March 19, 2020 10:58 a.m Correction: This article has been updated for more accurate explanation of how the eruv was constructed.
Nearly eight years ago, when Rabbi Etan Mintz came to B’nai Israel Congregation on Lloyd Street, he came with the idea of creating an eruv in downtown Baltimore. He wanted to make Baltimore appealing to observant Jewish residents and visitors and to attract young professionals or baby boomers who are moving back to cities.
The new downtown eruv was completed March 4.
An eruv allows Shabbat-observant Jews to carry things such as keys, canes, and small children within its boundaries on Shabbat. Sometimes as simple as a wire strung around a neighborhood or even a city, an eruv is rabbinic law’s solution to a technical challenge: incorporating the private and public domains into, at least technically, one shared space, thus creating a large private domain in which carrying is permitted on Shabbat.
In Baltimore’s early history as an immigrant port of entry, the city had a comparatively large Jewish population, according to Jewish Virtual Library. Migration shifted the community’s center to Northwest Baltimore, where the oldest eruv overlaps parts of Mount Washington, Park Heights, and Pikesville. There is also an eruv at the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus.
B’nai Israel, a nearly 150-year-old synagogue, is one of the few remaining in Baltimore City.
In 2016, Mintz approached Betsy Gardner, deputy director and city-wide Jewish liaison for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods, about this idea.
“Originally I worked with Hopkins to recreate the eruv in 2008,” said Gardner. “That gave me a basis of learning for creating one with Rabbi Mintz.”
Mintz said the initial step was to walk “countless hours” downtown to identify potential boundaries, including natural ones, and map out the site.
Then, in February of 2017, the two gathered with city agencies, transportation, Baltimore City Public Schools, and attorneys to discuss feasibility. They determined what buildings to encompass, explained it to each agency, discussed laws to comply to, chose equipment to use, and agreed that it would help with economic development.
“The mayor, at the time the city council president, was excited to help Jewish families downtown,” said Gardner.
Mintz developed a planning committee to determine funding, feasibility, and location. Bruce Coopersmith, who serves on the board of B’nai Israel.
Rabbi Stephen Belsky from Detroit was one of the contractors.
Baltimore’s Board of Estimates voted to approve the creation of the eruv in 2019. In May of 2019, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced its beginning.
Areas chosen were based on proximity to the synagogue, as well as where members lived.
“We also made sure to include a good number of hotels so that tourists, conference attendees, and those with family in the hospital would have places to stay within the eruv,” said Mintz.
The eruv was constructed by fences, buildings, walls, natural boundaries, and fishing wire. It covers a half-mile square around the synagogue.
After 10 months of this work and funding in the tens of thousands by the shul, it is finished.
Gardner specified it will be ideal for Jewish conventions to come to the area, or for families to visit. “Or, we have families coming for treatment at Hopkins,” she noted. Gardner also said there is a younger Jewish population moving to B’nai Israel’s area, so the population increase will bring in taxes and benefits to the community.
“The eruv is a significant sign that there is a Jewish community there that takes serious their religious beliefs,” said Coopersmith. “Downtown has a Jewish community, which nobody seems to know around Baltimore.”
“It has generated great excitement among downtown’s community members,” said Chabad of Downtown Rabbi Levi Druk.
The eruv will need to be continually checked to verify that it is still up and working.
Maintenance will require further funding, according to Mintz.
For the future, Coopersmith said that Johns Hopkins Hospital has expressed interest in extending the eruv to their campus. An extension could also include the Tikva House so that patients and families could transport food and medical necessities, according to Mintz.
The eruv’s first Shabbat was March 6-7. Mintz said he noticed people have been “very excited.”