Day of decision looms for Jewish 'soft Sabbath zone': Plans for Britain's first eruv have split a community. Lewis Chester reports

TWO YEARS of division and controversy within north London's large Jewish population come to a head on Wednesday when a decision is due on plans to establish Britain's first 'private domain' for Jews.

Argument over the plans to establish an eruv - an area covering a large part of the borough of Barnet in which Jews would be exempted from some restrictions of the Sabbath laws - cuts across religious and political boundaries.

During the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sunset Saturday, Orthodox Jews should not carry such things as keys, handkerchiefs and reading glasses, nor push buggies, prams or wheelchairs, outside their homes. The establishment of the eruv extends the private domain of the home into the streets.

On Wednesday, Barnet council's planning committee must decide finally whether to permit the erection of 85 poles and the suspension of some 1.2 miles of wire deemed essential to the eruv's creation.

Both the ruling Tories and the Labour opposition on the council are split on the issue - though the political divisions are as nothing compared with the animosities that have arisen between individual Jewish members who make up almost one-third of the council. Even the most theologically insensitive councillors - one described the eruv as 'a nonsense to cure a nonsense' - are deeply aware of the power it exercises on the imagination of the voters, both for and against.

The proposal before the committee is that six square miles encompassing the verdant streets of Hendon, Golders Green and Hampstead Garden Suburb and part of Finchley should be allowed to constitute an eruv. Its 11- mile perimeter would consist very largely of existing frontiers - such as the M1 motorway and the overground section of the Northern Line. But planning consent is crucial to the 'gaps' in the eruv, mainly roads that must be spanned by 'gateways'. Hence the poles and wires.

The proponents of the scheme, who include the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, and the United Synagogue, the most powerful Orthodox organisation in the Commonwealth, originally made a great virtue of the fact that the chosen wire - nylon monofilament fishing wire - was practically invisible to the naked eye. At a late stage it was pointed out that this could lead to the garrotting of unsuspecting birds. The proposed wire is now to be of braided steel which most birds will see easily.

The problem is that so, too, would many of the citizens, and the wires that signify freedom in some Jewish minds can evoke horrific remembrance in others. Jack Cohen, a Liberal Democrat councillor, says he has received harrowing letters from 'people who ran away from the concentration camps and the ghettoes and who feel that being obliged to live behind wire is exactly what they strove to escape from'.

It is estimated that some 10,000 of the 130,000 people within the proposed eruv's boundary would directly benefit from the scheme. Many have been to Israel and the United States where eruvs are now commonplace. Julia Nussbaum, a Hendon housewife who has been wheelchair-bound for 10 years with multiple sclerosis, cannot wait for it come into existence. As things are, long hot Saturdays in the summer are 'a double punishment - I have the illness and the feeling of being imprisoned in my own home'.

Aviva Dubinsky, mother of two young girls and wife of an Australian doctor on secondment to St Bartholomew's Hospital, shares a similar impatience. Her father was among the founders of Australia's first eruv in Melbourne five years ago. 'I can't see the reason for the blow-up here,' she said. 'It's a real non-issue back home. No vandalism, nothing.'

But Norma Blausten, who was brought up in an Orthodox home, wrote to the planning committee: 'Many people in the area resent the idea of an eruv, but don't say so for fear of being branded anti- Semitic.'

Roy Shutz, the leader of the Conservative majority on the council, believes objections to the eruv are not so much against its physical features as its symbolism. Like many Jewish intellectuals in Hampstead, he thinks the eruv is an archaism which has no place in a modern progressive society. In a racially diverse borough, he thinks that it can only incubate trouble for the future.

No such fear grips Alan Kimche, the Hendon rabbi who first proposed, and then planned, a Barnet eruv back in 1988. His vision of the future is one in which cultural identities are more confidently expressed without any infringement of liberties. Some, though not all, of the eruv's opponents he sees as 'assimilated Jews' who have come to be 'ashamed of their own Jewishness'.

While explaining the eruv to me at his Golders Green home, Mr Kimche made bear-like but precise darts around the room for the references to buttress his arguments. After one such foray, he came back with a slim but exquisite volume, dated 1887, which contained rules for the Polish eruv in Cracow.

He went on to explain that during that period in Eastern Europe, Orthodox Jews who wanted to put up their poles and wire had little trouble getting permission from the civic authorities: certainly nothing like the trouble that the Barnet proposal was having with the council.

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