By Michael Orbach
Thanks to the OU, electronic doors can be used on Shabbat.
The Orthodox Union is known for granting kosher certification to many things, but for the first time, the OU will be certifying a door. “Not that you can make a berachah on it,” joked Rabbi Lenny Steinberg, rabbinic coordinator for the OU.
To be completely fair, it’s not exactly a door. Developed by entrepreneur Bruce E. Schmutter and his Brooklyn-based company, Windowman, Portal Logics is an electronic system designed to integrate automatic doors with fire and security systems.
Automatic and electric doors are quagmires for religious Jews. Used in hospitals and assisted living and nursing homes, automatic doors have built-in functions enabling them to open or close electronically depending on the circumstance. Because of national disability laws, automatic doors can’t be shut off completely for Shabbat or Jewish holidays, creating a halachic difficulty for religious Jews.
“Electronic doors pose problems for Shabbat-observant nursing homes,” says Rabbi Eli Gersten, a rabbinic coordinator for the OU who also worked on the project. “Even if doors seem manual, there is usually a motor helping to open the door.”
Portal Logics circumvents these issues by having an “electronic brain” that allows the door to be turned off completely on Shabbat. Yet it also has an override function that is triggered by external stimuli, so that, for example, when a patient who has dementia gets too close to the door, a sensor in the patient’s bracelet causes the door to lock. A color-coded set of lights on top of the door integrates the door with fire and security systems. While it sounds simple—a green light indicates that the door is in Shabbat mode and a red light indicates it is in “regular” mode—Portal Logics is an incredibly complicated system.
Schmutter says he developed the idea for Portal Logics while working in downtown Manhattan immediately after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. (His friend was a chief engineer for one of the World Trade Center buildings.) Schmutter spent six months after the event volunteering in hospitals and helping first-responders. What horrified him most was knowing that on 9/11, instead of using advanced technology to assess the situation, first-responders did so themselves, putting their lives in danger. One amazing feature of Schmutter’s high-tech doors is that during a fire or other emergency, the doors convey information about possible safety concerns in the area.
“I was able to formulate a lot of different ideas after 9/11,” he says. “I saw an opportunity to use doors to provide information and that became my mission.”
While developing the prototype that became Portal Logics in 2003, he was contacted by Woodmere Health and Rehabilitation Center in New York to build automatic doors for the institution. As the facility serves many Orthodox clients, it requested that Schmutter include a function enabling the automatic doors to be used on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Schmutter created a “Shabbat mode” for the door and installed a five-year calendar into its hardware, which was included in the final design of Portal Logics.
Schmutter, who isn’t Orthodox but attends a Chabad shul, approached the OU with his product.
“The OU has very high standards,” says Rabbi Gersten. “Usually, when we explain to a company what we require, they pass on it. To Bruce’s credit, he wanted the highest standards and wasn’t interested in cutting corners in halachah.” OU Posek Rabbi Yisroel Belsky visited Schmutter’s workshop in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn and granted the certification.
Portal Logics isn’t the only non-food item the OU has certified. The OU certifies shaimos services, a pair of tzitzit as well as a warming cabinet used to heat food on Shabbat. But working on Portal Logics was one of the most intense experiences Rabbi Steinberg says he has had in his seventeen years working at the OU.
“Growing up, I had a neighbor who was a Talmudic scholar and we would kibbitz. Arguing and understanding the Talmud, whether or not I follow it per say, has always been an interest of mine,” Schmutter says. “And I take the sanctity of what I’m providing to the umpteenth degree—be it halachah or fire code. I wanted the official seal . . . I wanted to get approval from the authority.”
Michael Orbach is a writer living in New York.