Orthodox Jews’ Request Divides a Resort Village

June 22, 2008

Author: Joseph Berger

Source: The New York Times


"Is Westhampton Beach an Orthodox Jewish Community?” the full-page newspaper advertisement asked in boldface type. Then it answered: “No it’s a secular, open Village with a proud history of welcoming All faiths. The erection of an eruv will proclaim us as an Orthodox Jewish community for all time. Don’t let it happen.”

Just a few months ago, the response to such an advertisement might have included not just outrage or applause but also a question: “What is an eruv?”

But for weeks, the issue has been roiling the 20,000 year-round and summer residents of this popular beachfront refuge as Christians and Jews have become steeped in an ancient custom that is obscure even to most Jews.

The eruv is a symbolic boundary that permits Orthodox Jews to carry small objects or push strollers and carriages on the Sabbath; without it, one parent — usually the mother — has to stay home with a toddler during services. Since carrying is one of the forms of work forbidden outside the home on the Sabbath, the eruv is a sanctioned strategy for symbolically extending private space into the public domain of streets and sidewalks, circumventing the prohibition.

In most cases, demarcation of the zone involves little more than attaching plain plastic strips to a number of utility poles — roughly 30 to 40 in Westhampton Beach’s case — with the cooperation of utility companies, which have generally been accommodating.

But opponents — and sometimes they are non-Orthodox Jews — have expressed concern that granting a request from the local synagogue for an eruv would make Westhampton Beach a magnet for Orthodox families. The opponents worry that a town that establishes such symbolic boundaries will become a heavily Orthodox enclave rather than a more cosmopolitan place.