Making Sabbath a day at the beach

Times Staff Writers

An Orthodox synagogue with the ambitious desire to enclose much of Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey within a religious boundary known as an eruv has come up against a barrier some say is as immutable as the Torah itself: the California Coastal Commission.

The Pacific Jewish Center in Venice wants to string fishing line between lampposts and sign poles for several miles through the coastal communities, creating a symbolic unbroken boundary.

Orthodox Jews within the boundary can consider themselves to be “at home” on the Sabbath. That eases restrictions of the holy day and allows people to carry food, push strollers and bring their house keys with them when they go out.

Such lines have been up for years in religious neighborhoods throughout the world. A large eruv encompasses a swath of Hollywood, Hancock Park, West Hollywood, Westwood, Beverly Hills and surrounding communities.


But never has anyone in Southern California attempted to run an eruv along the beach -- and this has created debate.

The Coastal Commission staff has recommended against the enclosure, saying it could compromise the nesting area of a rare bird and obstruct views of the ocean. Leaders of the Venice synagogue are negotiating this week with commission officials in an effort to reach a compromise.

The request to create the eruv along the ocean raises tricky issues of religious freedom, coastal regulations and environmental protections. The discussion is occurring in a city that has the second-largest Jewish population in the nation and a state known for its tough environmental laws.

Rabbi Ben Geiger said the eruv would make it easier for people to practice their faith. With the eruv in place, synagogue members would be able to stroll the Venice boardwalk during the Sabbath and even bring a picnic. His own children -- the youngest of whom is 4 -- would not have to walk the 1 1/2 miles from their home to the synagogue on Ocean Front Walk.

Proponents even say the project would also boost local tourism, making Venice “an ideal vacation spot for Sabbath-observing tourists,” according to the website touting the so-called L.A. Coastal Eruv.

“Part of being a Sabbath-observing Jew is that there are certain restrictions as to how we observe that day of rest,” Geiger said. Observant Jews, he said, can’t even push somebody in a wheelchair on Saturday, which has meant that at his synagogue a child who is confined to a wheelchair has been forced to stay inside for 25 hours at a stretch -- the entire night and day of the Sabbath.

The beachfront eruv would run along the walking path from Santa Monica to Marina del Rey -- on several miles of prime beachfront and right through a nesting area of a protected bird.

In its application to the Coastal Commission, the organization said it would place streamers on the wire at the points where it would run through the nesting area for the protected bird, called the least tern, so they would not unknowingly fly into the wire and hurt themselves. The Pacific Jewish Center also said it would monitor the line weekly to make sure that it did not fall down and block access to the beach.


At the boardwalk Tuesday afternoon, opinions varied.

Carol Katona, a Venice resident walking her dog Ginger, said she was mostly concerned about the birds.

“If the string is kind of invisible, I don’t want to be finding injured birds around because they’re flying into it,” Katona said. If the Pacific Jewish Center “puts up things that mark it for the birds, then that’s trashing up the place. If you try to fix it so the birds can see it, then we can see it, and that wouldn’t be OK with me.”

One merchant near the synagogue said he had no problem with the plan.


“String it. String the fishing line,” said Jesse Dreibelbis, co-owner of Tribal Bazar. “I’m for religious tolerance.”

The plan has already been approved by the cities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and the California Department of Fish and Game.

But the Coastal Commission, which has the final say on development next to California’s coastline, has raised concerns.

After commission staff recommended against the request, the synagogue offered changes that it believes will make the eruv less visible, said Geiger, who hopes to reach a compromise soon.


Rather than hanging streamers in the least tern nesting area, for example, the organization is now proposing using colored fishing line that only birds can see. To make the poles less obvious, he said, they can be painted blue to match the ocean or the sky.

The commission had been scheduled to take up the issue Oct. 12, but the decision was postponed so that negotiations could carry on.

Ultimately, commissioner Sara Wan said, any decision would have to balance the religious needs of proponents with the public’s need for access to and unobstructed views of the beach.

Eruv boundaries have been quietly popping up in several parts of Los Angeles as the Orthodox population has increased. In addition to the one on the Westside, there is an eruv in the San Fernando Valley, and Geiger helped create one in Irvine a few years ago.


Rabbi Chaim N. Cunin, chief executive of Chabad of California, said the tradition dates to biblical times.

“Even when we were wandering in the desert, there were laws in different camps whereby it was permissible to carry,” Cunin said.

Cunin said he has a small eruv around his home. But he said he and his Lubovitch sect do not tend to use the large civic ones except in emergencies because they are concerned that the wire might be broken in one spot or another.

“I personally do not use the eruv,” Cunin said. “But it is a wonderful service to the community.... The people in the L.A. eruv who supervise it are a group of highly qualified Orthodox rabbis.”


Back in Venice, some synagogue members say the eruv would make a major difference in their lives.

Lea Geller, a synagogue member, said she has had to forgo attending services for five years because she has three small children. The eruv would make it possible for her to participate in synagogue activities and to enjoy walking at the beach and picnicking with her family.

“So much of religion is socializing and community,” she said. “This isn’t a luxury. It will allow us to function as a community.”






What is an eruv?

It’s an area typically marked by a wire or fishing line that runs along streetlights and sign poles. Eruvin set aside areas that can be considered part of an Orthodox Jew’s home. Within these boundaries, people have eased restrictions during the Sabbath. Creation of an eruv would allow such activities as the use of using strollers, canes, walkers and wheelchairs as well as the carrying of house keys, rain hats and jackets.

Do some already exist in Los Angeles?

Yes. There is a large one in West L.A. that encompasses Hollywood, Hancock Park, Beverly Hills, Westwood and the Hollywood Hills, among other communities. Another large one exists in the San Fernando Valley. There are numerous smaller eruvs.


What does the Pacific Jewish Center want to do?

It wants to create a coastal eruv that covers Venice, Santa Monica and Marina del Rey. Backers say the project would help Orthodox Jews in the area observe their faith and could even make the area more of a tourist draw.

Who opposes it?

The California Coastal Commission staff has recommended rejecting the project. The officials said they are worried that the fishing line would obstruct ocean views and endanger a rare bird. Both sides are negotiating this week.


Do all Orthodox Jews use large community eruvs?

Some say they don’t use large ones except in emergencies because they are concerned that the wire might be broken in one spot or another.

Source: Times reporting