Where We Live

A Neighborhood Built Around Religious Ritual

By Janet Lubman Rathner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 4, 2008

Orthodox Jews do not use phones on the Sabbath and on some holidays. Nor do they drive.

However, telephone poles and highways have combined to create a Montgomery County neighborhood that is especially welcoming to Orthodox families.

That's because wires connecting the infrastructure surround the neighborhood with an eruv -- a sort of ritually sanctioned border. Orthodox Jews do not carry items outside their homes on the Sabbath. But using telephone poles, utility lines, fences and the natural topography, an eruv forms a solid but unseen boundary that extends the private area of the home into public. This makes it possible for people to walk to synagogue with house keys, reading glasses and handkerchiefs in their pockets, to carry their prayer books, and to push children in strollers.

The Potomac eruv is a roughly triangular area west of Interstate 270 and north of Democracy Boulevard, about two miles long. It was built largely using existing power lines, phone wires and highway fences. Rabbi Joel Tessler of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Washington area, led the push for establishing the eruv.

"There are 24 subdivisions that are within the eruv boundaries, approximately 5,323 homes," said Rina Rebibo, a real estate agent with Long & Foster who has lived within the perimeters of the eruv for 12 years.

Rebibo said this invisible amenity is a draw for many Orthodox Jews.

"They'll say, 'Do you have it?' " she said.

Robert Kreitman, an oncologist at the National Institutes of Health who helps monitor the eruv to ensure that its borders are connected, says "The eruv makes all the difference in the world. It allows whole families to come out and go to the synagogue."

Kreitman checks the eruv once a week.

"If there is construction, or a pole has been removed, the eruv has to be reworked," Kreitman said.

If a gap has been created, which isn't very often, Tessler will supervise reconnection.

"It has to be corrected within Jewish law. It's a simple idea, but you have to find a way with pre-existing boundaries, which conform to the Jewish laws needed to construct an eruv. It can get complicated with the many details -- land formation, hills, fences, a major highway, parkland. They're all questions that need to be raised within the Jewish legal framework," Tessler said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company