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High wire strewn through city lets Jews keep the faith

Rabbi Adam Mintz looks on at the high wire in the sky that helps the Orthodox Jewish community to go about their routines during Sabbath. Photo: Helayne Seidman

Being Jewish in Manhattan comes with strings attached.

Orthodox Jews are allowed to push baby strollers and carry prayer books on the Jewish Sabbath thanks to a loophole made of fishing line that stretches some 18 miles on utility poles around the city.

The line forms a nearly invisible enclosure, called an eruv in ­Hebrew. Jews are prohibited from doing these simple tasks outside on the Sabbath, but carry them out in the confines of the eruv because it symbolically turns a public space into a private one.

Every Thursday, two Hasidic rabbis drive along the border of the eruv to conduct pre-dawn inspections. If they spot a break, they report it immediately to a maintenance crew that dispatches repair workers. Yearly upkeep is divided among Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan and amounts to about $100,000.

Strong winds, heavy snow and floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade have damaged the fishing lines that are suspended 20-feet high and which stretch from Harlem to Houston Street, from
the East River to the Hudson.

The rabbis return on Friday mornings to make sure the repairs are complete.

“It’s a secret operation,” said Adam Mintz, a Manhattan rabbi whose 2011 doctoral thesis at NYU was entitled “Halakhah in America: The History of City Eruvin, 1894-1962.”

The eruv boundaries, which are mapped on Google, have a Twitter feed to let the devout know everything is kosher.

There was a minor international incident in 2011 when, just before the Sabbath, a portion of the eruv fell on Second Avenue near the United Nations during the General Assembly. Repair trucks couldn’t get through because of the tight security.

“At the last minute on Friday afternoon it was repaired,” Mintz said.

The concept of the ritual enclosure has been around since the days of Roman Palestine. But in Manhattan, it’s tied Jewish religious scholars up in knots. The city’s rabbis debated for decades over where to put the symbolic boundaries, or whether to have boundaries at all. In 1959, a group of rabbis entered into a 50-year eruv lease with New York City, which was renewed in 2009.

It took three more years for the eruv to go up in 1962. And even then its borders did not include the Lower East Side, historically the Jewish center of the city.

“It split the community,” said Mintz.


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