With wires, walls and more comprising its boundaries, an eruv — a metaphysical enclosure that allows many observant Jews to carry on Shabbat and holidays — is taking shape in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area.
Hopes are that the eruv, about two years in the making, will be completed within days, weather permitting, said Rabbi Yehoshua Singer of the Orthodox Am HaTorah Congregation in Bethesda, which has been leading the effort.
What spurred the congregation to turn its years-old desire for an eruv into reality was the Bernard Creeger House of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington moving into the neighborhood. Congregants wanted to help it, he said.
A small nonprofit organization and committee, which included people outside the congregation, was formed. Singer is working with Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, rabbinic administrator of the Star-K in Baltimore and an authority on Jewish law, and Rabbi Yonah Ribiat, an eruv specialist.
“When the [Bernard Creeger] house came about we realized we really had to make it happen,” Singer said of the eruv.
In addition, the eruv adds an amenity for observant Jews and could make the area a draw for those who are house-hunting, as activities outside the home, such as pushing a stroller and carrying food or books, are permitted inside an eruv.
The Creeger House, opened in 2016, is a kosher facility where Jews can stay while relatives receive treatment at the National Institutes of Health, only steps away.
“When I told people this is coming they were very happy,” said Audrey Siegel, executive director of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington.
Currently, “people have to think, ‘what food do I need to have prepared and take there for the Sabbath?’ With the eruv, that is gone. If they want to bring something over to the hospital, they can pack it up and take it. They can push a wheelchair.”
Having the eruv include all of NIH required obtaining federal permission, which was easier than expected, Singer said.
Phone poles, non-electrical wires strung on them and pieces of plastic piping — typical for an eruv — and sound walls along the Beltway make up much of the eruv. Boundaries, which “weave a bit” to use existing structures, are roughly the Beltway on the north and west, on the south by MacArthur Boulevard and Goldsboro Road, and on the east by Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues, Singer said.
“We wanted to give a nice breadth around NIH,” Singer said.
The eruv includes Suburban Hospital, easing the way for observant Jews to visit there on Shabbat and holidays.
The eruv is significant for the Jewish community, beyond the 30 member households of Am HaTorah and the concerns for ill people.
“It makes Bethesda more an option for people who have young kids and want an eruv,” Singer said. “It removes a very obvious impediment for those people.”
Calling the eruv a “pretty serious game changer,” Rabbi Sender Geisinsky, director of Chabad of Bethesda, said, “Communities develop with more Jewish infrastructure in place.” He predicted that “this will have a tremendous effect on the growth of the traditional Jewish community in the area.”
Among the issues removed, Singer said: “If you are going to somebody’s house for a meal you have to arrange to bring [anything] on Friday when everybody is getting ready for Shabbat. A person wants to carry their own tallis, or bring their own machzor … in summer months you just want to carry a bottle of water, bringing kids to shul and you want to bring a book for them.”
Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, a Conservative congregation, could not maintain its own eruv amid the area’s construction. It will be inside the new eruv.
“I think Beth El members and those visiting the congregation appreciate having the eruv operate again,” said Rabbi Greg Harris.
Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.