It’s a soggy Thursday afternoon, and I’m climbing through brush on a muddy hillside above Seward Park looking for two rabbis attaching a wooden board to a tree. Mordechai Paretzky, a 32-year-old rabbi and eruv expert from Chicago wearing a hard hat and a bright yellow rain suit, points to the sky. “There’s the line,” he tells me. Above us, a black wire connects to a bracket in the tree. This is the eastern edge of the eruv, an invisible wall that creates a public-private area almost all the way out to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The Seward Park eruv is one of three eruvin in the region. The North Seattle eruv encompasses Bryant, Ravenna, Wedgwood, and View Ridge; and the Mercer Island eruv encircles almost the entire island. You might live within an eruv and not know it; you might have moved to your neighborhood in order to be within it. You might, by this point, be wondering what I’m even talking about.
Simply put, transferring items between private and public domains is prohibited on Shabbat. An eruv creates a private domain out of a public space in order for Shabbat-observant Jews to carry things, like books or food. Baby strollers and wheelchairs are considered items one carries, making the eruv critical for parents and Jews with limited mobility. One could argue that it’s a legal fiction, an invisible wall comprising strings, utility poles, cables, fences, and slopes. One could also argue that the eruv is liberating, even feminist.
At its core, though, the eruv is about communal space. Rabbi Yaakov Tanenbaum of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath, who oversees the eruv along with volunteers, explains that the eruv is commonly understood as a physical boundary, but the crucial element is — surprise — food. A central “meal” symbolizes a community table. To this end, a box of matzo is stored at BCMH. (Ideally, a meal would have bread, not matzo, but bread spoils.) “Everyone shares in a food together,” Tanenbaum says. “We need to have that ownership of the box of matzos. Without that box of matzos, we’re not allowed to carry.”
To ensure that the perimeter is intact, a volunteer, Joe Greene, checks it every week before Shabbat. If he notices that something has been disrupted, he usually has enough time to arrange for a repair before Shabbat. But in what Greene calls a “perfect storm,” this past summer the eruv “went down” when the city began extensive work on utility poles.
BCMH holds a contract with Seattle City Light to rent the right to use the utility poles and to comply with the National Electrical Safety Code. According to Steve Crume, Seattle City Light’s joint use and streetlight engineering manager, changes had been made to the eruv since its establishment in 1998 — but the contract was never updated. Only when one of his crew chiefs reported that unauthorized plywood boards were being attached to some telephone poles to create a temporary eruv along Seward Park Avenue did he realize the contract was sorely out of date.
Throughout the fall and early winter, Tanenbaum and a committee of volunteers from each of the Seward Park synagogues launched a massive eruv restoration project that not only got back on track with the city, but also updated the eruv along Lake Washington, where development has affected the landscape. It became clear that the work — including flying in one of the few eruv experts in the country from Chicago multiple times — was going to come at a cost.
On November 12, the committee launched a flash fundraiser. Within 24 hours, they raised $72,000.
“It was a beautiful opportunity for the Seward Park community to come together in a united effort,” Tanenbaum says. “It’s essential for the community [that] we have elderly people in wheelchairs and mothers and fathers with young children able to go to one another’s house on Shabbat, which is essential for any community. It was impetus for the community to come together. People realized what a necessity this is for Jewish life.”
Paretzky, who specializes in eruv construction and repairs, came out to Seattle four times, driving around in a bucket truck, climbing ladders, and trekking through the woods with Tanenbaum and a cadre of volunteers. There’s no challenge too great to solve, he says, but it’s not always easy.
“Most of the Talmud is set up in a way where there were little Jewish villages, and every house went into a courtyard, and the courtyard led to alleys. But our cities aren’t built like that,” he says. “It’s an exercise in creative construction within the framework of halacha. There’s always an answer to the challenge. You just have to be creative.”
The non-Jewish residents of Seward Park, although perplexed, were accepting and helpful. “I personally was knocking on people’s doors and explaining what the eruv is,” Tanenbaum says. “I’m wearing a suit and asking if I could come by tomorrow and traipse through their backyard. They were very accommodating.”
Back in the undergrowth at Seward Park, the sky is darkening, and Paretzky needs to catch a flight. He and Tanenbaum assess a fence and worry about an important piece of chicken wire. But the majority of the work is done. The next day, a few hours shy of Shabbat and five months after the eruv first went down, Tanenbaum sends an email out to the community. “Eruv update,” it reads in all caps. “Really great news.”