Please, fence me in!

In researching this project about the state of American Orthodox Judaism in the 50’s through the 70’s, I interviewed many people. Most of them were friendly and generous of the expertise and knowledge. But when it came to fun, I think my favorite was when my wife visited Rav Shalom Gold in Har Nof. I had heard Rav Gold speak on a number of occasions, but I didn’t know what a wonderful, personable and FUNNY human being he is. 

He also figures into many of the issues which I will discussing in these pieces. 

In 1970, Rav Gold moved to West Hempstead, NY from Toronto. He had moved to Toronto at the behest of Rav Yitzchak Ruderman Z”L, his Rosh Yeshiva at Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, but that’s a big story for another time. When he told a rabbinic friend that he was leaving the Yeshiva world to become a shul rav, the friend sent his condolences. But it was clear from listening to his reminiscences, he loved it. 

However, there was a problem. He went to Canada as a young, single rabbi, now he had a wife and kids. This caused an unforeseen problem. I’ll let Rav Gold tell the story: 

On March 28, 1971, I inaugurated the first eiruv in America. Toronto had one for 50 years already, but there were none in America. 

I did it all myself. My wife came with me from Toronto and said that she couldn’t live without an Eiruv, because she was not going to be stuck in the house because she couldn’t push a stroller. First, I drove around town for hours checking the telephone poles. Then I came home and said, I can do this!’ I then went to Reb Moshe Feinstein to get permission. He asked me how many rabbis were in WH. And I said, ‘One!’ then He said, besides you? I said, “Just me.’ Then he said (in Yiddish).’Macht! Macht!’ (Make it! Make it!’) 

Okay, two things. First, Rav Gold wasn’t totally accurate. The first Eruv in America was in St. Louis in 1894, but Rav Gold did put up the first modern Eruv which sparked a movement.  

Second, what is an Eruv? This is not the venue to give a full answer. However, the answer while standing on one foot is: An Eruv is an artificial enclosure (usually consisting of overhead wires and upright poles, usually telephone poles) which for Jewish law purposes, turns a public domain (where carrying on Shabbat is prohibited) to a private domain (where carrying on Shabbat is permitted).  

Rav Gold’s innovation swept Jewish communities in the 70’s. Soon, Modern Orthodox couples would only move to communities or neighborhoods that had an Eruv. And a pizza shop, but that’s story for a future article, and Rav Gold also brought a pizza shop to West Hempstead. Mamesh, what a guy! 

I actually tried to erect an Eruv in Margate, NJ in 1981. I took a boat ride around the island with Rav Shimon Eider. Sadly, our situation was too complicated and would have been too expensive for the tiny Orthodox community. So, it was decades before Margate got its Eruv. But I got a very pleasant afternoon with one of the foremost minds in American Jewry. 

The building of Eruvin had the upside of making it easier for Orthodox families to move to suburbs albeit a decade or so later than the less observant. It had the downside of causing of friction with many local populations who were concerned about an Orthodox invasion. Not surprisingly, many of those controversies had Jews in the opposition. 

It’s hard to quantify the impact of the Eruv revolution in America. The Eruv defined Jewish communities. It impacted real estate prices (In 2005, the Boston Globe wrote about the impact of the Eruv boundaries on housing costs in Sharon, MA). The Eruv, often, was the difference between a neighborhood becoming a haven for Orthodox Jews or being ignored by young Orthodox couples. 

So, growing up I remember my cowboy heroes pining for the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains, by crooning: I can’t stand fences. Don’t fence me in. But for Shabbat observance in Jewish neighborhoods, we plead: Please, fence me in!   

Next: The Yiddish Are Coming!!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.