When Rabbi Eytan Yammer of Birmingham’s Knesseth Israel is on the phone with a potential family looking to relocate to Birmingham, two quality of life questions about Jewish infrastructure inevitably come up — are there kosher restaurants, and is there an eruv?
The kosher restaurant component is a reality now, with the opening of Sababa. And as of Feb. 14, there is now an eruv encompassing two square miles around the state’s only Orthodox congregation and Birmingham’s Chabad center.
An eruv allows those who follow Shabbat restrictions on carrying in public to more fully participate in community life, Yammer said. On those days, one may carry inside one’s private domain, but not in public. That includes house keys, books or even children who can not walk on their own, who can not be pushed in strollers either.
“It’s a big deal,” Yammer said. “If you want to grow Jewish communities with observant families, especially families with children, you need to have an eruv.” If you can’t carry your children, their diapers and other supplies, it is hard to be part of the community on Shabbat and holidays.
With an eruv, “on Yom Kippur you can carry snacks for your kids to shul. On Shabbat you can carry a bottle of wine to a friend’s for Shabbat dinner.”
Even for those who aren’t Shabbat observant to that level, it is a benefit. A Jewish family that walks to nearby Overton Park on Shabbat afternoon, for example, is now keeping Shabbat “in a better way,” even inadvertently. “Better to do a mitzvah by accident than transgress by accident” by carrying when there is no eruv, Yammer said.
To establish an eruv, a perimeter boundary for the neighborhood had to be established, “mixing domains” of public and private within its limits. About 90 percent of the eruv is power lines. Mapping that is a challenge, because the lines have to be continuous and not terminate. They also have to attach to the power poles directly, not on one of the extension arms a few feet out.
In some cases where wires were on those arms, substitute poles at least three feet tall were installed directly underneath the power line’s path to serve as a vertical pole. Those poles are actually “underground wires” markers donated by Alabama Power that were spray-painted so nobody would mistake them for real underground line warnings. The idea, Yammer said, is for the eruv to be as inconspicuous as possible.
In a few places, existing fences were designated as part of the eruv. None of the existing structures were touched or altered.
The eruv took over a year to accomplish, because arrangements had to be made with Mountain Brook and Vestavia, as well as Alabama Power.
Yammer said Mountain Brook gave immediate approval, while getting Vestavia to respond took longer. Another large delay was the April 27 tornado that came through Cahaba Heights. They had to wait until all power lines were permanently replaced before they could determine where the eruv would be.
The current route takes the eruv along Crosshaven Drive to Cahaba Heights Road, then to Christopher Drive, across Overton Road to between Locksley and Dunbarton Drives, then inside Warrington Road back to Crosshaven. An exact map is on the Knesseth Israel website, along with reports from the weekly pre-Shabbat inspection to make sure the eruv is still intact.
Yammer said this is just the first phase, and other areas will be added to the eruv in the future. For example, the heavily-Jewish Dunbarton development is not currently in the eruv.
New Orleans completed its first-ever eruv in Metairie in September 2008, in neighborhoods around where Beth Israel is currently building its new facility. The Metairie eruv is roughly the area from Causeway Boulevard to the Elmwood Canal, and Lake Pontchartrain to Interstate 10.