Orthodox Jews in Champaign-Urbana Illinois Construct Eruv With Help of Mayor, Volunteers and Ameren

The small but active Orthodox Jewish community of Champaign-Urbana, Ill., had a problem: The area did not have the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the observant religious community during its celebration of Shabbat. Many Orthodox families were not sending their children to the local University of Illinois, and those Orthodox Jewish students who did attend had to navigate inconveniences adhering to their faith’s strict interpretation of Jewish law regarding their observance of the Sabbath.

Orthodox Jews celebrate Shabbat — or the day of rest — from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. During this time, they refrain from any form of work, which extends to seemingly menial activities like writing, baking or carrying objects from the private domain to the public domain. The latter proves challenging when living in a community in the modern world.

“This, however, creates a really problematic area when you’re living in community and you want to do such things as share meals together, bring food over from one house to another, for me to carry my child to synagogue — I can’t even do that,” Ahava Atara Schachter-Zarembski, Rabbanit at the University of Illinois, said.

She and her husband, Rabbi Shlomo Schacter began working at the university in 2016 as faith leaders and educators with the university’s chapter of the Orthodox Union, the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OUJLIC).

There is a way around this restrictive law that still honors a strict adherence to the Torah’s text. A structure called an eruv — which comes from the Hebrew term for combining courtyards — can be built surrounding an area and demarking it as shared space and therefore not public. Within the perimeter of the eruv, Orthodox Jews can carry objects from inside their homes to outside within this shared space.

Eruvin (plural of eruv) exist mainly in large cities with significant Orthodox populations and are barely noticeable to those not looking for them. They consist of two parallel structures joined on the top by a piece parallel to the ground, symbolizing a doorway. Eruvin are typically made up of wood and wires, and often exist as utility poles connected by power lines.

When Schachter and Schachter-Zarembski began their positions at the University of Illinois, their primary goal was to erect an eruv in the community of Champaign-Urbana.

“The reason it was never built before was because the Orthodox community was so small,” Schachter-Zarembski said. “And yet, we were brought here to teach them and provide for them. And so, Shlomo and I looked at it differently and said, ‘Perhaps one of the reasons why it’s so small is because there isn’t infrastructure that provides for that.’”

The mapping of the eruv encompassed the entire rural area and was determined largely by where Ameren’s power lines were located. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Shlomo Schachter)

The OUJLIC received a $15,000 grant from Stanley Weinstein, an Orthodox Jewish alum of the University of Illinois, which the organization used to support the mapping out and building of the eruv. But Schachter’s do-it-yourself attitude had him organizing his own group of students and community members to map, build and maintain it. They came up under budget because of the work they did themselves.

However, before they could begin their project, the team needed support and approval. Schachter-Zarembski, whose background is in policy and partnership building, knew the first step was to meet with Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen. Typically, cities own the power lines that serve them, but in this case, Feinen told Schachter and Schachter-Zarembski that the power lines were owned privately by the utility company Ameren Illinois. Ameren Corporation is No. 5 on Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s Top Regional Companies and No. 3 on the Top Utilities 2019 specialty lists.

Feinen became the liaison between the Orthodox eruv advocates and Ameren, setting up a meeting between the two groups.

“I think that that message is something that she really identified with and liked the idea that we’re building a community that’s not just a group of individuals who happen to live near one another, but really a sense of inter-responsibility, interconnectedness and communal identity,” Schachter said.

Ameren, Schachter-Zarembski said, was incredibly accommodating and agreed to allow the eruv to exist on the company’s power lines. Not only did the representatives agree to lend their existing infrastructure, but also they offered continued support, she said.

“Ameren has been unbelievable,” Schachter-Zarembski said. “Not only when we explained what we needed in regards to their infrastructure did they say yes, they also continuously gave us the support we needed, like mapping. They put in at least one pole where we needed it … They are now working with us, we are working together with them on, basically they are having some of the eruv needs dictating where some of their future poling goes.”

George Justice, the current Vice President of Electric Operations at Ameren, was in charge of Operation Divisions in 2016 when the Orthodox community members and Feinen approached Ameren with the idea.

“I was frankly intrigued by it,” Justice said. “We can talk about ways of being diverse and inclusive as a company, but this was a way of demonstrating that.”

Justice said while at first the unusual request caught him off guard, a simple Google search helped him understand the significance of the eruv for Orthodox communities.

“We looked at is as an opportunity to assist in a very unique project to help meet the needs of a group we knew little about prior to hearing about the eruv,” he said.

With the OK from Ameren, the backing of the mayor and a group ready to help map and construct it, the project was underway. After the tedious task of mapping where the eruv should go, the group began constructing it in 2017. To get precise measurements, the team used lasers, so most of the work they did was at night.

They enlisted the help of Rabbi Haim Jachter, a New Jersey rabbi who has overseen the construction of many eruvin across the U.S. to make sure they comply with Jewish law.

There are very specific guidelines for building an eruv in accordance with Jewish law, which Jachter helped the group make sure they were following.

“For us these big concepts are manifested in the little details,” Schachter said. “Move this piece of wood one centimeter to the left and we don’t have an eruv. All of those little details go into making something that represents these really big concepts.”

He used a metaphor Jachter had used to explain the importance of specificity.

“Imagine if there was a Super Bowl and there was a critical fourth down and one team goes and they make a play, and the ref is very, very close, but is it a first down; is it not a first down?” Schachter said. “And instead of bringing out the chains like they normally do, the ref is like, ‘Yeah, whatever, that’s good enough.’ There would be outrage. There would be outrage not to measure exactly. Why is that? Because the little details show how much you care. The little details is how you honor the game.”

From left Faibishenko and Schachter take part in constructing the eruv. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Shlomo Schachter)

University of Illinois junior Michael Faibishenko is familiar with the challenges of eruv maintenance. The eruv construction began the year before Faibishenko came to campus, and now he is an eruv intern who works with Hillel — a community for Jewish campus life — and the Orthodox Union. His job consists of doing an in-depth check of the structure once a year and checking the structures once a week before Shabbat to make sure they are in place. If a part of the eruv gets damaged, he fixes it.

“There’s a lot of practical Jewish law that applies to building an Eruv,” Faibishenko said. “You have to know what you’re doing. And it can be stressful because people are used to having it, so if it breaks before Shabbat, it’s very stressful, and you have to figure out how to get it back up … There’s also just a fair degree of responsibility that you feel when you’re doing this kind of work because it’s essentially like you are partially responsible for the religious observance of the people in your community. You’re taking on a role to help them do that.”

Faibishenko is just one of the many Orthodox students that have come to the university since the eruv was built.

Schachter-Zarembski said that since the eruv was built, the Orthodox population at the university has doubled each year. She said when she began working at the college, there were only about two to three students in each class. Now, they’re in the double digits.

“It’s unlike any other campus nationally,” she said. “And, again, I think we’re close enough to the Chicago-based population that people wanted to send their children here but were afraid to because they didn’t have the infrastructure. And so, now the eruv is basically saying, ‘You are welcome, you are provided for, please come.’ And they did.”

Faibishenko said much of his decision to attend the university was based on the community’s ability to accommodate people like him. He said the combination of the school having a good program for his field of study — engineering — and a vibrant Jewish community sealed the deal for him.

“I knew that it was a really great Jewish community,” he said. “That was one definitely one of the big factors. Since I’ve gotten here, the community has grown exponentially. I know people who are looking into it for next year. And I anticipate that’s going to continue.”

However, not all communities are as welcoming to Orthodox Jews and the eruv. In 2017, the town of Mahwah, N.J. was involved in a legal battle over the Orthodox community’s right to build an eruv there. It eventually settled and agreed to repeal an ordinance that was enacted to force the Orthodox Jews in the area to take down the eruv. It was deemed discriminatory.

In Mahwah, some pieces of the structure were even vandalized.

Though Schachter said his community was supportive of the eruv building, others are not. He also said if people understood what the eruv stood for — unity and not division — they would not be against it.

Schachter-Zarembski said the eruv, which went up quickly and without opposition in the small metropolitan area of Champaign-Urbana is a testament to the community’s support for diversity.

“Instead of looking it in terms of ‘This is my property and you’re out,’ we look at it in terms of how we built this together and make a community together that is diverse and supportive of the diversity,” she said. “Not only passively tolerant of diversity, but actively supportive of diversity.”

The eruv is barely even noticeable to those who don’t use it, but to those who do, it makes all the difference.

“Part of the reason that the Champaign-Urbana eruv is so big is that we wanted to include everybody,” Faibishenko said. “And it doesn’t matter if they would carry on Shabbat without an eruv. It just matters that we want people to know that everyone here is a community, and we love each other, we care about each other, and we all want to be together with one community, regardless of how observant you are.”

Schachter likened this diversity of faith and culture in Champaign-Urbana to different flavored sodas under the same brand.

“We might think of ourselves as competitors, like Coke and Pepsi,” he said. “There’s Coke and there’s Pepsi, and they’re in competition. When you have an eruv, it sort of symbolically says ‘We’re not Coke and Pepsi, we’re Coke and Sprite.’ Coke and Sprite are both products of the same company … It’s still under one umbrella. For us, the eruv says we’re not competitors. We’re all in this together, we’re all working for this together, we all work for the Almighty. There’s one God, and we’re all in his care.”

A series of wispy structures made from wood and wires makes sure University of Illinois students like Faibishenko don’t have to choose between their faith, their community and their education. He said it felt great to have others who were not Orthodox express support in the building and maintenance of the eruv.

“We’re all here, we’re all students, we’re all learning the same stuff that everybody else is learning,” he said. “We just have other elements of our culture that are important to us.”

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