April 30, 2009

Cornell Orthodox Jewish Community Proposes Ehruv on Campus

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Plans to establish an ehruv around the Cornell campus and its periphery may soon give observant Jews living on campus extended freedom during Sabbath.
Sabbath — spanning from Friday night until Saturday night — is a weekly holiday observed by many Jews. According to Rabbi Jason Leib, the Jewish Learning Initiative Director at Cornell Hillel, orthodox Jews are not permitted to carry items during Sabbath when traveling between what he called private and public “domains,” or areas.
“An ehruv is some sort of enclosure or wall that will create private domains,” Leib stated. “Of course, it’s not feasible to enclose large places by physical walls, which is where the concept of a virtual wall comes in.”
The ehruv that the Cornell Orthodox Jewish community has proposed will utilize current utility poles surrounding the specified area. They are already connected at the top by wires to designate the Cornell campus and nearby surrounding areas as a private domain, should the proposal pass officially. This will permit observant Jews to carry items such as books around campus during Sabbath without violating Jewish law.
The proposed ehruv has a three-mile radius enclosing the entire campus, in addition to residential areas just outside the campus in Ithaca, including Gun Hill and parts of Collegetown.
Leib, who first arrived at Cornell last fall, suggested that this could be more beneficial than the average person might suspect.
“Observant Jews who are in wheelchairs would be liberated since a wheelchair would technically be considered an item. This ehruv would make life much easier for the approximately 75 orthodox Jews on campus,” Leib added.
Approval for the installation of the ehruv has already passed through two of the three municipalities affected — Cayuga Heights and the Town of Ithaca — with the City of Ithaca still reviewing the proposal.
Approval of the ehruv has been delayed over the past couple of years, but is finally making progress, according to Common Council member Svante Myrick ‘09 (D-4th ward). [img_assist|nid=37362|title=Borders of lesser controversy|desc=The proposed ehruv encloses the entire campus, in addition to residential areas just outside the campus in Ithaca, including Gun Hill and parts of Collegetown.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“It’s taken some time, and we’re still looking into it, but we expect to get around to it this month,” Myrick said. “I can’t see any reason why this couldn’t be built. It will allow people to practice their beliefs and make their lives easier without interfering with public safety.”
The proposition could reach one of two possible committees — the Planning Committee and the Neighborhood Quality and Public Safety Committee — as early as this June. The Planning Committee would review the infrastructure and building process of the ehruv while the neighborhood Quality and Public Safety Committee must ensure that the process of establishing the ehruv is safe and does not negatively impact people living along the perimeter of the ehruv.
“I think it would be a huge infrastructural step into allowing for a much more enjoyable campus experience for orthodox Jews,” Leib said. “All we’re doing is using infrastructure that’s already there and ensuring that the wires connecting the utility poles are all completely above them in order to create a ‘doorway’ and satisfy the definition of an ehruv.”
The Cornell Orthodox Jewish community raised funds for the project, developed a map and hired a contractor to install the ehruv.
“We’re pretty much ready to build” Leib added.
Having an ehruv on campus is not unprecedented for a university like Cornell, and is, in fact, commonplace at some schools, Leib added.
“It’s something that exists on many other campuses both here in the United States and internationally as well, such as in England and France. The University of Pennsylvania, University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Rutgers University are just several of the many colleges that have built ehruvs and made religious observation easier for the Orthodox Jewish communities.”
Jill Markowitz ’12, Cornell Hillel’s chair of engagement, voiced her support for the ehruv proposal.
“The Sabbath is one of the most special holidays in the Jewish religion, but it is also one of the most restrictive — keeping its observers from activities such as using electricity, writing and carrying items outside their home,” she said. “With the busy lives that [Cornell students] lead, losing a day of doing work every week could be a huge setback for Sabbath observers. An ehruv would permit them to carry items around campus which they otherwise would not be able to do, evening [out] the workload playing field for religiously observant Jews.”
Approval from the Common Council and the mayor of the City of Ithaca are all that remain for proposal to pass. In support of the ehruv proposal, the president-elect of the Center for Jewish Living, Aaron Sarna ’11, could not find reason to vote against the proposal.
“With ehruvs becoming so ubiquitous in cities and towns across America with significant Jewish populations, it comes as a shock for many observant Jews arriving on campus that they can’t do things as simple as carrying around their room keys or throwing around a frisbee with their friends every Friday night and Saturday,” Sarna said. “It even affects us academically with our inability to bring our books and notes to the library or to a friend’s dorm to study. We either have to study in our room or plant the study materials somewhere in advance. What it really comes down to is that building an ehruv would greatly simplify things for us without affecting anybody else in any way, so there’s no good reason not to do it,” he concluded.