New London Eruv Frees Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath

The Benjamin family, who live in the largely Jewish suburb of Hendon in northwest London, Saturday went to synagogue on Shabbat together for the first time - thanks to a brand-new eruv.

The eruv - a boundary that uses wires and poles to notionally extend the private domain, thereby allowing Orthodox Jews to be exempted from some Shabbat prohibitions such as pushing prams and wheelchairs - went into effect for the first time in northwest London on Friday evening following 15 years of fierce controversy in the British capital.

Opponents accused the pro-eruv lobby of separatism, circumventing their own laws and even violating human rights but for Dr. Charlotte Benjamin, the eruv will bring only freedom. With two daughters under the age of 3, Benjamin says she would walk to synagogue with her older daughter for the later Shabbat morning service only after her husband had returned from the earlier service, as one of them always had to stay home with the baby.

This Shabbat, however, 6-month-old Michal was pushed to synagogue in her pram, accompanied by both her parents and her sister.

"The atmosphere in synagogue was fantastic," says Benjamin, who attends the modern Orthodox congregation of Ner Yisrael in Hendon. "The eruv allows us to experience Shabbat as it should be - a unified family occasion."

She was also among 1,500 Orthodox Jews in the area who attended a lecture by religious court judge Chanoch Ehrentreu, the head of the London Beth Din religious court, about the theory and practical aspects of the eruv. She says she does not recall ever seeing such a large gathering to hear a halakhic discourse (about Jewish law) in North London.

Also attending the Shabbat morning service at the Ner Yisrael congregation for the first time in some 20 years was Chani Nussbaum, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. She was pushed to synagogue by David Schreiber, a London-born Jerusalemite, who has been one of the key campaigners in the pro-eruv lobby since the struggle to erect it began in 1987.

Although an eruv exists in more than 150 towns and cities around the world, pro-eruv campaigners in London were accused of trying to build a ghetto and of violating the human rights of those who would find themselves inside its 17-kilometer perimeter. Some of the most vocal critics were secular Jews living inside the area of northwest London enveloped by the eruv.

Schreiber, who ensured he was in London for the launch of the eruv - in order to fulfill a promise and push his friend Nussbaum to synagogue - described the atmosphere as "magical." He said synagogue members erupted into spontaneous dancing because of the large number of families who were in synagogue together on Shabbat for the first time.

From now on, those who intend to make use of the northwest London eruv may call a telephone hotline, visit a Web site or receive a text message prior to the start of Shabbat in order to be sure the eruv is intact before venturing out.