Twenty years ago, when Howard Witkin’s wife was pregnant with their first child, he began thinking for the first time about the LA eruv. The now 50-year-old insurance broker and liqueur business owner was uncomfortable with the fact that he would use the eruv to push his child in a stroller, but many rabbis and others in his community wouldn’t.
At that time, the eruv only covered Pico-Robertson and Beverly Hills and used string to demarcate the eruv boundary. Some rabbis considered string unacceptable for a city with the population size of Los Angeles. On the other hand, making a mechitza or wall-based eruv seemed impossible; how could you build a perimeter of solid walls throughout Pico-Robertson and Beverly Hills?
In some ways, the eruv had divided the Orthodox community into two. “There was a lot of acrimony; people would say, “You don’t think I’m good enough since I use it?” and others would say, “Oh! You think I’m too strict since I don’t use it?’” recalled Witkin.
He approached the major local rabbis at that time with the idea of using the 405, 10 and 101 freeways as walls for the eruv. They pondered the idea and consulted Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of Baltimore, Rabbi Shlomo Miller of Toronto and other gedolim who all approved of the concept. Rabbi Dovid Feinstein even said that an eruv with solid walls such as the Eruv Committee was proposing would have been acceptable to his father, Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Though the idea was sparked when his wife was expecting their first child, it took years to put all the pieces in place but the eruv officially went live seven years later, on Rosh Hashanah of 2002, the same month that Witkin’s youngest twin girls were born.
Today, the eruv perimeter consists of the concrete walls of the freeway, plus large sections of fencing that the eruv members have erected themselves. There are several sections with strings or wires overhead instead of walls, which are considered “doorways” within the eruv. Altogether, there are 40 miles of perimeter covering 100 square miles of area. It runs from the 10 freeway on the south, to the 405 freeway on the west, the 101 on the north and Western Blvd on the east.
In addition to marking the perimeter, the other necessary component of an eruv is a blending of ownerships, called “socher rishus,” which necessitates getting permission from everyone in the designated area. In Los Angeles County, the sheriff has entry rights to all properties with a warrant, so he is considered to have reshus for the entire county. Representatives of the LA eruv have a rented reshus, or permission, from the sheriff, giving them the rights to blend the entire area and validate the eruv. The ultimate hashgacha is provided by the RCC.
Each week a three-person crew of rabbis (mostly from the Chassidishe Kollel in Hancock Park) inspects the entirety of the eruv, checking that all fencing, wires and other enclosures are intact. The process usually takes two full days.
Another crew, a mix of rabbis and construction workers, is trained to do actual repairs such as pouring concrete, fixing fences and tying knots. If a car takes down a fence, then this crew will work to repair it that week instead of waiting 4-6 weeks for the city to send a construction crew. The eruv team is an approved CalTrans contractor (unpaid by the city) which allows them to do these repairs.
About the crew, Witkin said, “You need people who are both handy and have yiras shamayim [fear of G-d]. You need to know that when the guy’s at the top of a 40-foot pole, he’s not going to take a shortcut – he’s going to tie the pole correctly.”
The work can be draining, since as much as possible the eruv workers do repairs between midnight and 6:00am Thursday night, when they impose the least amount of burden to traffic and contractors. During the active construction of the 405 freeway, many repairs happened at 2-5:00pm on a Friday afternoon, after the construction workers were finished for the day. The eruv workers have developed friendly ties with the other contractors, who have been known to dismantle and set up enclosures themselves, saving some work for the eruv team. During the 405 construction, the eruv workers were there so often that all the rabbis had Kiewit vests and name badges.
All of this costs money, and though the eruv officers are volunteers, the crews have to be paid. “It’s difficult to ask a guy to give you from midnight to 6:00am each week for free,” said Witkin, and this is in addition to insurance and equipment costs. Ongoing costs are about $1,500 a week or $75,000 a year, but can be higher if construction work gets heavy on the freeway.
Overall, the LA eruv has become quite a success story. Two rabbis who are in charge of inspecting the Jerusalem eruv came on a tour and said it was the best one in chutz la’aretz, according to Witkin.
“If a person is willing to hold by an eruv, they can hold by our eruv. People who say it’s not good don’t understand it,” said Witkin.
And other eruvim in the western U.S. have been assisted by the LA team in building and improving their own eruvim, including Phoenix, AZ, Denver, CO, and Irvine and Oakland, CA.
Currently Witkin spends an average of five days a month working on eruv operations, but during the big renovations last year he sometimes put in many more. “I don’t know how [G-d] feeds me – it’s a miracle,” he joked.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City agreed that before the current eruv, the community was more divided, which shows the importance of a strong eruv. “It allows all families to really enjoy Shabbos. If you’re a young family in particular and you don’t have an eruv, the mothers are locked in their homes for Shabbos and the elderly lose the ability to come to shul. When you can make Judaism more pleasant for everyone, you have gained in the long run.”
A few months ago, an urgent eruv appeal went out to the community with the ominous news that unless $90,000 was raised in two months, the eruv would shut down indefinitely. This was due to a large amount of construction on the 405 and a newly constructed EXPO train line, around which eruv repairs needed to be made before the electricity was turned on.
Did the community meet the deadline? “Basically, yes,” said Witkin. Enough money was pledged, and nearly enough was collected to cover the most time-critical repairs. He credited the community’s rabbis for speaking about the situation and encouraging donations.
“There were lots of $54 and $100 contributions from hundreds of people,” said Witkin. “Overall the response was very heartwarming and positive.”