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Making Sabbath a day at the beach

Venice-area Jews seek an eruv to ease limits on activities.

October 25, 2006|Sharon Bernstein and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

An Orthodox synagogue with the ambitious desire to enclose much of Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey within a religious boundary known as an eruv has come up against a barrier some say is as immutable as the Torah itself: the California Coastal Commission.

The Pacific Jewish Center in Venice wants to string fishing line between lampposts and sign poles for several miles through the coastal communities, creating a symbolic unbroken boundary.

Orthodox Jews within the boundary can consider themselves to be "at home" on the Sabbath. That eases restrictions of the holy day and allows people to carry food, push strollers and bring their house keys with them when they go out.

Such lines have been up for years in religious neighborhoods throughout the world. A large eruv encompasses a swath of Hollywood, Hancock Park, West Hollywood, Westwood, Beverly Hills and surrounding communities.

But never has anyone in Southern California attempted to run an eruv along the beach -- and this has created debate.

The Coastal Commission staff has recommended against the enclosure, saying it could compromise the nesting area of a rare bird and obstruct views of the ocean. Leaders of the Venice synagogue are negotiating this week with commission officials in an effort to reach a compromise.

The request to create the eruv along the ocean raises tricky issues of religious freedom, coastal regulations and environmental protections. The discussion is occurring in a city that has the second-largest Jewish population in the nation and a state known for its tough environmental laws.

Rabbi Ben Geiger said the eruv would make it easier for people to practice their faith. With the eruv in place, synagogue members would be able to stroll the Venice boardwalk during the Sabbath and even bring a picnic. His own children -- the youngest of whom is 4 -- would not have to walk the 1 1/2 miles from their home to the synagogue on Ocean Front Walk.

Proponents even say the project would also boost local tourism, making Venice "an ideal vacation spot for Sabbath-observing tourists," according to the website touting the so-called L.A. Coastal Eruv.

"Part of being a Sabbath-observing Jew is that there are certain restrictions as to how we observe that day of rest," Geiger said. Observant Jews, he said, can't even push somebody in a wheelchair on Saturday, which has meant that at his synagogue a child who is confined to a wheelchair has been forced to stay inside for 25 hours at a stretch -- the entire night and day of the Sabbath.

The beachfront eruv would run along the walking path from Santa Monica to Marina del Rey -- on several miles of prime beachfront and right through a nesting area of a protected bird.

In its application to the Coastal Commission, the organization said it would place streamers on the wire at the points where it would run through the nesting area for the protected bird, called the least tern, so they would not unknowingly fly into the wire and hurt themselves. The Pacific Jewish Center also said it would monitor the line weekly to make sure that it did not fall down and block access to the beach.

At the boardwalk Tuesday afternoon, opinions varied.

Carol Katona, a Venice resident walking her dog Ginger, said she was mostly concerned about the birds.

"If the string is kind of invisible, I don't want to be finding injured birds around because they're flying into it," Katona said. If the Pacific Jewish Center "puts up things that mark it for the birds, then that's trashing up the place. If you try to fix it so the birds can see it, then we can see it, and that wouldn't be OK with me."

One merchant near the synagogue said he had no problem with the plan.

"String it. String the fishing line," said Jesse Dreibelbis, co-owner of Tribal Bazar. "I'm for religious tolerance."

The plan has already been approved by the cities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and the California Department of Fish and Game.

But the Coastal Commission, which has the final say on development next to California's coastline, has raised concerns.

After commission staff recommended against the request, the synagogue offered changes that it believes will make the eruv less visible, said Geiger, who hopes to reach a compromise soon.

Rather than hanging streamers in the least tern nesting area, for example, the organization is now proposing using colored fishing line that only birds can see. To make the poles less obvious, he said, they can be painted blue to match the ocean or the sky.

The commission had been scheduled to take up the issue Oct. 12, but the decision was postponed so that negotiations could carry on.

Ultimately, commissioner Sara Wan said, any decision would have to balance the religious needs of proponents with the public's need for access to and unobstructed views of the beach.

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