Metro Views: <I>Eruv</I> fight on a summer holiday

Nothing like the prospect of an eruv to make things nasty, and the Hamptons have proved no exception

0808-henry (photo credit: Bloomberg)
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
Along with hitting the surf and the sand, David Paterson, New York's first black governor, went to shul last Shabbat, turning up in the Hampton Synagogue on the east end of Long Island. This was not simply about hanging out with the Jews on some of the most expensive real estate in the continental US. Instead, Paterson lent support in the latest battle for an eruv in the metro area. With about 500 families - approximately 30 percent of whom are observant - at the Orthodox shul, it was time for an eruv that would cover about one-third of the town's three square miles, and ease some restrictions on observant Jews, or so thought Rabbi Marc Schneier, who heads the summer shul on Sunset Avenue in Westhampton Beach, and the affiliated New York Synagogue on the east side of Manhattan for the rest of the year. There is nothing like the prospect of an eruv to make things nasty in a community and it is no different in this case, even though the shul has been on the island for 18 years. Besides, people should be more than used to a Jewish presence in the Hamptons, which is home to some of the most famous names in the entertainment industry, as well as a host of financiers, artists and designers. LAST SPRING, the village held three public hearings on the eruv. The synagogue is planning to offer an informational meeting next Wednesday. W ill anyone listen? In the heat of an eruv battle, it's never clear if people are truly racists, deliberately deaf or simply ignorant - but a lot of stupid things get said. A full-page ad by the Westhampton Beach Alliance for the Separation of Church & State, in June in the Southampton Press, being an equal opportunity offender, asked: "Is Westhampton Beach a Christian Community? Don't let it happen! Is Westhampton Beach an Orthodox Jewish Community? Don't let it happen!" An eruv, said the advertisers, "will proclaim us as an Orthodox Jewish Community for all time." Every eruv battle seems to have its own back story. The subtext in the Hamptons is not the same as in some other significant metro-area cases, like the long-fought battle in Tenafly, New Jersey. Among the differences is that Tenafly is a small suburban borough in Bergen County, whose estimated 15,000 residents are year-rounders. One argument is that an eruv, by making Tenafly more Orthodox-friendly, would bring in young families who would not use the public schools and thus upset the demographics of the education system. The Hamptons are chock full of tony towns and villages that cater to wealthy summer residents and weekenders. Westhampton Beach, with some 2,000 residents, has a median household income and cost-of-living index that soar above the national average. If you can afford it, the Hamptons are the place to enjoy beaches and boating. Think oceanfront mansions and housing values with lots of zeroes. Eight years ago, for example, there was quite a deal between a nice Jewish comedian and a nice Jewish musician when Jerry Seinfeld reportedly paid $32 million for Billy Joel's Hamptons home. Although Westhampton has a public school system, summertime residents do not attend. When the sunny season ends, even the Hampton Synagogue basically migrates back to Manhattan. In the Hamptons, there was no shortage of utterly uninformed, possibly anti-Semitic or deliberately idiotic comments about the eruv. "What is to stop the Orthodox from demanding that Christians, within the eruv, not put up Christmas ornamentation on their properties?" the Jewish Week quoted an unnamed person as asking. (Perhaps when the synagogue offers its informational meeting, the diocese should announce its own remedial education program.) ERUVIM SERVE an important function. No one wants young Jewish families to be imprisoned by Shabbat, unable to push strollers or to attend services with young children. But the misrepresentation and exaggeration is not only from the eruv opponents. In a legal brief in the Tenafly eruv case, the Orthodox Union said: "An eruv is a core element of the constitutionally guaranteed right of the free exercise of religion for Sabbath observant Orthodox Jews in the United States." In an interview about his eruv battle, Schneier said: "I never imagined that, in my own backyard, I would have to fight for what I consider to be the civil rights of my own congregation and community." I know I should duck as I write this, but in the US, an eruv is not a constitutionally guaranteed or a civil right. The eruv, basically created with wires on telephone poles and fences, allows observant Jews to carry or push objects within that area during the Sabbath. Because these activities are not allowed in the public domain otherwise, an eruv creates the legal fiction of a "private domain" to enable such activities. But as American courts and religious authorities have noted, the eruv itself has no religious significance or symbolism, and is not part of any religious ritual. It is an odd situation, these knock-down fights in which opponents of eruvim rarely can show that they have sustained some injury by the creation of the eruv. Nor can Jews, however, show any breach of legally protected religious rights. The exceptions have been when the telephone poles and public fences have been used for signs and other purposes, in which case a specifically Jewish purpose, like wires for eruvim, cannot be denied. The absence of an eruv does not stop anyone from going to shul on Shabbat; they just can't push their strollers or carry their tallitot and must resort to turning house keys into faux brooches pinned to lapels for the day. Is it pleasant? Not really - just ask the observant Jews on New York's Lower East Side who, under the terms of Rav Moshe Feinstein's 1962 responsum, have been living for generations without an eruv.