Every Saturday, 2-year-old Mayer Fisher bellows a chorus of “bye-byes,” a tell-tale sign he’s ready to jump in his stroller and have his father push him to the playground.
But Allen Fisher can’t take his son to the park, the synagogue or the beach. From Friday’s sunset to the moment three stars appear in Saturday’s sky, the Fishers are confined to their Hallandale Beach condo. They watch beachgoers out their window.
Both Orthodox Jews, Allen Fisher and his wife, Mushka, abstain from 39 “activities” during the Sabbath, Judaism’s 25-hour period of rest. The majority are easy to avoid. Like most, the Fisher family can go a day without skinning, shearing or reaping.
Other activities are trickier to circumvent. The Torah forbids moving an object from a private domain, like a home, to a public domain, like the pavement on the Sabbath — essentially amounting to a ban on carrying anything outside. This includes toddlers and their strollers.
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Jewish law does offer a sort of loophole.
With some string and a rabbi’s approval, communities can enclose their neighborhood in an “eruv,” symbolically making one big private domain. Most eruvs are made out of a hodgepodge of city infrastructure, plant life and string — whatever a rabbi decides makes a good boundary. They line streets as local as Coconut Grove and as distant as Perth, Australia, allowing synagogue-goers across the globe to bring tissues and babies to Friday and Saturday services.
In 2000, Hallandale Beach got two eruvs, one on the mainland and the other on the adjacent barrier island. The mainland’s boundary encompassed most of the city, while the island’s was a skinny rectangle, fashioned out of a seawall, two telephone lines and a three-mile barrier of beach condos. For any gaps, contractors strung “dental floss or fishing line-level of string” around poles, says Hallandale Beach Rabbi Leibel Miller, who had asked the City Commission to allow the eruvs. They approved the request within a few days.
Together, those two eruvs encompassed most of Hallandale Beach’s Jewish households, which, by 2016, numbered around 2,900, according to the Jewish Federation of Broward County.
But, two years ago, a few months before the Fishers moved into their beachfront condo, the eruv on the barrier island came down. While renovating nearby sidewalks, the city had knocked down a few telephone poles that had supported a leg of eruv piping. Neighbors assured the newcomers that the eruv would be back up soon — contractors estimated it would take four hours to rebuild.
But city commissioners have been slow to sanction the new eruv, mulling whether a religious group should be able to patch up its infrastructure in a public park. The boundary remains broken a year after residents first broached the topic with the city manager.
Leibel Kudan, a rabbi at the local synagogue, Chabad Ocean Drive, says such a prolonged process is hurting his congregation, which has “been stonewalled for so long.”
His 4-year-old daughter, who uses a wheelchair, is stuck at home for half the weekend. Elderly members skip synagogue to avoid attending without their prayer shawl and blood pressure medication.
Two months ago, 94-year-old Holocaust survivor Isidore Petersile, whose Polish accent used to ripple through each Sabbath morning service, asked the commission in a Facebook video to approve the eruv, so he could attend synagogue with his walker. He died last week.
Allen Fisher, tired of the commission’s pace, says he’s moving out of Hallandale Beach as soon as his lease is up.
“We just kept waiting, waiting,” he says. “I have a 2-year-old kid who needs to get out.”
The slow pace
David Fridmann moved to Hallandale Beach in a post-eruv era where bringing water bottles to synagogue amounted to “a desecration of the Sabbath.” His two children, rolled around in strollers the other six days of the week, were homebound each Saturday. His wife stayed home from services, while he went and witnessed a 94-year-old pass out after an attempt to lead a prayer. He says forgoing walkers and water can be “a pride point” for the elderly.
Determined to patch up the city’s ailing eruv, Fridmann and a few other residents consulted with three rabbis, each of whom told them that they would need to plant five wooden posts in South City Beach Park and another four in North City Beach Park near where the old eruv had been dismantled. Because both parks were public property, the job required the city’s permission.
Fridmann submitted a proposal to the City Commission, promising that the local Jewish community would pay for everything. He says he expected the process to take one or two months.
Seven months in, Fridmann received a recording of an April 4 commission meeting, which he says made him believe the bureaucratic back-and-forth over pole height and string color had been hampered by religious animus.
After the city attorney, Jennifer Merino, told commissioners that the city had “no duty” to permit the eruv, Mayor Keith London appeared to decide against it. He had previously noted a neighbor of his had almost been decapitated by loose wiring.
Vice Mayor Michele Lazarow added that she didn’t care to follow in the path of neighboring cities like Hollywood and Miami Beach, noting that “it doesn’t necessarily make it right that all these other cities did it.”
City Manager Roger Carlton cautioned that he’d been involved in major lawsuits in past jobs surrounding the issue of religious freedom.
“Public positions have been taken this evening that could put us at great risk,” he warned.
Rabbi Kudan says this exchange was the first time he felt their nine poles were up against more than seven feet of dirt and some paperwork.
“That was our first inclination that was like, ‘Oh, this is not just a bureaucratic issue. People have real concerns about the Jewish community.’ ”
An issue for a city
It is not unheard of for politicians to hesitate when made aware that a religious group would like to encircle them in string.
When Hallandale Beach residents first asked for an eruv in 2000, then-mayor Arnold Lanner voiced similar concerns to those his successor would utter 17 years later.
“We feel government and religion should be separate,” Lanner told residents at the time. “We get the same requests [to put up] a Christmas tree or a Hanukkah bush.” Lanner joined the other four commission members in approving the eruv by the meeting’s end.
Chaim Jachter, the rabbi at New Jersey’s Shaarei Orah synagogue, serves as a national point person for communities considering an eruv.
He consulted on eruvs encompassing the U.S. Supreme Court and the city of Eugene, Oregon, where about 35 Orthodox families reside. He estimates he’s worked with 80 eruvs nationwide, all of which exemplify “the American way of embracing diversity.”
“It’s a beautiful, minimal accommodation that the broader community extends to the Jewish community,” he says.
Jacter says community opposition is “the rare exception,” arising when residents do not want Orthodox Jews moving into the neighborhood. He calls those against eruvs “anti-diversity.”
“It has no place in the United States in 2018,” he says.
Jachter says local government has never successfully blocked an eruv, though objecting municipalities are hit with the occasional lawsuit.
Last summer, an eruv association in Mahwah, New Jersey, sued after the township council forced the group to take down its eruv made of white PVC piping. The boundary was allowed to remain after the state attorney general’s office filed a blistering complaint equating the council’s conduct to “1950s-era ‘white flight’ suburbanites.”
Accusations of anti-Semitism
At least one discrimination lawyer already seems itching to take the matter to court.
“I’ve done over a thousand of these lawsuits in the last 15 years — that’s all I do,” Hallandale Beach resident Bradley White told the commission at a meeting in early June. “I will do it pro-bono.”
At the same meeting, Commissioner Anabelle Lima-Taub, a vocal supporter of the eruv and an even more vocal detractor of Lazarow and London, brought up an email sent by Lazarow that she felt smacked of anti-Semitism. She said the email had included a link to an article entitled, “12 Ridiculously Repressive Rules From Hasidic Judaism.”
“There’s nothing worse than a Jew who’s an anti-Semite, and, unfortunately, I’m sitting next to a few Jews who are anti-Semites,” Lima-Taub told her audience, most of whom had come to advocate for the eruv. She accused London of telling her she was expected to vote to remove the “In God We Trust” sign perched behind the commission dais.
“You have some atheists sitting here,” she told the crowd. Applause broke out afterward.
Lazarow condemned the comments as “disgraceful” and a “blatant lie” before lobbing accusations at Lima-Taub of texting under the table, not showing up for meetings, and gravitating toward a soap box.
“Things turned very wild,” Fridmann later said, in something of an understatement.
He said the infighting, for which Hallandale has earned a reputation, is why he wanted to avoid getting the eruv entangled in his city’s government.
“It could have been a quiet thing,” Fridmann says. “Now it’s turned into a big ugly story.”
Levi Tennenhaus, a real estate agent in the area, says the commission’s resistance has already damaged the city’s reputation as a hotspot for Jewish newlyweds and tourists. Rabbi Kudan reports at least three families in his synagogue moving out.
Congregation member Mazal Cohen says he fears the commission’s response is “not coming out of love to Jews.”
“We’re having a very childish and babyish fight,” he says. “It scares people.”
Others are concerned about what Hallandale’s non-Jewish residents will think if the dispute makes headlines. Tennenhaus says alerting people to the presence of string 15 feet above their head doesn’t always attract the kindest publicity.
“When it comes to explaining [an eruv] to people, it sounds like we’re surrounding the city,” he says. “It brings out the anti-Semites.”
Deerfield Beach blogger and atheist provocateur Chaz Stevens has already threatened to install “a big happy dong” on public property if an eruv gets approved in Hallandale Beach. He has previously placed a satanic cross in the front lawn of Hallandale Beach City Hall to complement the menorah and Christmas tree on display during the 2015 holiday season.
Stevens sees an eruv in a park as an assault on what he believes should be “the big firewall” between church and state.
“Keep it off taxpayer property,” Stevens says. “If they break out the string, I bring out the dong.”
After calling Hallandale Beach “the test bed of incredulity,” he said he had “complete faith” in London “to do the right thing.”
London told the Miami Herald “the staff is evaluating this,” but declined to comment further. He referred to the recent letter he had written his constituents, saying he is “not comfortable in committing to a decision, as this may open up the door to allow others with recognized beliefs the same ‘accommodations’ to build structures in our city parks.”
He asked for residents’ patience while the commission determines “the best approach.”
A spokesman for the city said that the commission had directed the city manager and the city attorney last month to “develop a solution” to put in front of the commission for review, but the two officials have been on vacation. “This will be discussed very soon,” the spokesman said.
But Fridmann says his congregation has been “stuck in limbo” for too long.
“We’re not trying to build a 40-story high-rise over here. We’re trying to put nine poles with a string.”