Jesse Hefter
Jesse Hefter
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Eruv, technology, and the lovely lagoon

To take advantage of this Jewish law, we needed to walk on water: a model airboat did the trick for most of the year, but in the Boston winter, we used a monster truck
Airboat on the surface of Larz Anderson Park lagoon, Brookline, MA

Eruvin in urban areas often grow by addition of new segments to their original borders. In October 2016, we extended our community eruv to include a large swatch of the southern residential section of Brookline, MA. We had been approached by Rabbi Mendy Uminer of the Chabad of Chestnut Hill with a request to enable his growing community to (1) utilize an Eruv for enhancing the Shabbos experience in his neighborhoods and (2) enable people to walk (while carrying) on Shabbos between the larger eruv and his area.

Designing an efficient path to follow that minimized construction cost, integrated with existing utility infrastructure, and included the members of the Chabad synagogue was a complex process on its own. Further, the request was made to include a 61-acre recreational area, the Larz Anderson Park, within the Eruv expansion.

A centerpiece of this park is a lovely lagoon bisected by a narrow walking bridge. The sections of the lagoon on each side of the bridge are greater than 20,000 square feet and, according to eruv law, cannot generally be included within an Eruv since they are not classified as a residential space — it is a body of water (a cemetery would be another example of a non-residential space). Although people walk around the lagoon daily and the park’s nearby playground is always busy (less so during the pandemic), I felt that a question needed to be asked of our halachic posek (decisor), Rabbi Moshe Heinemann of Baltimore, MD.

The lagoon at the Larz Anderson Park – Image courtesy of the Town of Brookline

Upon walking Rabbi Heinemann into the lagoon area of the park during a pre-eruv construction visit, he asked me the surface dimensions of the two halves of the lagoon. Upon hearing the “they are both greater than 20,000 square feet in area,” and seeing that the slope of the lagoon shoreline is quite flat (meaning that the sides of the lagoon could not be considered as walls for the purpose of excluding the water area from the eruv), he said something like “Well, can you get permission to put a boat on the water?” He was referring to the legal position that requires an area like this in an eruv to be “used” by people for residential purposes, not simply from the shore (like fishing, for example), or taking walks around it, but on the water itself.

The walking bridge separating the two halves of the lagoon. Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter

My response was “Well, I am not sure that I can get permission to put a full-size boat on the water, but I think I can get the Parks and Recreation Department to allow me to put a model boat on the water.” He immediately approved of my proposal since use of the lagoon space as an area for a boat hobbyist classifies the water area as residential in nature. He added that, to be in the category of “used,” we would need to spend a minimum of 18 minutes (a common unit of measure in Jewish life) on the water each week for a majority of the weeks of the year. So, we were going to visit the lagoon at least 27 weeks of the year — I could already see issues looming when the winter would come, and the water would freeze.

The town approved our plan and instructed us that, if the police were ever to come and ask us what we were doing, to explain to them that the Parks Department had approved our being there. On one of our first visits, we were met by the Larz Anderson Park Ranger who, after hearing why I was there, spent 30 minutes asking me questions about the eruv, the Sabbath, and the Jewish community. She was so respectful of the issue and of the way we were addressing its solution. These conversations have happened dozens of times since we started visiting the park all during the year.

Being a radio-control enthusiast, I sensed an opportunity to prepare at least one boat model for its weekly mission. Being that the lagoon often sported floating algal clumps or tree leaves or branches, my first inclination was an airboat, the type you see in Florida taking folks on Everglade rides. Since the propeller is mounted above the water, the boat can float over watery obstructions. I built the model shown below from a Stevens Aeromodel kit.

Airboat – Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter

When the water is a little deeper and less clogged with “green” material, we can always switch to a blue-and-white cabin cruiser. This wooden boat is over 35 years old and, with a current-generation electronic speed control and upgraded, rechargeable batteries can proudly navigate the length and breadth of the lagoon.

Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter

Each winter, the Boston weather leads to a situation where the pond freezes over. Since this situation can last for several weeks or more, we needed an alternative for how to run a radio-controlled model on the ice. We obtained two vehicles, a monster truck model, and an amphibious four-wheel drive device.

Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter
Image courtesy of Jesse Hefter

Rabbi Heinemann’s 18-minute directive applied to each side of the lagoon. However, he had suggested that, if we could find a way to navigate under the bridge with a vehicle, that action would serve to connect the two halves in a halachic way and eliminate having either two vehicles on each side at the same visit for 18 minutes or spending 18 minutes on one side of the lagoon and then removing the model and placing it in the other half of the lagoon for another 18 minutes.

A downside of the latter approach is the duration of the rechargeable batteries used to power the vehicles. Preparing all the chargers and batteries at home, loading the car, parking near the park, getting all the equipment from the car to the lagoon and then getting underway is already a large, weekly undertaking.

Accordingly, we structured our visits to plan to get the vehicle to navigate under the walking bridge whenever the “coast is clear.” On other visits, we bring two vehicles and place one of each on one side of the lagoon for 18 minutes.

People stop and ask me what we are doing, especially on beautiful, warm days when the park is busy with families and picnicking groups. They never fail to be impressed with our purpose, that of volunteering to perform an action that benefits a community (without the community even necessarily aware that we are doing it). They are curious about how we apply these technological items to a religious problem. They take pictures and videos of the models cruising around the lagoon. They shake their heads when it is below freezing, and we are out there in multiple layers of clothing and trying to control the models with transmitters with thick gloves on. An observer once remarked, “Your religion demands a lot of you.” And I agreed, “Our religion asks us to fulfill certain requirements and indeed, we have the intellect and tools to accomplish these tasks. Sometimes the weather is quite cold, or a model gets stuck mid-course, and we need to figure out a way to get it back to shore. It’s all doable – with the right attitude”.

This activity of using technology to solve a religious-legal challenge is not unique. It applies to many other areas of Jewish life, see for example the suite of solutions engineered by the Zomet Institute. It is cool to be able to apply my interest in radio control modeling, building and finishing, and electronics to address this particular challenge. In the case of the lovely lagoon, the visits are peaceful, social, and provide a welcome dose of fresh air.

About the Author
Jesse, a Ph.D. chemist/materials scientist, originally from Elizabeth, NJ, completed a 35-year career as a technologist at Verizon Communications where he retired as an Associate Fellow. He lives in Brookline, MA , where he attends the Maimonides Kehillah, built and manages the Boston Eruv, teaches a weekly Daf Yomi shiur, serves as the High Holiday Baal Tefilah at Congregation Kadimah Toras-Moshe, and is actively working to complete Semicha through Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim. He and his wife, Brenda, are parents to three and grandparents to eleven. He enjoys radio-control modeling, skiing, sailing, and tennis.
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