Every Thursday, a man in a red Oldsmobile drives around New Haven, keeping one eye on the road and the other on a barely visible set of overhead wires and dowels attached to poles. He’s looking for a break — and hoping he doesn’t find one.
His name is Rabbi Tzvi Thaler. He’s checking the boundary of the New Haven eruv.
That job has become quite a challenge now the state has begun digging up eight-tenths of a mile of Whalley Avenue as part of a $18.8 million widening project. And religious Jewish families have to keep checking each Friday to make sure they’ll be able to push baby strollers or carry objects around their neighborhood on the Sabbath.
According to Jewish law and interpretation, observant Jews are not allowed to carry on the Sabbath in any place except their own home and, by extension, from a private domain to a public domain. For example, an observant Jew could not carry a prayer book or a child or even a few tissues while walking on public streets to synagogue on Saturday.
The writers of the Talmud, the sixth century body of Jewish law, created the eruv in response. The term means to mix or join together. An eruv — which can be a mapped-out “fence” of already existing telephone and electrical wires, for instance — allows Jews to carry on the Sabbath in certain places that were designated as communal and contained within a complete border. The eruv, strictly a Jewish legal construct, has no effect on the general community, said Dr. David Fischer, a Westville resident who is president of the New Haven Eruv, the group responsible for maintaining it here.
The eruv committee did not want to give the exact borders of the eruv, but any New Haven synagogue has a map of the eruv. It essentially covers the western part of the city. It connects to a Yale eruv, which encompasses most of the university, hospital and medical school campuses. The two are contiguous, so someone pushing a baby carriage is able to walk from Westville to the New Haven Green and still be in the eruv. A separate group administers the Yale eruv.
Thaler has been busy since the Whalley widening project began in Westville in June.
Every Thursday, Thaler checks that border to make sure that it is contiguous. He makes sure the sides of the “doorways,” usually inch-diameter black dowels that are attached to the poles and that must be directly under the wires that form the top of the doorways, are in proper position. Usually, telephone wires form that doorway top. Where they don’t exist, the eruv group puts up wires, or uses fences or even hills that are steep enough to form the doorway top.
The top of the doorway must be at least three “cubits,” or about 40 inches, off the ground. Of course, any work on private property is done only with the owner’s permission. Since the vertical construct, called a lechi, doesn’t touch the telephone wire that forms the top (called a korah), there is no chance of it impacting telephone service.
In addition to Thaler’s weekly trips, Edgewood Rabbi Dov Greer walks the border of the eruv on Fridays, double-checking and usually taking a month or six weeks to complete the circuit.
Greer makes sure the doorways are complete, the lechis are directly under the korahs, and there is no break.
Thaler “is very adept at spotting minute details from a distance,” Fischer says. Thaler, however, said that driving at a snail’s pace for the entire circumference of the eruv is impossible in the time allotted, so Greer does his walking check.
The Whalley Avenue work has made his job harder, Greer said, because the lechis disappeared after the state moved or replaced telephone poles. As a temporary measure, Greer has nailed 40-inch high boards to more than a dozen new poles from Dayton Street to the border on Amity Road to form temporary lechis.
“Replacing the lechis while construction is going on is not realistic, so we use these temporary lechis,” Greer said. “If you have a temporary lechi 40 inches high under the korah, that will work for now.”
The eruv committee has taken no position on the street-widening plan, which has been controversial.
The biggest problem is on Dayton Street, a two-block continuation of Forest Road between Fountain Street and Whalley Avenue, as Greer pointed out during a recent walk along the route.
In order to facilitate widening of Whalley Avenue, the contractors have moved telephone poles from the north side of Whalley to the south side. The positioning of the poles has changed one of the korahs over the signs of the liquor store at the southeast corner, making it impossible to walk on the sidewalk in front of the store while still within the eruv.
Therefore, anyone walking west on Whalley Avenue cannot take that route to the Westville Synagogue on West Prospect Street.
“So far, that has only been an inconvenience, and we will work around it somehow,” Fischer said.
The main impact has been to the New Haven Eruv’s meager budget, he said.
Volunteers administer the eruv, with donations from the community, Fischer said. He said next year’s budget will swell to more than this year’s $15,000, mostly because of the cost of putting up temporary lechis and the cost of repairs.
There are about 100 members of the eruv; Fischer said he has no idea how many people use the eruv. It is used by observant Jews who attend Orthodox or Conservative synagogues in the city. There are some Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not use the eruv, choosing to be more stringent in their practices.
“What has happened is that our fundraising appeal has been going out earlier and earlier each year,” he said. “Last year, we had a lot of repairs, and we need cash to pay people” to fix the problems.
The only people who are paid for their work are Thaler and people called to fix breaches in the eruv, usually on a few hours’ notice. “In the six years I have been here, it has only been down four or five times,” Fischer said.
Thaler, 36, lives and teaches at a yeshiva in Waterbury. He has been checking the New Haven eruv for eight years out of its 19-year existence.
Observant Jews call a phone number (387-3897) or check a website on Friday afternoon to be sure that the eruv is up. In order for it to be considered up or kosher, the eruv must essentially be complete. If it is not complete, observant Jews cannot carry on their way to synagogue or on Sabbath visits. Fortunately, that does not happen often.