Orthodox Jews debate L.E.S. Sabbath zone

By Marvin Greisman

The issue of establishing a Lower East Side eruv — the creation of a set boundary to permit activities on the Sabbath, such as carrying objects or pushing baby carriages — continues to spark a lively debate among segments of the Lower East Side Orthodox Jewish community.

Those who favor establishing an eruv point to the fact that Jewish life on the Sabbath is much easier on both the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side where the rabbis and the synagogues they represent established community eruvs. Just about a year ago, all of Manhattan Island had an eruv, but that eruv ceased to exist and there is no movement to reestablish that eruv because it is too expensive to uphold, and furthermore it is not effective, according to Halacha (Jewish law).

So, currently, instead of a Manhattan eruv, community eruvs were established on the West Side and on the East Side with set boundaries from 57th to 112th Sts. on both sides of Central Park. And, furthermore, congregations below 57th St. also wanted eruvs in their respective communities, so they got together and established eruvs from below 57th St. down to Houston St., excluding Grand St., where young Orthodox couples with children are not permitted to push baby carriages on the Sabbath due to a ruling of the revered Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and reaffirmed by his son, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein. This ruling was established in 1962 when Rabbi Moshe Feinstein held that the Manhattan eruv is no longer effective and therefore ceased to exist. Rabbi Feinstein held fast to the ironclad notion that it was clearly impossible to construct an eruv in Manhattan that would be in accordance with Jewish law.

Rabbi Zvi David Romm, spiritual leader of the Lower East Side’s historic Bialystoker Synagogue, suggested that Rabbi Feinstein understood clearly that the Manhattan eruv cannot be effective. He explained that “since [at the time] there were 600,000-plus people in Manhattan” it would be impossible for such an eruv to be effective “in every single street in a fully public area.” Rabbi Romm argued that Rabbi Feinstein suggested, that in such a large area as Manhattan, “It is not just [that] you are allowed to put up an eruv, it wouldn’t work if you did put it up.”

Other rabbis strongly disagreed with Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling, led by Rabbi Norman Lamm of the Jewish Center and the former president of Yeshiva University, and re-established the Manhattan eruv, going against what the late Moshe Feinstein decided, though with the Lower East Side strictly adhering to Rabbi Moshe’s ruling to the present day. Rabbi Romm noted that today “most communities that employ an eruv consist of semipublic areas,” while the borough of Manhattan is very much a “fully public area.” And there is still a strong united front for upholding Rabbi Moshe’s edict and reaffirmed by his son, Dovid, who continues to be a pillar of the Lower East Side Jewish community and is widely respected throughout the Jewish world.

Rabbi Romm suggested that in the simplest terms there remains a unified “respect for the international status that Rabbi Dovid enjoys as posuk [decider of Jewish law]. The Lower East Side rabbinate is universally behind that posuk.”

Rabbi Romm, espousing Rabbi Feinstein’s position on the Manhattan eruv and the Lower East Side eruv, clearly maintained, “One thing which I know would happen if an eruv would be introduced that would be counter to the decision of Rabbi Dovid Feinstein would be the community would be torn asunder.”

Romm stated that when he took the helm of the Bialystoker Synagogue he was asked his opinion on the eruv. He bluntly told the leaders of the congregation that “the only thing worse than no eruv is having a controversial eruv.”

However, Juda S. Engelmayer, a young Jewish activist who operates the famed Kossar’s Bialys store in the heart of Grand St., sees the eruv issue differently than Rabbi Romm, and believes that a changing Lower East Side Jewish community where the Jewish population is dwindling must review the eruv issue to meet the changing times in the community.

“Someone should take a fresh look to tell me if it is possible to reestablish an eruv in this community,” Engelmayer asserted. “There should be real open discussion on it, a real fresh look with a fresh pair of eyes.”

Engelmayer maintained that certain Jewish laws such as “eating pig” are not subject to review. “But,” he added, “laws that have been interpreted are always up for review if times change.”

Engelmayer, a public relations executive, also argued, “The Lower East Side Jewish community, if anybody cares to open their eyes, is getting smaller and no matter how you play with the numbers or excuse it, you cannot escape that fact.”

Engelmayer stressed that re-establishing an eruv “is probably and likely one of the few things that can actually bring more Orthodox Jews to the neighborhood, to keep the neighborhood alive and growing bigger, just like the Upper West Side and Upper East Side. Without it,” he said, “there is little reason for Orthodox families to come down here, as opposed to other neighborhoods, which means as people move out they are not being replaced.”

Asked whether other rabbinical leaders in the community want to take a “fresh look” at re-establishing an eruv in the community here, the young business executive pointed to Rabbi Yossi Pollak of the Stanton St. Synagogue and Rabbi Israel Stone of the Eldridge St. Synagogue as rabbinical leaders who are willing to go down that path of reviewing the issue. He stated that Rabbi Pollak “would like to see one and work to make it happen,” while Rabbi Stone “hasn’t looked into it yet, but at some point in time he will look into it.”

With few Orthodox Jews returning to the neighborhood of their fathers and even their grandfathers, Engelmayer asserted, “There are few other real silver bullets that can save the neighborhood at this point.”