The storms that tore through Atlanta the night of April 4 downed trees and power lines throughout the region. Utilities and transportation were interrupted for several days. For Orthodox Jewish residents in North Druid Hills, the damage included parts of the structure that allows them to carry and push things during the weekly 25-hour Sabbath.
Since 1992, Jews living in North Druid Hills have had an eruv. The eruv is a symbolic enclosure that creates a sort of virtual courtyard that wraps around Jewish communities using power poles and wires, fences and simple string to create an unbroken perimeter.
Eruv is a Hebrew word that means to mingle or mix. There are several Atlanta area eruvim (the Hebrew plural for eruv), including the region’s largest and oldest in North Druid Hills. There also are others in Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, and Virginia-Highland.
Although eruvim have been used in Jewish culture for more than 2,000 years, they are a relatively recent arrival in American cities. There are about 140 eruvim in the United States, and they enclose spaces commonly associated with Jewish communities in large, older urban areas such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. With about 38,000 Jewish households, greater Atlanta has the 11th largest Jewish population in the United States.
The rules governing eruv construction are complex. If so much as one segment is broken or out of alignment, the entire structure is considered invalid. Jewish communities with an eruv have inspectors who check the structure weekly to ensure it is intact.
Most communities use volunteers for eruv inspections. Some places rely on a paid inspector. In North Druid Hills, that job is held by Rabbi Ariel Asa, a 41-year-old who came to Atlanta 15 years ago to teach at the . He has been an eruv inspector for the past ten years.
I met Rabbi Asa in the parking lot of the QuikTrip gas station on Briarcliff Road. He was wearing a baseball cap, orange safety vest, sweatpants and traditional Jewish tzitzit, which are tassles men wear on their clothing.
Inspecting the eruv is one of several jobs Asa does.
“Never a dull moment,” he said with a laugh. “I am a mohel of 20 years, and that keeps me pretty busy.”
Mohels are rabbis who specialize in performing circumcision ceremonies. The California native also works as a chaplain for a Jewish hospice.
We got in Asa’s car and began the weekly survey that takes him along the eruv perimeter as it follows the I-85 corridor and Clairmont Road.
In built up areas, the eruv is attached to Georgia Power poles. The poles and their ground wires form the uprights for the eruv’s virtual doorways while the system neutral wires that run between poles form the lintels.
According to Dr. Joseph Tate, an obstetrician and president of Atlanta Eruv Inc., the corporation which runs the eruv, the North Druid Hills eruv is the most technologically advanced in the nation. Unlike other eruvim that use plastic and wood strips mounted on utility poles, the North Druid Hills eruv is almost fully integrated with the electricity delivery system.
“We just reconnect the system neutral to the pole ground in a way that meets our needs,” Tate said.
Each pole in the eruv perimeter has a special tag on it to notify Georgia Power employees to call a special number if the pole requires replacement. The tags also serve as visual markers for the inspector as he does his weekly surveys.
“I’m basically checking to make sure that the medallions are still there. Making sure that it doesn’t look like a new pole,” Asa said as we drove along Clairmont Road.
There are more than 200 poles in the eruv, which covers more than 4.1 square miles in Fulton and DeKalb counties. The eruv in place today is actually a third generation structure. When it was first completed in 1992, it was based on a model used in Baltimore and other cities.
“By the second year, when that was breaking down a lot and the power company was helping us with the repairs, they clued us into the fact that almost all the poles have a wire on it called the ground wire,” said Tate, a former engineer.
The eruv managers worked closely with Georgia Power to refine the system. Tate recalls collaborating with one Georgia Power delivery manager who went on to assist a Virginia Jewish community setting up its eruv.
“Another power company called him from up in Virginia,” Tate said. “He was so proud of himself that he was helping an eruv in another state. He was very good.”
Rabbi Asa found just one power pole had been replaced following the April 4 storms. After calling Tate to report the missing pole, Asa resumed the survey by heading towards the part of the eruv where trees in the woods replace power poles and simple nylon string stands in for power lines.
Tate described how the eruv was built in the woods north of Emory University’s main campus.
“We find areas where we can go with the strings starting at the base of one tree, going all the way up high enough so it’s out of everybody’s way,” he said. “And then running it through a hook at the top so it makes its own archway and then go as far as you can to the next tree and then down to the base and you created your doorframe form with the string.”
For the 4,000 feet that runs through the woods, Asa usually leaves his bike at one end and parks at the other. About halfway through the woods, Asa encountered his first break in the eruv string. He repaired it by retying the string and using a branch to lift the string back onto the hook attached to the tree.
That day, Asa had to repair several downed eruv segments. The breaks were so bad he had to hike back to the car to get a reel of new string. His survey through the woods requires crossing streams and dodging the occasional snake and yellowjackets. Poison ivy is an occupational hazard.
“I get paid to exercise,” he said, joking.
Inside the woods, the eruv is virtually invisible, blending in among the foliage. Eruv designers strive to make the structures as unobtrusive as possible. The greatest evidence that they are there may be seen Friday nights and Saturdays as families walk to and from synagogue along the roads in North Druid Hills.
Once the eruv was completed, it released young mothers from being housebound during the Sabbath and it opened up new social opportunities for people to dine with neighbors and extended family members. In addition to allowing people to push strollers and use medical devices, the eruv allows people to carry food from one house to another.
Tate recalled the immediate effects the eruv had on North Druid Hills’ Jews.
“Like night and day,” he said. “It was unbelievable. Even the very first week they had a block party. All of a sudden you would walk the streets, and you would see guys going to synagogue then sometimes they would go home, they would go to an early minyan, and the women would go to synagogue.”
Asa agreed. Before coming to Atlanta, Asa said he lived in Jerusalem and worked on an Israeli eruv. He said the eruv strengthens the community and concedes that his role is essential.
“I guess every community that has an eruv needs at least one or more eruv inspectors,” he said.