Strings Attached

Orthodox Jews in Miami Beach consider it a harmless symbol, but others believe it violates the U.S. Constitution

Miami Beach riddle: What's held together with string, can turn an eight-square-mile island into a private home, and has civil libertarians tied in knots? Give up? The eruv.

To the casual observer, the eruv(pronounced A-roove) in Miami Beach looks like little more than long sections of string tied to light stanchions and tall poles. Orthodox Jews say it's a religious practice that makes their lives easier and does no harm to anyone else. The Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union isn't so sure.

During the Sabbath -- which begins at sundown Friday and lasts until nightfall Saturday -- Orthodox Jews are prohibited by scripture from engaging in a number of otherwise routine activities, such as raising or lowering a flame (a prohibition that extends to physically turning lights on or off), writing (with a pen or on a computer), and driving. There are 39 categories of prohibitions in all. The most onerous, from a practical standpoint, is the one preventing the "carrying" of any object outside the home. Given that the law applies to everything from keys to kids, this stipulation pretty much puts the kibosh on normal existence for those 24 hours over the weekend.

Hence the eruv, which isn't Yiddish for "loophole" but it might as well be. "An eruv," explains Rabbi Donald Bixon of the Orthodox congregation Young Israel of Miami Beach, "is the imaginary boundary that makes a public area private," or put another way, that extends the concept of "home" to a portion of the outside world.

The size of this imaginary home is determined by rabbinical experts who map out the surrounding area in terms of existing structures, both natural and manmade: buildings, highways, and anything else that could be interpreted as representing a discernible edge.

There are limits to the imagination, however. For one, an eruv can't be of infinite size. As Rabbi Bixon points out: "It's hard to call a city of 600,000 a private space." For another, a string, wire, or other marker must be installed around areas where no clear boundary exists. In North America more than 100 eruvin have been created, including one surrounding the White House.

So how big is the Miami Beach eruv? As it turns out, pretty big.

"All of Miami Beach is encompassed in the eruv," says Abraham Galbut, an attorney and president of the Miami Beach Eruv Council, which repairs and maintains the string and poles. "In fact the eruv extends through Bal Harbour" -- or roughly from Government Cut north to Haulover Cut.

But it isn't the size of the thing that has attracted the attention of the local chapter of the ACLU. The organization believes the eruv's boundary markers, most of which are located on city property, might be a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

"What first brought the issue to our attention was a complaint regarding the poles," relates Randall Marshall, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, explaining that the rights group was recently approached by a private Miami attorney working on behalf of a client. The "poles" that spurred the ACLU to get involved include PVC tubing, thin metal pipes, and wooden two-by-fours affixed to the boardwalk in mid-Beach. They are connected by string and spaced 200 to 300 feet apart along the edge of the manmade sand dunes on the shore. The string is also stretched between city-owned light poles. This defines the eastern border of the eruv; the existing seawalls along Biscayne Bay serve as the western boundary.

Rabbi Bixon, while not familiar with the facts of the complaint, doesn't believe the installation could possibly offend anyone. "If you walked by [the boundaries] a hundred times," he emphasizes, "you wouldn't even know they were there."

Nevertheless, says the ACLU, they are there, on public property, and that -- constitutionally speaking -- may not be kosher. "We're concerned the City of Miami Beach and other local municipalities [who permitted the eruv to be erected] may be involved in [establishing] religion," explains Marshall. "We need to figure out if this is an establishment-clause issue and if so, what can be done about it." The ACLU is currently meeting with Miami Beach officials, attempting to determine, among other things, how the eruv came to be.

Not that its existence has ever been a secret. It was erected in 1985 with the help of the police and fire departments of Miami Beach, Surfside, and Bay Harbor Islands. The Miami Herald described it at the time as "23 miles of wires and wooden fence ... across telephone poles, between buildings, over streets, and above causeways." If government employees erecting a religious symbol on public property is not a violation of the separation of church and state, says the attorney who first approached the ACLU, what the heck is?

That question, as well as the fate of the Miami Beach eruv, may eventually be decided, albeit indirectly, by a case currently on appeal in federal court. In 1999 the Tenafly, New Jersey, Eruv Council approached town officials seeking permission to string wire from the city's utility poles for the purpose of defining and establishing an eruv. The Tenafly town council, citing a local ordinance prohibiting the posting of any object on municipal utility poles, rejected the request. "We don't allow political posters, garage-sale signs, or anything else to be displayed on those poles," explains Mayor Ann Moscovitz, a Reform Jew.

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