West Hampstead included in Camden eruv plans

You may have heard of an eruv. It’s the name commonly given to an demarcated area within which Orthodox Jews are permitted to do some things on the Shabbat that they otherwise would not be. Most pertinently, and generally at the heart of calls from the community to set up an eruv, it allows people with limited mobility – either due to infirmity/disability or due to having young children – to leave the house. Wheelchairs and buggies are otherwise not allowed to be used, nor can medicine such as insulin be transported and used outside the home.

Rabbi Shlomo Levin of South Hampstead Synagogue has been spearheading the campaign for the so-called “Camden eruv”, which would encompass West Hampstead, Fortune Green, Swiss Cottage, Belsize Park, Hampstead and beyond. An eruv “would change lives of Jews living in Camden,” he believes.

View camden_eruv2011 in a larger map

Eruvs are not particularly rare – Jewish communities in many large cities around the world have created them in order that people can continue to live modern urban lives in accordance with Orthodox laws. There is already an eruv in north-west London that covers Golders Green and Hampstead Garden Suburb. There’s also a proposal being developed for one in St Johns Wood and Maida Vale. My hyperlocal friend @w9maidavale, who (with his tongue firmly in his cheek) calls himself Lord Elgin, tweeted “The Eruv arguments are making Lord Elgin’s head spin. Charmingly bonkers but harmless.” Others in the area are taking it more seriously and it’s already running into some controversy

One of the things that some people find strange about an eruv is that it has to be physically demarcated. This can be (and largely is) done using existing walls or boundaries, but where that is not possible, then tall poles are usually erected with wire strung between them. These are required for fairly complicated reasons relating to the separation of different realms and each set of poles and wires physically represents a doorway.

It is the construction of these poles and wires that tends to bring the issue to the attention of the wider community as, in the UK at least, this requires the support of the local council. Jewish communities always pay for any work required but, unsurprisingly, non-Jewish residents can find it rather odd to have wire that has absolutely no significance for them strung up in their streets. If you’re not a religious person, then it’s really just street furniture. Eruv supporters will tend to argue that the poles and wires are very unobtrusive.

You can read a lot more about the Camden eruv, and, on Wikipedia, more than you probably want to know about eruvs generally – such as that even with an eruv, you can’t open an umbrella on the Shabbat or that there appears to be a long-running debate as to whether the entire island of Manhattan is an eruv. It is precisely those sort of peculiar arcane laws that distance orthodox followers of any religion from the mainstream – whether religous or secular.

It’s worth mentioning that not all Jews automatically support the creation of an eruv. For liberal Jews it’s meaningless as they do not abide by the Orthodox laws anyway. Some also argue that it might be time to question the underlying principle. A letter sent to the Camden New Journal by a non-Orthodox Jewish resident of Hampstead suggests campaigning “for these Sabbath laws to be more flexible and take people’s individual needs into account. I would also point out that when these laws were instituted neither insulin nor wheelchairs existed.” Nor are the details of how they are created unanimously agreed on. According to the BBC, “The Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (UOHC) – which includes synagogues in north-west London – has claimed that there are “serious halachic (Jewish law) problems” with the North West London eruv that make it invalid.” 

My immediate reaction when I first heard about this was to wonder why it wasn’t enough to declare where the borders of the eruv were – handing out a map perhaps – rather than erecting poles and wires. After all, the people for whom it matters don’t use the poles as signposts, they are representational – and as I mentioned above, most of the eruv’s boundaries are simply existing structures. Having now understood the symbolic purpose of the phyiscal eruv infrastructure I can at least see the point of the poles, although one wonders whether there aren’t more imaginative ways of combining religious doctrine with modern multicultural living in a way that is invisible to everyone.