By Rachel Lieberman
"All of women’s gains [in the Orthodox community] are attached to a piece of string attached to telephone poles.”—Blu Greenberg
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the Yeshiva University Museum collaborated to present a fascinating panel discussion on the eruv’stransformation of women’s roles in the Jewish community. The panel followed a guided tour of the exhibit “It’s a Thin Line: the Eruv and the Jewish Community in New York and Beyond.” The panel featured Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Professor of Sociology and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, Blu Greenberg, author and founder of JOFA, and Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier, rabbi at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and chairman of the Manhattan Eruv Committee, and was moderated by Rabbi Adam Mintz.
In different eras, eruvim (eruv, plural) became popular for different reasons. In Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, eruvim flourished so that Jews could carry their cholent from the communal bakers’ oven to their homes on Shabbat. In New York City, at the turn of the twentieth century, an eruv was constructed to prevent non-observant Jews from violating Shabbat when they carried their train tickets in their pockets on their way to work. In the 1970s, as an eruv became a requirement for young, Orthodox couples, real estate listings in The Jewish Week, and The New York Times indicated whether the house for sale was inside the eruv.
The absence of an eruv significantly impacts observant women with young children. Without an eruv, young children who are unable to walk cannot leave the house on Shabbat—they cannot be carried or pushed in a stroller. Practically, this means that mothers with young children become prisoners in their homes each Shabbat. Without childcare, or a husband or a friend willing to stay home with the kids, a woman cannot go to synagogue, or to a neighbor’s house for lunch, or for a walk in the park. The erection of an eruv changes this reality, permitting parents to carry their children, or to push them in a stroller without violating Shabbat.
Today, it is common for American suburbs and metropolitan areas to be circumscribed by an eruv. But this was not always the case. It was only in the 1970s and the 1980s that eruvim became ubiquitous. What accounted for this change?
Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman attributes this change to three concurrent trends: the rise of the Jewish day school movement, the rise of feminism, and Americans’ increased acceptance of ethnic and minority groups’ peculiarities and traditions that separated them from the larger American community. Blu Greenberg reinforces Dr. Fishman’s assertion that “with feminism, everything changed.”
Dr. Fishman explains that before the rise of the day school movement in the 1970s, many Orthodox Jews were not halachically literate and carried objects on Shabbat without an eruv. As individuals became more educated and more uniformly observant, they would no longer carry objects on Shabbat, and an urgent need for more eruvim developed. At the same time that Orthodox Jews were becoming more halachically knowledgeable, observant women’s ideas about their roles in the Jewish community were also changing. Dr. Fishman explains that between the 1960s and the 1980s, women began to question why they were free to work outside of the home during the week, but on Shabbat they were trapped and prisoners in their own homes. Women no longer accepted that they could not attend services on Shabbat, and that they would not have opportunities to socialize with other women and men at synagogue. With the construction of an eruv, Shabbat became an opportunity for women, men and children to socialize and cement community bonds.
Ms. Greenberg explains, “The eruv transformed women’s Shabbat role of hostess and entertainer to davener and serious member of the religious community.” With the ubiquity of the eruv, communal expectations of women, rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) and mothers with young children changed. “Women could no longer opt-out, but their regular presence was anticipated and expected in synagogue on Shabbat.” As women’s regular presence in synagogue increased, synagogue architecture andmechitzah sightlines also changed to accommodate the women there. The eruv is a technical tool, created by the rabbis, to transform the community and the public space, and to allow women to remain active participants in the community. The eruvwas a pre-requisite for every change in women’s roles in the synagogue, including women’s tefillah groups, Partnership Minyanim, women’s positions as voting members of their synagogues, synagogue board members and synagogue presidents. Ms. Greenberg also credits the existence of women in religious leadership positions (e.g. congregational scholars, Maharat, Rabba) to the erection and the expansion oferuvim. She quips, “The early eruv opponents who made the slippery slope argument surely had their proof.”
The presence of an eruv not only transforms women and children’s lives, but radically affects the entire community. It allows handicapped individuals who rely on canes, walkers and wheelchairs to rejoin the community for Shabbat. It allows communities to celebrate lifecycle rituals—like a brit milah or a Bat Mitzvah—in synagogue on Shabbat. Babies also appear in the men’s section. Ms. Greenberg paints a picture of fathers “double wrapped” during davening—wrapped in their tallitot (prayer shawls), and also carrying babies wrapped in a sling.
Orthodox communities also become more concentrated as people move within the limits of the eruv. Proximity creates stronger community bonds on Shabbat, and during the week. Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier explains that one of the hallmarks of the Manhattaneruv is that it physically unites many Jewish communities throughout Manhattan, and it is also supported by Jews across the denominational spectrum. Rabbis, individuals and institutions from the Ultra-Orthodox, to the Modern Orthodox, to the Conservative communities all made a commitment to support the Manhattan eruv. According to Rabbi Kermaier, “In Manhattan, we do not accept a Shabbat without an eruv. Even the Friday after Hurricane Sandy, the eruv was up. This would not be possible without the support of so many different individuals and institutions.”
Dr. Fishman cautions that even though the eruv does serve to unite halachically observant Jews, it has also become a divisive issue in many communities (most recently in Westhampton, NY). She concedes that the erection of an eruv does have a serious impact on the local community, especially the local public schools. When aneruv is constructed, the local population shifts. As more observant Jews move in, and choose to send their children to Jewish day schools, the public schools empty out, and financial support for them declines. New residents are loathe to financially support the public schools when they are already paying exorbitantly for day school tuition. Fishman stresses that as an observant Jewish woman, her life has been transformed by the eruv, but she urges us all to ask, “How do the things we [observant Jews] need to live a religiously fulfilling life impact others? How can we construct a fence which makes our lives more livable and more beautiful, but not a fence that shuts out our empathy for those who do not share our lifestyle?”
“It’s a Thin Line: the Eruv and the Jewish Community in New York and Beyond” is on exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum through June 30, 2013.