Ring of string is latest religious symbol to spur controversy

Ring of string is latest religious symbol to spur controversy

A simple fence made of string has become the latest religious symbol to spark a controversy in South Florida.

Orthodox Jews are asking Hallandale Beach to allow them to create an eruv, a ring of string around a neighborhood that represents a symbolic extension of the home. The eruv would allow them to do things outside the home that are traditionally banned on the Sabbath, including carrying babies, water bottles and keys.

Eruvs already exist in South Florida, from Miami Beach to Hollywood and Boca Raton. But Hallandale leaders have resisted a request from several rabbis who want to set up an eruv to serve Orthodox Jews who live on the beach.

They say allowing the eruv to be installed at a city-owned park would open the door for other requests on city land. And Chaz Stevens, an atheist activist well-known for his crusade against religious symbols, has already threatened to put up a 6-foot-high phallic symbol at a beachfront park if the eruv is approved.

Similar requests have turned controversial in cities around the country, but usually from a misunderstanding over what an eruv is, said Oren Stier, a professor of Jewish studies at Florida International University.

“An eruv is just a boundary marker,” he said. “It’s not some kind of hocus-pocus. The eruv allows Torah-observant Jews to avail themselves to a legal loophole so they can do things they would not otherwise do on the Sabbath.”

In Hallandale, the rabbis who want the eruv hope to install nine poles at two beachfront parks as supports for the string. The poles would range from 8 to 16 feet.

But under Hallandale’s rules, no one can dig a hole or install a pole in a city-owned park, City Attorney Jennifer Merino said.

“I’m not telling them they can’t build an eruv,” Merino said. “The commission would have to waive that rule on the books. Once that rule is waived for one party, it makes it more difficult for us to decline other requests.”

Mayor Keith London said waiving the rules for the eruv would set the city up for other religious requests that might not be so tame.

“If we open up public property for one, we open up public property for all,” he said during a recent meeting. “I’m not comfortable with opening it for all.”

Two years ago, Hallandale reluctantly allowed Stevens to place a satanic cross on the front lawn of City Hall after he complained that a menorah, Christmas tree and Nativity scene were on display there during the holidays.

Stevens said he plans to “come to town with a platoon of giant dongs” should the eruv win approval, one for each of the nine poles.

Stevens made national news in 2013 for bringing a Seinfeld-inspired Festivus pole of beer cans to the Florida Capitol after a Nativity scene was allowed in the rotunda. In 2014, a holiday display from the Satanic Temple with a diarama of an angel falling into hell made its first appearance at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Two years later, Preston Smith was allowed to display an oversized satanic pentagram in a Boca Raton park in protest of a nearby menorah, manger scene and Christmas tree.

Stier, the expert on Jewish issues, says the eruv is not a religious symbol.

“These are just poles,” he said. “They don’t have Jewish stars on them. They are not decorative.”

The rabbis and their congregants in Hallandale say they are not giving up.

Rabbi Levi Tennenhaus says Hallandale’s coastal neighborhoods had an eruv until two years ago, when utility poles along A1A were placed underground. He says the string for the eruv had been attached to those poles.

“The eruv was there for over 20 years,” he said. “No one ever complained. Nobody even knew there was an eruv.”

Now, Orthodox women with small children are stuck at home on the Sabbath, he said, because they’d be breaking religious law by carrying their children or pushing them in strollers to synagogue.

Rabbi Leibel Kudan says his 4-year-old daughter uses a wheelchair and must stay at home on the Sabbath, which is observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

“Its need is most felt by members of my community with physical limitations,” he said. “They can’t carry items, a bottle of water or keys, or push a wheelchair, without the accommodation of an eruv.”

Kudan says the string for the eruv would blend into the surroundings and not block anyone’s view.

The FIU professor suggested the city find a creative solution.

“When cities have these debates over whether to allow an eruv, it’s not like anyone is going to be inconvenienced by it,” Stier said. “To the rest of the outside world, it sounds kind of ridiculous. But in this country, we have a strong respect for religious freedom.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4554. Find her on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan.

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