36 Years After Last Eruv, Amsterdam Jews Can Venture Out on Shabbat

AMSTERDAM - Why should a group of rabbis be permitted to barricade the roads leading to the Dutch capital? Answering this question convincingly proved crucial for the historic reintroduction last month of the Jewish community's eruv, which freed hundreds of devout Dutch Jews from 36 years of weekend curfews.

An eruv is a symbolic boundary that, according to halakha - traditional Judaism's rulebook - turns public space into an enclosed community area, making it possible for Orthodox Jews to carry items outside their homes on Shabbat.

Amsterdam's rabbinate invalidated the previous eruv in 1972, citing the construction of new roads that violated the halakhic stipulation that all roads leading to the zone must be easily sealed off. To many families, that decision meant staying in for Shabbat, as carrying babies, or even walking more than a minimal distance, was prohibited.

The introduction in mid-March of an improved eruv zone required that Chief Rabbi Arye Ralbag and the rabbinate briefly block the main roads to the zone by stretching cables across each road so as to demonstrate it was sealable. The cables were stowed away in locked metal boxes affixed to nearby poles.

"Go explain to the railroad company why they should stop traffic while a team of rabbis blocks the tracks," says David Serphos, the executive director of the Jewish community of Amsterdam and the coordinator of the new plan.

Nonetheless, they did just that, and now, Serphos told Haaretz, "you can see whole shuls out on Saturday picnics."

The new eruv's designer, Rabbi Ralbag, used natural barriers such as waterways and hinged bridges to reduce the need for road blockage and the subsequent red tape. Unlike previous proposals, whose costs would have reached hundreds of thousands of euros, Ralbag's plan had a price tag of just 30,000 euros.

Another challenge was the halakhic requirement that the owner of the eruv zone lease the land to the Jewish inhabitants. "So I had to explain to Dutch mayors why they should lease out part of their territory to the Jews for a nominal fee," Serphos adds.

Ralbag also made sure the new zone took in the entire community. And so the much larger and revised eruv stretches across four municipalities outside Amsterdam proper. For the plan to work, Serphos had to lease land from all five mayors.

In addition, the project still had to be coordinated with several other authorities, including the waterways and highways authority, the police and other government bodies. "Everyone I spoke to became very interested in this project and wanted to help," Serphos says.

Yet Serphos is apprehensive about divulging the exact whereabouts of the cable boxes. He asked the local press not to publish the locations for fear of anti-Semitic vandalism.

In the meantime, the only opposition to the eruv has come from Jews. "Some modern-thinking Jews said the entire idea is silly," says Serphos. "In that sense I met more resistance from Jews, who think the eruv is a biblical concept that doesn't fit into modern society."