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The unseen wires that maintain ancient Jewish tradition in San Francisco

How string tied between telephone poles allows worshipers to go about their lives

Clement is the northernmost limit of San Francisco’s second eruv.
Clement is the northernmost limit of San Francisco’s second eruv.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco has an eruv. In fact, it has more than one. Manhattan has an eruv too. The same goes for cities like Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Miami—over 200 in North America alone.

An eruv is a boundary of sorts, usually represented by things like telephone wires or railroad tracks, but in some cases simply by wire or string hung high above city streets. For those who observe certain laws of Judaism, the nearly invisible thread is critical.

As writer Lorne Rozovsky explained in 2009, the eruv is part of a centuries-old tradition pertaining to the Jewish weekly day of rest (normally Saturday), which bars those who observe from many everyday practices.

“It is forbidden to carry something, such as a tallit bag or a prayer book, from one’s home along the street, or to push a baby carriage from home to a synagogue, or to another home, on Shabbat,” Rozovsky wrote.

Transporting anything more burdensome than the clothes on one’s back might be considered a sort of labor, which makes getting to and from worship services difficult, particularly for those with children too young to walk.

“Given the design of many communities in the past, many neighborhoods or even cities were walled,” Rozovsky notes, which provided a solution to the dilemma.

Carrying for practical reasons may be allowed as long as it’s not within a "public domain.” Whereas once this was assumed to mean anything further than six feet out the front door, a more liberal interpretation of holy law suggested that the enclosed space of a walled community was sufficiently intimate as to qualify as private domain for the purposes of the sabbath day, allowing some practical concessions for freedom of movement.

Modern cities don’t have huge interior walls. But life must go on—and not being able to leave the house with your wallet is harder now than centuries ago.

The solution: the eruv. It’s not a wall, but it’s a boundary nonetheless (a “virtual enclosure,” as one congregation puts it), and as long as there are no gaps in it—hence the extra wires to fill in spaces—it’s enclosed enough to allow those who observe its importance to move around without violating their spiritual tenets.

San Francisco has two eruvs. The Sunset District boundary, established by Adath Israel congregation on Noriega Street in 2009, was reportedly the first in the city’s history.

The Sunset eruv border.
The Sunset District eruv border.
Map via Google

Not every Jewish person observes the rules strictly enough to feel they need an eruv. But for those who do, it’s a critical spiritual tool.

So what did observers do before the wire boundary in SF?

"Simple, they didn’t carry anything," Rabbi Landau of Adath Israel told Curbed SF. "Just like many places in the world where people don’t have one, they did without."

It was a pain at times, but "if you believe this is what God wants of you, you do it," says Landau.

Retired Rabbi Jacob Traub, formerly of Adath Israel, says that the relatively new eruv shows that times have changed. "In the old days, mostly men came to temple," says Traub, whose tenure began in 1967. "Women would come too, of course, but if they were young women with children then they probably stayed home.”

When the congregation wanted to attract younger followers, that meant appealing to local families.

“The establishment of an eruv signified that this was now a place where young, observant couples could raise their families,” Jewish News of Northern California observed after the raising of the eruv, which allowed parents to use strollers they would otherwise have to do without, possibly keeping them away.

"There was talk of doing it in the past, of course," says Traub. "But people love to argue about Jewish law, so there were always politics about where it should be."

The congregation paid 50 cents to the city for the rental rights to the domain “for the purposes of defining an eruv for carrying on Sabbath and Yom Kippur, in accordance with Jewish tradition,” good for a 99-year lease. Former Chief of Police Heather Fong and former Supervisor Carmen Chu signed off on the payment.

The presence of Golden Gate Park meant that a huge eruv around the entire west side wasn’t practical. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Richmond District received its own, maintained by the Chevra Talim congregation on 25th Avenue.

The Richmond District eruv border.
The Richmond District eruv border.
Map via Google

The Richmond District eruv stretches south to north from Golden Gate Park to the Clement Street, and east to west from 16th Avenue to 43rd Avenue. The Sunset District eruv runs south to north from Santiago Street to Kirkham, and east to west from 20th Avenue to 43rd.

There’s even a Twitter stream with updates about whether the Sunset eruv is intact. The hard-to-spot wires must be inspected weekly to make sure they haven’t blown down.

Both congregations would like to expand, but keeping an eruv takes time and resources. Business Insider reports that maintaining the gigantic Manhattan eruv, which circles almost the entire island, runs $100,000 per year.