At the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Macomb Street in Tenleytown, a thin wire stretches diagonally across the road. Although the line connects two telephone poles, it has nothing to do with electricity.
The string is part of an eruv, a symbolic boundary that allows observant Jews to carry items outside of their homes on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.
Jews refrain from doing work on Shabbat and follow a series of commandments, called mitzvot, that dictate what they can and cannot do on the day of rest. One restriction is against carrying things outside of the home, which means that religious Jews would have to leave their keys, children's toys, and even non-ambulatory children at home.
But Jews can carry inside of their homes. By symbolically enclosing the community, Jews effectively create a giant house within which people can carry.
Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel set up the Philip Rabinowitz Memorial Eruv, which is about 18 miles in circumference. He says the eruv is technically a boundary and a collection of food. In the synagogue, he points out several boxes of matzo that are sitting on a bookshelf.
"That's the communal food that sort of unites all of the houses in the community into one large house," he says. "Inside a house, one is able to carry physical objects like a handkerchief or keys, or push a baby carriage, or push a wheelchair, on the Sabbath. Outside of such a structure, you can't."
Along with the communal food, you have to enclose the area where you want to carry. Freundel says this is usually done by connecting a series of walls and doorways, which are loosely defined in Judaism.
"One of the things that you're allowed to have is as many doorways in your building as is necessary," Freundel says. "A doorway is defined in Jewish law as a side post and something that goes across, and it doesn't matter how thick or thin that is."
That's where telephone poles and wires like the one on Wisconsin Avenue come into play. The poles represent the sides of the door, and the wire connects them.
In addition to the telephone poles, Freundel says that natural or preexisting walls sometimes become part of the boundary. One example is the sea walls along the Potomac River.
"Those walls constitute walls that demarcate an area on that border," says Freundel. "There are fences on the Langston Golf Course or the National Arboretum, or the Metro. Those fences are there. We don't have to do anything to them; they just sit there."
He says these borders are adopted as part of the eruv, and are connected to the doorway structures to complete a circle around the area. Once a prayer is said over the communal food, the eruv is up and people can carry.
Shabbat in D.C.
The symbolic boundary is highly useful for observant Jews, especially those with young children. Freundel's eruv is one of three in D.C. Together they form the D.C. eruvim, which cover a large swath of the city, but not all of it.
Freundel says that it makes sense to only enclose areas where Jews live. It costs more money to extend the eruv, and the larger area requires more people to check it.
Because Jews depend on the eruv to carry things on Shabbat, the structure has to be checked on a weekly basis. Carol Cowan is a member of Kesher Israel who checked the eruv for 10 years.
She says it's difficult to spot the eruv, partly because it's meant to be discreet in order to preserve the aesthetics of the area. But there are little tricks to spotting the difference between a utility wire and a string that exists solely as part of the eruv.
Cowan pointed out a string with a pretzel-looking knot where it had once broken and been repaired. "I don't think you're going to see a knot like that in a utility line," she said. "It doesn't look like it would carry your power or your phone signals very well."
Cowan's old route includes the part of the eruv that extends into Tenleytown. But the border stops short of The American University campus on Massachusetts Avenue.
Freundel says other parts of D.C. are outside the eruv because there aren't many Jews living there. But AU is an exception. About 20 percent of undergraduates are Jewish, according to the university.
For observant Jewish students like Orly Treitman and Zach Belinsky, living outside the eruv poses a weekly problem.
Out of necessity, the students bend the rules to carry their keys. But Belinsky says it's frustrating to know that he's breaking Shabbat every time he leaves his apartment with keys in his pocket.
Being outside the eruv means they can't carry anything unless they're wearing it. That means if Treitman wants a sweater for her walk back, she has to wear it to campus even if it's still warm outside.
"I can't carry a lot of other things that I would normally have with me," she says. "I always put on makeup for Shabbat, because that's part of what makes it special, but I can't carry lipstick around to refresh it."
Treitman and Belinsky say they'd like to see the eruv extended to include AU, and Freundel says this could be done, but it wouldn't be easy or cheap.
He says AU was the one area that frustrated him when building the eruv.
"There were no physical structures up there that we could use and no telephone wires behind American University that would work," Freundel says. "To go ahead and try to string wire, which you can do, in that area would have cost us an extra 10 or 15,000 dollars, and frankly we just didn't have the money to spend."
If somebody is willing to finance the project, Freundel says he'd be happy to work with them. But until then, observant Jews like Belinsky and Treitman will technically be stepping outside the boundaries of their faith every time they leave their homes on the Sabbath.
[Music: "Sher" by Salomon Klezmorim from Klezmagic / "Borderline" by Madonna from MadonnaGreatestMusik]
Photos: Eruvim Protect Boundaries and Traditions for Local Jews