New rules on observing Sabbath divide a London community

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The Independent Online

At about noon today, a traffic light symbol on a website will be switched from amber to green to indicate a 2,000-year-old religious tradition will come into effect for the first time in Britain.

At about noon today, a traffic light symbol on a website will be switched from amber to green to indicate a 2,000-year-old religious tradition will come into effect for the first time in Britain.

To the uninitiated, the line of poles connected by fine wire that have recently sprung up in parts of north London are barely distinguishable from the jumble of telephone masts, lampposts, and No Parking signs that form part of the urban street scene. But to the orthodox Jewish community, the boundary posts of the eruv represent a liberation from the stifling rules of the Sabbath, allowing those who live within its area to do tasks that are otherwise forbidden.

To some Jews and non-Jews they are seen as blots on the landscape. There are fears they will divide the community or even make the Jewish faith seem faintly ridiculous.

The green light on the eruv website at noon today and every other Friday will signal to the orthodox that when the Sabbath begins at sunset this evening they can do things normally forbidden outside the house. These include carrying house keys, food or drink, medication, reading glasses and most importantly, pushing a baby buggy or a wheelchair.

Mobile phones, shopping, cycling and using umbrellas are still forbidden. Supporters claim the lifting of restrictions on using baby buggies will allow mothers out of the house on Sabbath days to take children to synagogues or to visit the extended family. Allowing the use of wheelchairs or walking frames will benefit the elderly or infirm.

But the green light will also spell the end of a 10-year controversy. The idea of eruv in north-west London was first mooted in the early 1990s.

Outside Britain, eruvs are numerous – there is one in every big city in Israel and the United States and well as several European cities, including Venice and Strasbourg.

The north-west London eruv boundary is about 11 miles long and marked by a combination of roads and wire strung beneath 10ft-high posts.

Opponents – mostly non-Jewish residents' groups – delayed final planning approval until last summer. Barnet council found itself caught between the strict provisions of the Talmud and the Hampstead Garden Suburb Residents' Association. Georgina Malcolm, association chairman, said it was unfair to depict the opponents as anti-Semitic and that objections had been on environmental and planning grounds, such as the effect on trees on Hampstead Heath. "Many Jewish people are unhappy about the eruv ... but they get into trouble with the pro faction if they open their mouths," she said.

In the north-western suburb of Golders Green, centre of Britain's largest Jewish community, the scheme was still attracting intense debate yesterday, although most secular Jews dismissed it as a matter for "the religious ones".

But many orthodox rabbis have advised their communities not to observe it in case they breach the Sabbath laws. "My rabbi ... is afraid it might lead to problems," Sarah Gejser said as she pushed her pram along Golders Green road. "I will be staying at home with my child as usual on Saturday.''

Levi Brackman, a rabbi in the United Synagogue, said the debate was a good thing. "Within Judaism, there will always be those who say their butcher is sufficiently kosher while others will claim the butcher is not kosher enough. That is what keeps the religion alive.''

Ned Temko, editor of The Jewish Chronicle, said fears about large numbers of orthodox Jews entering the area were misplaced. "These are not people who are going to be doing drugs or staying up late, even if a number of them do move into the area, which I think unlikely," he said.