Sparks still fly as Palo Alto mulls decision on eruv

Following months of controversy over whether to put up an eruv in Palo Alto, more than 100 people packed the City Council chambers Feb. 8 to voice their views.

While the meeting of the city council's policy and services committee continued for nearly four hours, with strong opinions on both sides, the overwhelming majority of the 42 speakers as well as the audience clearly favored erecting an eruv. The debate will continue Tuesday, March 14.

An eruv is a symbolic enclosure that uses natural elements and wires or baling twine attached to utility poles to extend the boundaries of home. It enables Orthodox Jews within its boundaries to perform certain acts that are otherwise prohibited outside the home on Shabbat.

"The eruv makes it easier for the traditional Jewish community to observe Shabbat," Steve Rothman, assistant regional director of the American Jewish Committee, told the government body.

The main advantage is that it enables Orthodox women to bring young children to synagogue or to take them outside their own property. Without an eruv, Orthodox Jews are prohibited from carrying a child outside the home or pushing a child in a stroller on Shabbat.

In addition, observant Jews cannot carry prayerbooks, keys, combs, umbrellas or even canes or crutches when they leave the house on the Sabbath.

The Palo Alto eruv would be the first such enclosure in the Bay Area. About 100 U.S. cities currently have eruvim, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

At the Palo Alto meeting, opponents voiced strong objections to the erection of an eruv, expressing concern over church-state separation.

Joe Webb, a Woodside resident, said: "The Jewish Orthodox community is asking the city of Palo Alto to officially sanction the establishment of boundaries for the enclosed space. This would violate the First Amendment's establishment clause and the California Constitution's 'no preference' [to any religion] clause."

The city attorney's legal report acknowledged "a very substantial risk of legal challenge if an eruv is approved. But the trend is to err in favor of protecting the free exercise of religion."

The report, by Ariel Pierre Calonne, also acknowledged that some would construe the city's granting permission for the eruv as endorsement of the Orthodox Sabbath restrictions.

Webb cited such dangers as "compromising city sovereignty over public domain, erosion of private property rights and the improper use of the city's police power."

An official of the Palo Alto Public Works Department raised other concerns, noting that 15 locations where the eruv would be placed involved Caltrans or were jointly owned by Palo Alto and Pacific Bell. He also worried about the clearance and distance of the twine from high-energy conductors.

But Stanley Sussman of Palo Alto, an electrical engineer and physicist, assured the council that the baling twine is non-conductive. "More than 10 million people worldwide live in eruv cities with no awareness of the existence of the eruv," he said.

Rabbi Yitzhok Feldman of Congregation Emek Beracha, formerly the Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan, emphasized that the Orthodox community would "bear every cent of the costs" of the eruv.

Feldman, whose congregation was behind the drive to erect the eruv, added: "In no way does an eruv characterize Palo Alto as a 'Jewish space.' The city is asked to lease us the right to carry on the Jewish Sabbath. Nobody believes Seattle is a 'Jewish zone.'"

Yitzhak Santis, Peninsula regional director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, agreed. "The eruv is not a religious symbol and is not worshipped," he said. "It is a device, an almost invisible boundary allowing secular activities on the Sabbath. There is no 'excessive entanglement' and the city does not pay for it."

Lisa Cohen, chair of the South Peninsula regional committee of the JCRC, said, "The eruv allows a significant and growing segment to express their religious commitment."

Anat Harrel, Santis' wife and an East Palo Alto resident, agreed. She emphasized that current laws discriminate against Jews and favor Christians. "As a Jew, I cannot go to the post office on Sunday because an accommodation has been made for the Christian Sabbath," she said. "I am a teacher, and for me, Christmas and the day after Easter are holidays, while I have to take Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah as sick leave."

Those opposing the eruv were also vocal, saying that the eruv would favor Orthodox Judaism, which discriminates against women, and that the eruv, which is not secular in nature, would transform a public domain into a "private Jewish space."

A man representing himself as the "state director of American Atheists" declared his organization's intention to challenge the eruv.

Taking issue, Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar and constitutional historian Jack Raskove, a professor of history and American studies at Stanford, reiterated his support of the eruv.

His recently published Palo Alto Weekly article concluded: "A practice that operates safely and quietly in scores of other American communities, including the nation's capital, all governed at last report under the same Constitution as we are, and which has in fact been validated by both federal and state court decisions, need not be a source of ongoing controversy in Palo Alto."