Every morning when I walk to the station on the way to work, I pass a tall green pole outside a pub. It is linked from the top to a second pole on the opposite side of the road by a slender, almost invisible wire. It looks like the training apparatus for a lightweight tightrope walker. You probably wouldn’t notice it from the surrounding lampposts if you didn’t know why it was there.
This nondescript structure, nonetheless, is a Jewish landmark. It is one of the boundary markers for the north-west London eruv, the country’s first metropolitan eruv, which came into operation 10 years ago this month.
In rabbinic law, an eruv converts a public zone into a private one. Within its confines, the prohibitions against carrying outside one’s home on Shabbat do not apply and people can push buggies and wheelchairs. The establishment of the eruv was an act of a liberation, freeing the otherwise housebound to celebrate Shabbat more fully with their families.
“Before the eruv, Shabbat was challenging,” said Anushka Levey, a mother of four children aged from three to 11 in her late 30s, who belongs to Ner Yisrael Synagogue in Hendon. “From being a time to relax and mix with friends, once you had a child you were restricted. You had to wait until they could walk to go out and you couldn’t take anything you needed like nappies. And you were limited how far you could walk. You couldn’t go to synagogue or else parents had to take it in turns. Or if you had elderly family, you might not be able go to see them and you couldn’t push them out in a wheelchair.”
The impact of the eruv was “instantaneous and incredible”, she said. “You could all go to synagogue together, or meet family and friends over meals, or go to the park. A Shabbat is a chance for family and friends to get together, and to relax and enjoy the day. I feel that’s what Shabbat was meant to be.”
Apart from the north-west London eruv, which covers Golders Green, Hendon, Finchley and Hampstead Garden Suburb, the United Synagogue has gone on to establish eruvs also in Borehamwood and Stanmore: it has planning permission for two others and another 10 on the drawing board. Edgware Adass maintains a local eruv, while there are plans for one in Manchester.
Eruvs are so much a fixture now that it is hard to remember how contentious the whole idea of them was at first. It took 15 years from the time that Ner Israel’s Rabbi Alan Kimche commissioned an American expert to draw up a map for the north-west London eruv until it actually went live.
Opposition came from several directions . Some secular Jews talked darkly of “ghettos”: some non-Jewish residents protested against the erection of what they feared would be intrusive religious symbols. Hysterical rumours circulated of Jewish vigilante groups that would be set up to guard the eruv against vandals.
Although the then head of the London Beth Din Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu took the project under his influential wing, other rabbis from the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations disputed its halachic validity. Eruv law is complicated. Most of the 11-mile perimeter of the north-west London eruv is defined by existing boundaries such as the M1 motorway and the Northern Line tube. But where there are gaps, 34 sets of symbolic gateways of poles and wire mark the border.
“It was a long fight but it was worth it,” said the chairman of the north-west London eruv, Edward Black. “We always said no one notice it once it was established and reality has borne that out. No one’s complaining about the poles, they blend in with the existing street scene.”
Charedi rabbis still huffed and puffed, forbidding followers to use it but some young families instead left for more eruv-friendly synagogues.
“The eruv has brought enormous benefit,” said Chief Rabbi-elect Ephraim Mirvis from Finchley Synagogue, “from parents bringing their children to shul to disabled people able to come along in wheelchairs. Every Shabbat we celebrate a parade of dozens and dozens of buggies outside shul.”
The facility has strengthened religious services and enabled participation in other ways. Some parents can now bring their baby girl to shul for a baby-naming on Shabbat, Mrs Levey observed. “It can be a family occasion whereas before you might have a kiddush without the mother and child being there — which was strange.”
The eruv gateways have to be inspected weekly to check they are intact and users can check a website before Shabbat to see if it is operative.
According to Mr Black, the “red light” has never had to be switched on, although with last month’s snow, users were warned that in the event of another bad fall over Friday night, they should not rely on the eruv in case one of the wires went down.
Inspection and maintenance for the north-west London eruv costs around £30,000 and £40,000 annually and families are being encouraged to donate £50 a year towards it.
“It has transformed Shabbat for the observant community,” Mr Black said. “I remember an elderly man getting more ill by the week, who would fold his tallit at the end of the service, wondering if this would be the last week he could walk to shul. But with the arrival of the eruv, he was able to still to come to shul in his wheelchair.”