A New Board of Trustees Could Put an End to Eruvs in Westhampton Beach June 30, 2015

A New Board of Trustees Could Put an End to Eruvs in Westhampton Beach

Under Jewish law, on the Sabbath (Friday night to Saturday night), you’re not supposed to carry any of your possessions between private domains (like your home) and public domains (like outside your home). But what if you want to take your baby to synagogue? What if you want to carry your keys from inside your home to outside where your car is parked? You can’t do it. Jewish law forbids it.

But Orthodox Jews figured out a loophole. All they have to do is turn a “public” domain into a “private” one and problem solved! They accomplish this by creating an eruv (AY-roov).

(Original image via @lakefronteruv)

An eruv is essentially a gated community built using poles and string. You put up the poles all around a city, connect them with a string, and you’ve created a brand new giant private domain. Orthodox Jews can roam and carry items freely within that space, even on the Sabbath!

(We can have a separate debate over whether or not God sees through that little trick…)

But here’s the problem: In some communities, Orthodox Jews have been building eruvs on public property. In some cases, they’re even tying the string directly on government-owned utility poles. We have laws against that sort of thing and church/state separation proponents, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, have tried to put a stop to eruvs in Miami Beach, Florida.

[FFRF] has written a letter to the city demanding not only that the eruv in Pinetree Park be dismantled, but that all other public eruvs on the island be taken down.

“The religious significance of eruvin is unambiguous and indisputable,” FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel wrote… “They are objects which are significant only to some Jews as a means to obey religious laws that have no bearing on non-adherents. They have no meaning except as a visual, public communication of a purely religious concept for religious believers of a single faith. The City cannot allow such permanent religious displays to be erected on public land.”

I should point out that there are reasons to defend the eruvs. For one, they just make life for Orthodox Jews (especially women) easier by giving them a way to function on the Sabbath without violating their religious laws. And as one commenter pointed out when I posted about this before, anti-eruv sentiments have often come with anti-Semitic overtones (If we get rid of the eruvs, the Jews will leave). Finally, there’s the argument that these strings really don’t hurt anybody — unlike, say, a Ten Commandments monument, there’s no implication that people of other faiths or no faith are wrong or immoral.

I understand those ideas, but my concern is that this is a stepping stone to more egregious church/state violations. It ought to be irrelevant that the string might go unnoticed. The law applies to all groups, including Orthodox Jews, and the government has no right to give exemptions to one group but not others.

In January, though, a federal court ruled that eruvs in Westhampton Beach, New York could stay put:

U.S. Court of Appeals judges said Tuesday that [Long Island Power Authority’s] decision to allow markers on utility poles is constitutional. “No reasonable observer who notices the strips on LIPA utility poles would draw the conclusion that a state actor” is “endorsing religion,” the three-judge panel wrote in the ruling.

That reasoning didn’t make any sense to me. It ignored the principle of church/state separation and suggested that American ignorance is a good excuse for why the eruv could remain in place. Just because most Americans don’t understand what an eruv is doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a religious symbol on government property.

But that victory may be moot after what happened on Friday:

Two local businessmen who oppose erection of an eruv Jewish religious boundary in Westhampton Beach… defeated two incumbents, by less than 100 votes, in an election for the board of trustees that took place last Friday.

Jack O’Dwyer, who’s been writing extensively about eruvs on his website, has more details about this election here.

If the new Trustees choose to take down the eruvs or ban public-private partnerships that allow them to stay up, we’re looking at a very different sort of debate about religious freedom and church/state separation.

(Thanks to Brian for the link. Large portions of this article were published earlier)


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