Eruv on Campus: The Sign of An Active Orthodox Community

by | in Inside the OU

JLIC Spearheads Efforts to Enhance Campus Communities

imageA vibrant Orthodox campus community used to mean the availability of kosher food, a minyan that meets more than once a week and an occasional shiur. Lately, however, students have come to expect more. For many, religious life on campus has come to mean multiple daily minyanim, a fully-loaded beit midrash offering ongoing shiurim, a Heshe & Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) couple—and a campus eruv.

Indeed, this past November, Johns Hopkins University became the latest JLIC campus to become enclosed by an eruv, thanks to Rabbi Binyamin and Miriam Marwick, the JLIC couple there. In fact, nine of the fifteen JLIC campuses throughout North America are currently enclosed by eruvin, with a tenth, Cornell University, on the way. Among universities without a JLIC presence, only two, Yeshiva University and Harvard University (which is slated to become a JLIC campus in the fall), are enclosed by eruvin erected specifically for the campus community.

Each campus community presents a unique set of challenges in planning, building and maintaining an eruv. As such, each community has its own eruv “story.”

Surrounding a five-square-mile area of Baltimore City, the Johns Hopkins eruv currently serves a growing Orthodox community. But creating the eruv was not so simple.

After mapping out the eruv route, the Marwicks confronted the political side of eruv building: obtaining permission from city officials as well as from the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company (whose poles and wires form the basic eruv infrastructure) to work on structures in public areas. More often than not, eruv initiatives stall because of political obstacles.

The construction materials, manpower and bought or leased building equipment cost close to $20,000. These funds were raised with the help of the Orthodox Union (OU), an individual donor and the students.

Halachic Construction
The goal of an eruv is to symbolically transform a public thoroughfare into a private domain (“reshut hayachid”)—the only type of space in which it is permitted to carry on Shabbat. The word “eruv” literally means “merger” and refers to the melding of distinct domains into a single private domain.

The basic “building block” of most urban eruvin is a “tzurat hapetach” (“door image”). Conceptually, such an eruv is a wall that consists entirely of doorways, so that there are no actual barriers impeding entry into the enclosed area. Just as a home is considered a reshut hayachid, a community surrounded not by walls or doors but by door images has the status of a private domain. Halachically, a doorway consists of three components: two doorposts (“lechayayim,” the plural of “lechi”) that must be at least ten tefachim high, and a lintel (“korah”), a “beam” that extends from atop one doorpost to the next. Most contemporary eruvin use pre-existing electrical or telephone poles as the lechayayim and the wires that connect them as the korah. The nuts and bolts of eruv building consist of installing new lechayayim and korot where the pre-existing infrastructure is missing or insufficient.

The University of Maryland Eruv: A Student Initiative
For many, an eruv on campus is a sign of a growing Jewish community. Nowhere is this truer than at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland, where the Orthodox population has boomed in recent years.

When Benji Engelhart began his senior year at Maryland in fall 2003, he decided to adopt the eruv as his pet project, and recruited then freshman Michael Mintz and then junior Harris Cohen to help him map out a route and obtain the necessary support and permits. “This was really Benji’s project,” says Mintz. “He decided that he did not want to graduate without making sure that it was really going to happen.”

By the time my family arrived in College Park during the summer of 2004 (my wife and I served as the JLIC couple there from 2004 to 2006), the plans had been laid out but nothing further had happened. Moreover, a number of students had expressed interest in the project, including engineering and geography majors. In short, we had much manpower, but not much money to fund the project.

Since we could not afford to contract the construction to outsiders, we—Maryland students as well as JLIC and Hillel staff—had to learn how to do it ourselves. It took some trial and error to figure out the types of equipment needed and how to deal with certain problems, such as crooked telephone poles. Pepco, the local electric company, would only allow a specific type of molding on its poles. After scouring local hardware stores and the Internet in search of this elusive product, I finally found a company with 300 yards of the required half-inch black ground wire molding in stock. The warehouse manager asked if I represented an electric company, and I responded that I was ordering on behalf of a private concern. “Oh,” the woman replied, “are y’all building an ee-ruv?”

Currently, Orthodox students at Maryland take advantage of the eruv, enjoying Shabbat on campus to the fullest. In fact, they have no recollection of the “Shabbat belts” and creative-looking chains their predecessors used to carry dorm keys around in the pre-eruv days.

Other Campus Eruvin
Brandeis University has been enclosed by an eruv for thirty years, longer than any other campus not adjacent to an established Jewish community. Since Brandeis is a Jewish institution, the eruv is funded by the university (as opposed to the students) and maintained by its facilities management department. Rabbi David Fine, who graduated from Brandeis in the mid-1980s, recalls checking the eruv as a student. “I worked together with a university employee named Nicholas Satilla, a non-Jew who knew more about the laws of eruvin than 99 percent of Jews. Whenever there was a problem, he was our point person,” he says.

The first two JLIC rabbis to serve at Brandeis, Todd Berman and Aharon Frazer, each implemented minor upgrades to the eruv.

Yale University is somewhat unique among JLIC campuses in that its community tends to have a higher proportion of graduate students, some of whom are married with young children. Thus, the need for an eruv there was even more pressing than at other campuses (without an eruv, children cannot be carried and strollers cannot be pushed). In 2000, Rabbi Ilan and Leah Haber, the JLIC educators at Yale at the time, began working on an eruv.

Each campus community presents a unique set of challenges in planning, building and maintaining an eruv. As such, each community has its own eruv “story.”

But the project was only completed by the current JLIC couple, Rabbi Jason and Meira Rappoport, in 2007. Rabbi Rappoport explained to the New Haven Register why it took seven years to build:

Just because I’m a rabbi [that] doesn’t mean I’m an eruv expert; there is no handbook on how to get an eruv approved and go through the different stages. There is no set way to talk to a city because each city has different phone companies and electricity companies. We had to work with many different companies and we had to reinvent the wheel because there is no precedent [in New Haven]. Furthermore, downtown New Haven is a historic district, and the rules governing the types of construction there are much stricter than elsewhere.

The Yale eruv was truly a joint project: in addition to the efforts of the JLIC couples, a student eruv committee made the plans and maps and raised the initial funds, and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life was instrumental in helping obtain permits and in funding ongoing maintenance.

Part of a Larger Community
Some campuses have the benefit of being part of a larger metropolitan-area eruv, for which the students are not directly responsible. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, for example, is located in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, where there is a strong Orthodox community. As such, the campus was included within the greater Los Angeles eruv from the start. Similarly, the greater Boston eruv was extended within the last few years to include the majority of the Boston University (BU) campus.

There are, however, certain unique features of the BU eruv. For one, the well-known posek Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of Baltimore was flown to Boston specifically for the purpose of figuring out how the eruv could cross Interstate 90, which divides the campus from the larger communities of Brighton and Brookline. Additionally, the dean of students at BU, whose wife and children are Jewish, has become enamored of the eruv project. “I’ll get an occasional phone call from the dean if he notices that there is construction near the eruv boundary and feels that we should know about it,” says Rabbi Avi Heller, the JLIC educator at BU. “Sometimes he even checks the eruv himself and then reports back to us.”

When Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, the JLIC educator at New York University (NYU), learned that Congregation Adereth El and Stern College, both located in Midtown Manhattan, had begun investigating the possibility of extending the Manhattan eruv, he contacted them to discuss a larger expansion in order to include the NYU campus in Greenwich Village and the surrounding neighborhoods. (At the time, the eruv covered only Manhattan’s Upper West and East Sides.) The extension was completed in the spring of 2007, much to the delight of the NYU community.

Of course, no Greenwich Village eruv would be complete without some local flavor. Thus, the eruv extension inspired Elliott Malkin, currently an information architect at the New York Times, to create “eRuv.” A digital graffiti project, eRuv is installed along the route of the former Third Avenue elevated train line in Lower Manhattan. The train line functioned as the western boundary of an eruv that served the Lower East Side during the first half of the twentieth century.

The Midtown eruv extension was an expensive endeavor. A large part of the daunting task of raising more than $100,000 fell to Rabbi Sarna. He presented the eruv initiative to a number of local rabbis, and the eruv is now under the sponsorship of eleven Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations. As the inspiration for this creative approach, Rabbi Sarna cites the following passage from the Talmud, which encapsulates the communal advantages of eruvin in general:

Rabbi Yehoshua said: “Why do they make eruvin in courtyards? For the sake of peace.” A woman was on bad terms with her neighbor. She sent her son with her eruv contribution. The neighbor took him and hugged and kissed him, and he recounted this to his mother. She said, “All this time she really loved me, and I had no idea!” and they made peace once again. Regarding this, it is written: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all is pathways lead to peace” (Yerushalmi, Eruvin 3:2).

In contrast to eruvin in suburban communities, campus eruvin, at least for the students, are matters of convenience, not necessity. Frequently, the only families with small children that make use of the eruv are the JLIC families. Nevertheless, students feel that having an eruv is a very important aspect of campus life, as it says a lot about the quality of their community. Rabbi Marwick sums it up best: “Until the eruv was built, we never had the sense that we were part of an established Orthodox community. Now we feel that we’ve got it all.”

Rabbi Elli Fischer, formerly the JLIC educator at the University of Maryland, is an independent translator, editor and writer. He lives in Modiin, Israel, with his wife and three children.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2009.

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