objects during the 25-hour Jewish Sabbath.

Known as an eruv, the enclosure is virtually invisible to most people. Eruv is a Hebrew word that means to mingle or mix. There are several Atlanta area eruvim (the Hebrew plural for eruv), including the region’s oldest in Toco Hills, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, and Virginia-Highland.

Eruvim are built to create domains in public spaces, like sidewalks and streets, that form virtual courtyards that symbolically represent domestic space. Jewish law prohibits carrying items like keys and umbrellas outside of homes on the Sabbath. The rules also keep people from using baby strollers and medical devices like canes and walkers. Inside an eruv, Jews can enjoy the same freedoms to carry and push things that they do inside their homes.

Although eruvim have been used in Jewish culture for more than 1,000 years, they are a relatively recent arrival in American cities. There are about 140 eruvim in the United States and they enclose spaces commonly associated with Jewish communities in large, older urban areas like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

They also cover large areas in Washington, DC. The White House, the U.S. Capitol, and the Supreme Court buildings all are located inside the Washington Eruv.

The Virginia-Highland Eruv was completed in 2004. It covers a little under 2.25 square miles and is bounded by Ponce de Leon Avenue, Briarcliff Road, East Rock Springs Road, and Monroe Drive.

Rabbi Chaim Lindenblatt decided to build the eruv shortly after moving to Atlanta in 2001 to become the rabbi of Congregation Anshi S’fard. In addition to Lindenblatt’s synagogue, the Conservative Shearith Israel synagogue and the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Intown also are located inside the eruv and contribute to its upkeep.

Modern eruvim rely on existing utility and transportation infrastructure to create the walls and doorways that comprise the virtual courtyards. Eruv boundaries are surveyed by experienced rabbis to ensure that they meet specific standards in Jewish law. Some of the standards include the spacing of “door posts” and the configuration of “lintels.”

Most eruvim use electricity or telephone poles as the doorposts and the wires strung between them form the lintels. The walls, however, must be unbroken and must conform to certain architectural standards, including how high they must be above the ground.

Many eruvim incorporate existing fences, building walls, and rivers to form their boundaries. Some, like several in the Washington suburbs, rely on sound walls along freeways like the Capital Beltway (I-495).

Lindenblatt surveyed the area around Virginia-Highland and decided to use electricity poles and wires for his eruv. After raising $10,000 and securing permission from Georgia Power to use its poles, Lindenblatt “rented” the eruv space from the jurisdictions in which it was planned: The City of Atlanta and DeKalb County. Jewish law requires that synagogues get permission from civil authorities. This typically involves payment of a nominal $5 rent and the issuance of a proclamation granting the eruv the rights to occupy the space.

Lindenblatt, 41, wanted to build an eruv to attract more young families to Virginia-Highland. His congregation has about 35 families.

“My hope and prayer was that the eruv would help maybe build the community, have people move down to this area,” Lindenblatt told Patch during a recent interview inside his synagogue. “It's helped a few people that live here that use the eruv but my hope was that would be another incentive for people to move to this area.”

Eruvim make many communities attractive to Orthodox and some Conservative Jewish families.

Inside an eruv, mothers can take young children more places and families have more socialization opportunities when they can carry food and other items to neighbors’ homes during the Sabbath.

“It became more of that culture so there was more of a need to make those eruvim as well as I think it’s true for the older people but I think was more for the women, I truly think so,” Lindenblatt said.

In some parts of the country, real estate agents market homes inside eruvim to Jewish families.

One midtown bed and breakfast owner touts her location inside the Virginia-Highland Eruv as a selling point.

“It’s just something that I’m proud of. That I like to include as an amenity to the bed and breakfast,” said Adele Northrup, owner of the Virginia-Highland Bed and Breakfast.

Unless you know what you are looking for, chances are you’d never know you were inside the Virginia-Highland eruv. Its structures are hidden in plain sight among the tangle of overhead utility lines and poles that line Atlanta’s streets.

The rabbis who build eruvim strive to make them blend in seamlessly with modern secular architecture and engineering structures.

“We try to make it look exactly like what the stuff that’s there anyway,” Washington Rabbi Barry Freundel, a consultant who builds eruvim around the country, said.

Because the eruvim are inextricably tied to modern infrastructure, they are vulnerable to the same forces that damage utility poles, namely traffic accidents and storms. Each week Lindenblatt inspects the eruv to ensure that it is intact and still kosher for the Sabbath.

“What happens is sometimes  the electric people are working and they take down wires then we sort of have to fix various things,” he said. “Sometimes because the way our system is set up, you know a truck hits the pole or people get into an accident.”

Like other eruvim, the Virginia-Highland Eruv includes attachments to utility poles. These attachments, called lechis, help ensure that the posts line up precisely below the wires.

While some eruvim use wood strips or plastic conduits to create lechis, the Virginia-Highland Eruv uses simple alloy wires stapled to the wood utility poles.

“We tried to use light copper wire, you might be able to see some of them left there,” Lindenblatt said. “We cut most of them. They really don’t work well. This is very durable. It bends very well.”

Lindenblatt jokes that his eruv responsibilities fall outside those typically associated with a rabbi.

“What I find the most fascinating thing about this business is like here I am this rabbi, like really caring about poles and being involved in whether there’s a motor accident or whether a truck hits the pole," he said. “It’s like we’re living in a different world. I’m looking at the poles as something totally different than the electric people and the construction people.”

Laura March 26, 2011 at 06:13 PM
very cool...
Renee DeGross Valdes March 26, 2011 at 07:59 PM
David ... we're lucky to have you in the area. Thanks for writing on this really interesting topic.

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