Stretching the Limits of Orthodoxy : Symbolic Eruv Line Strengthens Traditional Religious Ties, Eases Restrictions in Jewish Community

By the end of the month, Linda Scharlin will be able to carry her infant son on Saturdays to Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in North Hollywood.

Her husband, Barry Pinsky, can for the first time take a bottle of wine to a friend's house for a Sabbath lunch.

Until now, the growing Orthodox Jewish community of North Hollywood has been forbidden by religious law to carry anything on the Sabbath across a "public domain"--streets, highways, thoroughfares or public squares that meet certain specifications.

That will change with the dedication this month of an eruv , which the leaders among North Hollywood's Orthodox Jews have been planning for since 1984.

An eruv marks an area in which Orthodox Jews are permitted to perform certain tasks usually prohibited on the Sabbath. The North Hollywood eruv is bounded by the Ventura, San Diego and Hollywood freeways on three sides, and on the fourth side the boundary is created by a line of synthetic cord strung between light posts along Sherman Way between Whitsett and Sepulveda.

2,500-Year-Old Concept

Construction of the eruv --a concept that goes back 2,500 years in Jewish law--will "change the whole social structure of the Valley for Shabbat," said Rabbi Aron Tendler, associate rabbi at Shaarey Zedek Congregation, the largest Orthodox Jewish synagogue in North Hollywood.

Traditional Judaism prohibits any form of work--including driving a car or pushing a stroller--on the Sabbath. But an eruv , by extending the definition of "private domain," permits certain kinds of carrying.

With the eruv in place, North Hollywood has become an even more desirable place for Orthodox Jews to live. Lured by secure neighborhoods and relatively affordable homes, Orthodox Jewish families have in the last 10 years been coming to North Hollywood in greater and greater numbers.

These new residents are mostly young couples who have steady incomes and definite ideas about expanding and improving the community. They see no reason why North Hollywood's Orthodox Jewish community cannot equal the more established and better-known neighborhoods on the other side of the hill.

Some of them believe that time has arrived.

"The Valley has something to offer on a par with the city," said Barry Pinsky, an active member of Shaarey Zedek. "We are not the stepchild of the city anymore."

The growth is evident at Shaarey Zedek, which Rabbi Marvin Sugarman said is adding 50 new families as members every year, and Emek Hebrew Academy, where officials had to turn away nearly 100 children--the highest number in its 27-year existence--during the current school term.

Cannot Build Fast Enough

The Orthodox Jewish community of North Hollywood, estimated by its leadership at between 2,500 and 3,000 members, cannot build facilities fast enough to keep pace.

Their lives--steeped in religious tradition--revolve around the same places: Shaarey Zedek Congregation or one of the other synagogues in the area; the kosher restaurants, butcher shops and bakery at the corner of Whitsett Avenue and Burbank Boulevard; and Emek Hebrew Academy, the Orthodox Jewish day school.

The eruv represents the latest expression of unity for this tight-knit community.

Rabbi Tendler says enough good fortune made North Hollywood's eruv possible that he wonders if the Almighty did not intend for Jews to settle in the area. That was not apparent at the outset.

After local Orthodox rabbis decided to proceed with the project, Rabbi Tendler searched in vain for a year to find an area that could accommodate the synthetic cord and poles needed to construct an eruv .

The only feasible route had to be shelved when city officials said it would be physically impossible to run the eruv along a particular stretch of Riverside Drive.

Soon after that disappointment, Tendler got in his car and looked one more time for the best location. In the middle of his drive he came up with a solution: Why not use the wire fences built alongside freeways?

Rabbi Tendler drew plans for an eruv that would be bounded by the Hollywood Freeway on the east, the Ventura Freeway on the south, the San Diego Freeway on the west and Sherman Way on the north. The area happened to include the vast majority of Shaarey Zedek's members.

Rabbi Tendler's vision meant that actual construction of the eruv would only have to be done along a four-mile stretch of Sherman Way, and between freeway on- and off-ramps.

The next step was to convince Caltrans to allow construction of the eruv by the freeways, where overpasses, on-ramps and exits interrupted freeway fences.

Tendler, Mark Hess and Larry Blumenstein--the members of the eruv committee--had difficulty penetrating the Caltrans bureaucracy. When they did get through, officials were not encouraging.

Outside Help Needed

Blumenstein eventually decided that help would be needed from the outside. As it turned out Assemblyman Richard Katz--Jewish and from the San Fernando Valley--had become chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Blumenstein approached Katz, and the assemblyman put the North Hollywood group in touch with the right people at Caltrans.

"It went smoothly after that," said Hess.

The eruv committee had no trouble raising the needed $22,000 from the community. With money in hand, committee members contacted the American Decorating Company.

The Azusa-based business had constructed the two existing eruv s in Southern California--one in the Pico-Robertson area, the other in the Fairfax District.

Although American Decorating finished its work some time ago, a few final touches are required before the eruv 's dedication. These include the installation of an eruv hot line, which community members can call to learn if any parts of the structure have fallen down over the week. In the event that happens, carrying during the Sabbath is not allowed until repairs are completed.

On Saturdays, the streets around Shaarey Zedek, which is located on Chandler Boulevard just east of Coldwater Canyon Boulevard, are filled with young couples and their children out for a walk. The fathers usually wear dark suits and hats, the boys have yarmulkes on their heads, and the mothers and daughters are dressed in their best.

Orthodox Jewish families walk the streets of North Hollywood without fear of physical or verbal harassment that has sometimes plagued Orthodox Jews in other cities.

"I walk to Shaarey Zedek with my tallit (prayer shawl) on," said Yaakov Metzger, a retired businessman for whom this freedom is something new. In Philadelphia, where Metzger lived for many years, he did not feel comfortable being so open about his religion.

In part due to this climate of tolerance, the community has experienced a housing shortage. Because Orthodox Jews are forbidden to drive to services on Saturday, homes within a one-mile radius of Shaarey Zedek are in great demand.

'High Demand, Poor Supply'

Recently Bracha Samet, a realtor and member of the synagogue, had to tell five Orthodox Jewish families wanting to move to North Hollywood that their housing needs could not be accommodated.

"Demand is high, supply is poor," she said.

Orthodox Jews from other cities often call Samet inquiring about bargains. But most of her clients are Southern Californians who can't afford to live in Beverlywood or Pico-Robertson, two longstanding Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.

According to Samet, the same two-bedroom home that starts at $250,000 there costs between $180,000 and $220,000 in North Hollywood.

No one is happier than Harry and Rena Drexler that Orthodox Jews are moving to the area. It took a long time for the Drexlers' restaurant and kosher meat market on Burbank Boulevard to show a profit.

The business, which has been at the same location for 32 years, could never seem to attract more than a small, if loyal, clientele.

That started to change by the mid-1970s.

"The demand got bigger and bigger," said Harry Drexler.

Local Scene

Now the expanded restaurant has become something of a local scene. On Thursday nights, when the place stays open until 8:30, all the tables are filled.

Some conversations are in Yiddish, some in Hebrew, most in English. Rena Drexler loves it.

"I always tell people that if Erma Bombeck were here, she would get great material," she said.

Along with cracking jokes, in recent months the diners might well have been talking about plans by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to use the Chandler Boulevard rail route for its proposed light rail system. The route, if approved, would send the cars right by Shaarey Zedek and Emek Hebrew Academy.

For a group that walks to synagogue on Saturdays, and includes many small children, this route would pose a clear danger. Local Orthodox Jews felt they had no choice but to organize.

"It's the first time I have seen the community do something" politically as a group, said Abe Sopher, an Orthodox Jew who has lived in North Hollywood for 14 years.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community attended hearings, contacted politicians, and disseminated information to affected residents. The community went beyond its borders and joined non-Jews in the area in forming the East Valley Coalition to fight the proposal.

Awaiting Impact Report

The activity has cooled down a bit while everyone awaits the environmental impact report, expected next June. Discussions with key politicians in the area, including Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and Assemblyman Tom Bane, continue. In this way, the light rail proposal has plunged the community into the world of politics.

If the eruv is the latest chapter in the history of the North Hollywood community, then Shaarey Zedek is the first. A group of Orthodox Jews built the synagogue almost 40 years ago, when the community consisted of no more than a few dozen families.

Shaarey Zedek is located on a part of Chandler Boulevard where a dusty median--bisected by railroad tracks and littered with broken beer and soft-drink bottles--separates rows of nice homes on tree-lined streets. The synagogue's modest facilities are a reflection of the immediate neighborhood.

In the past, all those who attended services at Shaarey Zedek found a seat. Things have changed.

"People have to stand at services," said Rabbi Sugarman.

Efforts are being made to alleviate the overcrowding. On Saturdays, minyans (10 or more Jewish men who gather for communal prayer) are held at 7:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. The earlier service, which is not as popular, is designed for the more religious members of the community.

Expansion Project

The synagogue is in the midst of a $1.5-million expansion project. The membership, which includes many doctors, lawyers and accountants, is confident the money will be raised.

Next door to Shaarey Zedek is Emek Hebrew Academy, the only Orthodox Jewish day school in the Valley.

The school's two campuses--kindergarten through fifth grade at North Hollywood, sixth through eighth grades and a nursery school at Sherman Oaks--are filled. Rabbi Yochanan Stephen, the school's education director for 15 of its 27 years, is in the process of finding one location that can hold 650 students.

Emek, which provides many of its students with three hours of instruction per day in Hebrew, Talmud, Jewish history and Jewish current events, is thriving as young couples pay for their children to have the extensive Jewish education they may never have received.

A year at Emek does not come cheap--tuition plus registration is $3,400 per year. Rabbi Stephen thinks it's money well spent: "The only way to appreciate Judaism is to understand it. One can only do that by Jewish education."

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