Building an eruv has been on my agenda since I arrived in Omaha seven years ago. I knew that if Omaha was to ever become a serious Jewish community that would attract young Jewish families it needed to have an eruv.
But an eruv is an expensive endeavor and would require me to allocate a great deal of time, and required a critical mass to get the project started.
Our community always had a sizeable community of shomer Shabbat families, but when I arrived there were only two young families with young children. It was not worth building an eruv so people could carry a house key to shul. You could install a lock box for that. Eruvs are primarily so that mothers can push babies to shul. For the time being, I instructed families that it was permissible to employ a baby sitter to push a stroller to and from shul. This ruling is relied upon by many communities without an eruv. (Interestingly, a young member of our congregation was at work and was approached by a man in his 70’s. He noticed her head covering and asked if she was an Orthodox Jew. He said that when he was a teenager he was hired y shomer Shabbat families every Shabbat to push their strollers to shul. Apparently this was always the accepted halachah in Omaha.)
Over the years the community grew. Today we have 19 shomer Shabbat families living in the neighborhood and frequently get calls from people considering jobs in Omaha and they want to see the community. One of the first questions that they ask after day school and before kosher restaurant is whether or not there is an eruv. It was time to build an eruv.
In Semicha we learn the laws of eruv, but there is still a great deal that needs to be learned to make this practical.
My first step was to find a qualified rabbinic authority who would ultimately give the eruv his approval. Even though I am the chief Orthodox Rabbi of the state of Nebraska, I did not feel that my young shoulders were broad enough to rule on an eruv that and make the eruv universally accepted.
I chose Rabbi Mendel Senderovic. He is a regional posek based in Milwaukee. He is a short flight from Omaha. He frequently comes in to Omaha to administer Jewish divorces and he is the posek that my predecessor used when building a new mikvah in the late 1990’s. I also had employed Rabbi Senderovic to give a regular advanced halacha shiur via skype to myself, my assistant Rabbi, and a number of other members who were interested in a higher level of learning than was otherwise available. Rabbi Senderovic has always been helpful and encouraging and he was very excited about the prospect of being involved in building the first Eruv in Omaha.
Next step was to find a route for the eruv. I was looking for a continuous span of existing wires. That would minimize the amount of building we would need and make the eruv more affordable. This was a huge problem for us. The northern border of our neighborhood is a highway that for a number of years was under construction. After consulting with many people from other communities, it was concluded that as long as the major construction project was in progress I should hold off on building the eruv as anything that I would build could possibly be destroyed.
The construction finally finished in 2007 and the search for an eruv route began. I took this on as a personal project. I ran around the neighborhood countless times. I ran so much I actually trained for the 2008 Miami marathon while searching.
There were a number of problems. I had minimized the route to a continuous perimeter with only two large gaps. One gap would require as many as 10 wires, and the other required as many as 20. At this point, I had absolutely no idea how much stringing a wire would cost me, or even if it was allowed. To make matters worse, one of the gaps was partially on the property of the local public school. I inquired of knowledgeable people in the Omaha community and was told that gaining permission from a school board is a feat that is next to impossible for anyone. I employed the help of my congregation to try and find an alternate route. We had field trips where we would walk and drive around the neighborhood trying to find a better way.
Rabbi Senderovic told me that some eruvs employ the use of steep hills in certain areas to complete the perimeter. So I constructed a giant wooden protractor and started measuring hills to see if they fit the requirements. I wondered what all the people who drove by and saw the guy in his running clothes with a giant wooden triangle thought I was doing.
Unfortunately we continued to come up empty handed. After spending countless hours on this quest, I have to admit that I was ready to give up. Maybe Nebraska was just not meant to have an eruv. There were two congregants in particular who refused to give up. One was Danita Shrago. She and her husband are empty nesters, but firmly believed that our community needed an eruv to attract young families. The other was Josh Gurock. He and his wife Amanda, both Yeshiva University graduates, both young professionals, have a family of four young children. Josh and Danita never gave up. One day Josh called me up and told me he found the solution. When we met he showed me a continuous wire that was perfect in every regard with one small problem. It cut through our neighborhood one street south of the school and the highway that would have been our Northern border. With this wire as our northern border, the perimeter of the eruv would include about 90% of the intended area and every one of the young families – except for the Gurocks! This route never would have occurred to me. How could we have an eruv without the Gurocks? Especially since Josh had been so instrumental in the project. Never the less, Josh insisted, explaining that we can always expand it later. Right now this community needs an eruv.
We had our route. The next step was to get the community on board. There have been communities that made it through most of the eruv hurdles only get embroiled in bitter controversy with non-Orthodox Jews over whether or not there should be an eruv. I did not anticipate a problem, but I thought it would be wise to stay ahead of any possibilities. Fortunately, I have a wonderful relationship with both the Reform and Conservative Rabbis in town. Both Rabbis offered me 100% support in the project and pledged to stand behind me if any issues arose. In fact, the assistant Rabbi at the Conservative Shul even asked if the eruv would cover the neighborhood surrounding his shul. (I had initially looked into the possibility of that but the wires in that neighborhood are all underground. If they ever decide to build an eruv they will have a big challenge.) I also approached the director of our regional office of the Anti-Defamation League who was also incredibly supportive.
Next, I had to contact the power company. I had always dreaded this part of the process. How was I supposed to do that without sounding crazy? “Hello power company? My name is Rabbi Gross and I need you to allow me to string wires and affix pieces of wood to some of your poles so we can carry objects on Saturday. Is that alright?” I could not imagine a scenario where that would not end with the power company hanging up immediately. I knew the only way to do this was to have an influential member of our community speak to someone high up in the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) and ask for a special favor.
I did my homework and all roads to OPPD seemed to point to a man in our community named Howard Kooper. Howard is a leader in the Omaha Jewish community, who is unfortunately not yet a member of Beth Israel, however Howard is a great philanthropist, as well as an incredible fundraiser for all Jewish causes. It was under his leadership that Omaha recently remodeled the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, a $20 million project that created one of the finest nursing home facilities anywhere in this country.
Howard is very influential in the general community, and everyone seemed to indicate that if anyone could get me in with OPPD, it was Howard Kooper.
In addition to being a passionate Jew, Howard is a practical man. When the community was planning the remodeling of the Blumkin Home, Howard suggested that the home no longer be a kosher facility. Kosher food and operating separate kitchens for meat and dairy is obviously more expensive. A lot of research was done on the issue and it was found that a number of other Jewish homes around the country have stopped being kosher. Howard did not feel that there was enough of a kosher clientele to merit the expense. The decision was ultimately made to stay kosher, but I completely understood Howard’s position. He was doing his job as a responsible community leader and was taking a hard position on an issue that he thought was important for the long term viability of the community. Howard did his job in investigating ways that the community could be more efficient with its funds. My job as a Rabbi is to educate and to demonstrate leaders like Howard as to why things like eruv and kosher food are the very things that make us a Jewish community and ensure our future viability.
I had recently built a relationship with Howard because I was the mohel at the bris for his grandson. When I went to meet with Howard about the eruv I was optimistic. Howard was not a member of Beth Israel synagogue, yet he was one of the major contributors to our building campaign when we built our new building in 2003. I was confident that Howard was a smart and practical man. His soul objective is to make Omaha the best Jewish community in America. If he was convinced that an eruv would help us achieve that goal, he would be in full support.
My feelings turned out to be correct. I prepared a small pamphlet succinctly explaining what an eruv was and included a list of over 100 cities around the world that have eruvs. Howard listened to my presentation, looked at me and said, “Rabbi Gross, will this eruv attract young Jewish families to Omaha?” With confidence I told him it would. “Then I will see what I can do.” He told me.
Two days later I received a call from a project manager from OPPD. He was instructed by his superior to meet with me and find out what I wanted and if OPPD could accommodate us.
While it seemed that we were done, the journey had only just begun. There was still another year of logistics that needed to be worked out and, of course, fundraising. The fundraising was easy. The members of our shul were all eager to contribute to this monumental project.
OPPD was beyond accommodating. They were genuinely interested in the project and went out of their way to help. For lechis, they provided us the same materials that they use to cover wires and they gave us permission to attach them to their poles. They did the work required to string the wires where there were gaps which saved us the trouble of finding an approved contractor, choosing approved materials, and renting the proper vehicle.
There was one interesting hitch. One wire had to be strung across a very busy intersection and OPPD said we needed the approval of the city traffic engineer. I met with the traffic engineer with some of my lay people and after our presentation he said that it should not be a problem and he would just check back with his office and let us know for sure.
A few days later I received an e-mail from him. He said that this would not be allowed as it would be a huge liability for the city.
This was a devastating setback for us. Where did he get the impression that an eruv wire would constitute a liability?
Although I will never know for sure, a few days later I received an e-mail from a congregant that posited an interesting theory. The e-mail contained a link to an episode of the television show The Good Wife, a court room drama show. This episode which had coincidentally aired that very week after my meeting with the traffic engineer was about an Orthodox Jewish couple that was being sued by someone who had tripped on a fallen eruv wire outside their house on Shabbat!
The episode was interesting as the Orthodox woman claimed that she could not have violated the Shabbat to have the wire removed. The prosecution then presented phone records from the woman’s cell phone. Apparently this woman had only become shomer Shabbat in the last few years and she was secretly calling her estranged non-religious father on Shabbat so her husband wouldn’t know. Despite the scandal of her breaking Shabbat, it turned out that the plaintiff was a fraud. She hired someone to cut the wire for her and faked her fall in order to sue for damages. While the Good Wife won her case, it did not bode well for eruvs in Omaha.
I will never know for sure but I suspect that someone at the office had seen the episode (or at least part of the episode) and decided that it was not worth getting involved.
It was OPPD who came to the rescue. One of their employees found a way to connect to an existing wire not far from the intersection. It cost a few more dollars as OPPD had to now put in a new pole and move an existing pole, but it would get the job done.
After OPPD did their job, we hired a member of the community who is an electrician and the two of us set out to install all the lechis around the perimeter. The job took longer than expected, but the Nebraska winter was on our side, and we had beautiful sunny days through December and into January.
The last piece of the puzzle was to meet with the mayor. As the head of the city the halacha is that we must get his permission to use the area for carrying on Shabbat. A congregant of mine, Gary Javitch, has a personal relationship with Mayor Jim Suttle and was able to easily set up an appointment for me. The mayor was very accommodating as always and I can’t thank him enough for all of his support.
For over 100 years, Omaha did not have an eruv. Today all the stars have aligned for our Omaha Jewish community. We have a beautiful new shul. The day school is stronger than ever, we have a kosher bagel store and the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home operates a deli every Friday for lunch and a few times a month in the evenings.
Because of low unemployment and low cost of living people are moving here. Our shul has 75 children under the age of 18. The eruv was the missing piece. Now things are coming into place. This is another milestone on the path of Omaha reestablishing itself as a major Jewish community.
I can’t give enough thanks to all of those who made this possible. Hashem should continue to bless our wonderful community, and we should have many happy occasions to celebrate together at Beth Israel, where every Shabbat is a shabbaton!