Originally created 02/07/99

Orthodox Jews finding freedom with loophole



ATLANTA -- With the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath about two hours away, Rabbi Benyomin Friedman is out on patrol. A yellow hard hat over his yarmulke and binoculars in his hand, the bearded Orthodox rabbi stares up at wires stretched across utility poles in the neighborhood around his synagogue, the 80-family Congregation Ariel in Dunwoody.

He is one of four men checking parts of the synagogue's eruv, an uninterrupted border, in this case formed by existing power lines, that symbolically unites the neighborhood into a single domain. It's a thoroughly modern adaptation to an ancient tradition that's brought a new freedom and sense of community to many of metro Atlanta's Orthodox Jews.

According to Jewish law, observant Jews may carry items within their own household on Shabbat, or the Sabbath, but are prohibited from working -- including hauling items from one place to another or driving a car. Unifying the neighborhood into a symbolic household makes it permissible to carry items -- and children -- within the boundary of the eruv on the Sabbath, between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

When his inspections are finished, Rabbi Friedman will record a message on a special hot line, just as he does each week, letting his congregants know that the eruv is sound. The assurance means families can be out and about in the community, take food to neighbors' houses and even use umbrellas when it rains.

Because of the eruv, Karen Adler, 33, was able to take her children to a friend's house on a recent Saturday when the community celebrated the bris, or ritual circumcision, of an 8-day-old boy.

"With three small children, the eruv allows us to do things like push a stroller and carry a diaper bag," said Ms. Adler, whose children range in age from 2 to 7. "It enables us to interact a lot more with the community."

Many Orthodox Jews shun artificial birth control and take seriously the teaching to be fruitful and multiply, so large families are not unusual. Before the eruv, many women stayed home with their small children during the Sabbath because they couldn't carry their babies or take what they needed to care for their youngest.

The Dunwoody eruv, established in early 1998, was destroyed by tornadoes in April and rebuilt. It is one of three in Atlanta. The others are in Sandy Springs, around Congregation Beth Tefillah, and in Toco Hill, surrounding Congregation Beth Jacob and Congregation Ner Hamizrach.

The man behind the eruv movement in metro Atlanta is Dr. Joseph Tate, 54, an obstetrician-gynecologist who delivered many of the babies whose families benefit from eruvs. Dr. Tate had lived in Antwerp, Belgium, with his family for a while in the '70s in a neighborhood with an eruv.

"When you look at any large Jewish community throughout the world, there are certain basics you need to have," said Dr. Tate, the father of six children. "There's accessibility to kosher food, a mikvah, or ritual bath, and Jewish schools. Although I suppose you could do without an eruv, it's one of those defining features that says you're becoming a mature Jewish community."

The Toco Hill eruv, the first in metro Atlanta, was completed in 1992 after four years of planning and research. It unites Christmas, Santa Claus and other streets named by a 1960s developer into an identifiably Jewish neighborhood.

"It went from nobody walking the streets except adults walking to synagogue to, all of a sudden, the streets were filled with strollers," said Dr. Tate. "There was a block party the first week. To think I was part of a group that could have that kind of effect on the community was heartwarming."

Atlanta's first eruv was a plastic strip, strung at a cost of more than $15,000 and maintained for about $10,000 a year, surrounding an area of about two square miles. But two years ago, the Toco Hill group figured out a way to use existing electrical and telephone lines to serve the purpose, cutting maintenance costs in half. The Dunwoody eruvis modeled after the newer Toco one.

The eruv "has really helped anchor the community, stabilize the neighborhood and increase property values," said Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob. He and wife Miriam have eight children, the youngest 5 1/2 .

Benjamin Hirsch, an architect and real estate agent who lives in the area, says property values have increased dramatically since 1992 and says the eruv is a factor, along with proximity to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The eruv may have prompted some people from out of town to move into this neighborhood," says Mr. Hirsch. "It gives the area cohesiveness."

At the 600-family Beth Jacob synagogue, the increased number of small children at services since the eruv was completed has resulted in organized activities for preschoolers on Saturday and a parking problem for baby strollers and carriages.

"To this day, that's still an issue in the synagogue," said the rabbi. "Where do you put them without taking up space from where people gather?"

There may be as many as 50 or 60 strollers on a sunny Sabbath, estimates Rivka Lipschutz, the mother of six children ages 2 through 9. But the congestion in the vestibule is a small price to pay for the new freedom women of the neighborhood feel.

"The eruv allows a mother and family to be part of the community on Shabbas," she said.