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Massive 405 Freeway project respects the boundaries of a Jewish tradition

Metro and Caltrans are working with Orthodox Jews to maintain the thin 'walls' of a vast Westside eruv during work on the 405 Freeway.

July 04, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Dan Kulka, left, community relations manager for Kiewit Infrastructure Group, and Howard Witkin, an eruv administrator, stand near a pole supporting fishing line that marks the boundary of the eruv.
Dan Kulka, left, community relations manager for Kiewit Infrastructure… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Carmageddon, schmarmageddon.

Like just about everybody else, Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles have their issues with the 405 Freeway widening project. Unlike most people, however, their primary concern is not necessarily the impending closure of a stretch of the freeway on the July 16-17 weekend.

Their problem is that the 405 construction project keeps messing up their eruv.

Some explanation is probably in order.

An eruv is a ritual enclosure surrounding a neighborhood. It can be a fence, a wall, a piece of string — or a freeway. And it must be unbroken.

Its purpose is legalistic, a loophole, some might say. It allows observant Jews to perform certain actions on the Sabbath — carry a tray of food or push a baby stroller, for example — that Jewish law prohibits in public on that day.

In effect, it creates an entire zone that is considered communal.

Some eruvs can be fairly small, enclosing a tight-knit Jewish neighborhood. Brooklyn, for instance, is checkered with relatively small ones. It is perhaps not surprising that Los Angeles, the city that practically invented urban sprawl, is home to one of the largest eruvs anywhere, a vast enclosure 40 miles in circumference, surrounding much of the Westside and spilling over into the San Fernando Valley.

Its boundaries are, roughly, Western Avenue on the east, the 101 Freeway on the north, the 10 on the south and — yes — the 405 on the west. In portions, such as along Western, the boundary consists of fishing line strung along the tops of utility poles. It's hard to spot, even if you know it's there.

But for much of its length, the eruv consists of freeway fences or the freeways themselves.

"We always look for the simplest possible path," said Howard Witkin, an insurance executive who volunteers as an eruv administrator.

Ever since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and California Department of Transportation began work in late 2009 to widen the 405 to 10 lanes, maintaining the eruv has been anything but simple.

The freeway widening has meant that seemingly permanent structures such as fences and freeway walls are constantly being breached, torn down or moved. The volunteers who inspect the eruv weekly and maintain it as needed have suddenly found their workload multiply.

"It used to be a once-a-week thing," said Daneil Mayer, a college student who fixes breaks in the boundary. "But since the construction began, it's four times a week."

One recent day, Mayer was standing with Witkin in the parking lot of the Bad News Bears baseball field, beside the freeway near Ohio Avenue in Westwood. In the background, cars and trucks lumbered past, the 405 not yet clogged by the afternoon rush. But Mayer's interest was in the foreground: a scattering of construction equipment, a temporary fence and concrete K-rails, the modular, low-slung traffic dividers that are a familiar part of highway repair projects.

"There used to be a fence where that K-rail is," Witkin said, pointing. The fence had formed part of the eruv. When it was torn down, Mayer put up 15-foot poles and ran fishing line between them for about 500 feet along Cotner Avenue, which runs along the freeway.

Mayer pointed to the space between the poles. Sunlight glistened off 250-pound test fishing line.

With the two men was Dan Kulka, community relations manager for Kiewit Infrastructure Group, the construction contractor on the 405 project. His job involves keeping the community happy about the project, or at least not bitterly unhappy. He recalls his puzzlement when he first learned about the eruv.

"I got an email from Metro, which said we have to work with the Jewish community on this, and I didn't have a clue," he said. "I had to look it up."

Once he caught on, he called a meeting with his construction supervisors. "They're looking at me like, 'What?' "

Witkin and Mayer had nothing but praise for the contractor and government agencies for their sensitivity. In some cities, eruvs have been met with hostility and become battlegrounds over church-state issues. That has not so far been the case with this project.

"The level of help we've had, from the Roman Catholic permit people at Caltrans … to the Muslim line inspector along the freeways who gave us engineering help.…The level of deference and courtesy and kindness — it makes you feel good that you live in America," Witkin said.

Kulka could not estimate how much the contractor has spent on eruv-related issues. "It doesn't cost a lot," he said, although some labor has been expended. Marc Littman, a spokesman for the MTA, insisted that there had been no extra cost to taxpayers. "This outreach is part of their job," he said of the contractors.

Witkin estimated that 40,000 to 50,000 observant Jews depend on the eruv each Sabbath, when Jewish law prohibits working from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. He said there was no violation of church-state rules, any more than installing a crosswalk in front of a church.

Although some might find the whole idea to be overly legalistic, even absurd, Witkin said it was all about the Jewish philosophy of translating spiritual ideas into action, giving physical form to commandments, or mitzvot.

"If you treat mitzvot as mindless rituals, then you've blown it," he said. "But if you recognize that you're taking your deepest philosophical principles and trying to translate them into physical action … with the idea of transforming who I am, then you get it."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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