Rabbi Eli Wilansky consults with construction workers at the Fern Hollow Bridge. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

The Fern Hollow Bridge will reopen on Dec. 23, restoring not only a vital link between the city’s eastern neighborhoods to Oakland and Downtown but a key part of the critical religious infrastructure for Pittsburgh Jews.  

Jewish religious laws prohibit carrying, driving and other activities outside of strictly defined spatial domains, i.e., domestic space and public space during the 25-hour weekly Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat). The bridge comprised a segment of the Pittsburgh eruv, a symbolic enclosure that enables observant Jews to carry prayer books and food and for young families to push strollers at times when religious laws otherwise prohibit such activities. 

Forbes Avenue west of the Fern Hollow Bridge. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Creative Jews adapted to cities and suburbs by extending domestic domains using, at first, the walls of medieval cities and later transportation and utility infrastructure.

When the first American eruv was completed in St. Louis in 1894, it used telegraph poles and wires. The first eruv built in New York City in 1905 also used utility lines and elevated rail lines in its boundary.

Eruv strings converge atop a New York City streetlight. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Eruv (pronounced air-oov) is a Hebrew word that is shorthand for mixed spatial domains. Conceived in 1978 and completed in 1986, the Pittsburgh eruv wraps around 6.7 square miles, enclosing parts of Squirrel Hill, Greenfield, Regent Square, Bloomfield and Oakland. The Pittsburgh eruv uses walls, fences, utility lines, bridges and the city’s many steep hillsides to create an unbroken boundary. 

Eruvs are essential for Pittsburgh’s Jews and their counterparts across the globe in the hundreds of other places where eruvs exist. Keeping the boundary unbroken during the Sabbath is an important part of Jewish community life typically overseen by rabbis affiliated with local synagogues.

Map reflects the eruv boundaries prior to expansion.

Each week, rabbis and community volunteers get in their cars and drive along every block of the eruv boundary. They look closely at the utility poles and wires, fence lines and gates, and the places where eruv builders have added string and free-standing poles to create the necessary unbroken boundary. It’s a complicated process governed by rabbinical law established centuries before the first electrical lines, highways and cars were invented.

Since its introduction, the Pittsburgh eruv has become a vital part of Jewish life. At first, observant Jews considered it a nice convenience. Now, it’s indispensable, says Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center. 

“It creates inclusivity in the community,” Lidji says. “So if you see people pushing strollers on Shabbat, that is something that feels very natural to people in Squirrel Hill today, but before the eruv, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Rabbi Eli Wilansky inspects the eruv boundary next to the bridge over Nine Mile Run along the Parkway East. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

Shortly after the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed just before dawn on Friday, Jan. 28, Rabbi Shimon Silver of the Young Israel of Pittsburgh congregation rushed to the site along with a police chaplain. Silver is the supervising rabbi who has been responsible for ensuring that the Pittsburgh eruv remains kosher since 1990. He also has designed several significant eruv expansions, including one that extended the boundary from Squirrel Hill to Oakland and Bloomfield to include the Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, Carlow University, and Chatham College campuses and many of the city’s major hospitals.

“There were strings going from the end of the bridge along Forbes Avenue. When the bridge collapsed, this was a serious issue. Now there’s a break in the eruv. Big break,” Silver says. All of the string that was once attached to the bridge forming the boundary was intact. The only thing missing was the bridge.

Just one day earlier, Silver had crossed the bridge finding no breaks. Silver, Eli Wilansky, and other rabbis who comprise the small group responsible for the eruv, quickly mobilized to assess the damage and potential impacts to the Jewish community. 

Because the bridge collapsed on a Friday they were on a clock: the Jewish Sabbath begins at sunset Fridays and they needed to know if it would be necessary to inform the community that the eruv was down due to the break in the boundary. A down eruv would have meant that no one could carry items and push strollers.

The rabbis were escorted down into the ravine. They were dumbstruck: the bridge had collapsed in such a way that the debris created an unbroken “wall” spanning the valley floor. Silver described it as an act of God: “It fixed itself, for that week.”

As work began to clear the debris, Silver collaborated with PennDOT and contractors to jury-rig a temporary eruv boundary using construction fencing and string. Each week Wilansky, whose day job is with the B’nai Emunoh Chabad in Greenfield, inspects the makeshift boundary by riding down the slope in a construction company ATV. He took me along on his route inspecting the eruv.

“I need a hard hat and a vest, and the guy takes me down to under the bridge,” Wilansky says. “I go and I walk like 30, 40 feet and I see where the eruv is and just double check.”

Rabbi Eli Wilansky inspects the temporary eruv boundary near the rebuilt Fern Hollow Bridge. Photo by David S. Rotenstein.

The Pittsburgh eruv originally ended west of the Fern Hollow Bridge. The boundary expanded to South Braddock Avenue to make use of utility infrastructure along the road. Though there’s a small pocket of homes in the part of the eruv east of Frick Park, Silver doesn’t think anyone has been stranded because Forbes Avenue is the only east-west roadway within walking distance leading to Squirrel Hill. 

“If they’re going to a synagogue or carrying on Shabbos, the only way to do that would have been to somehow find their way to one of the trails,” Silver explained. “There’s no other way to go.”

Pittsburgh’s Jews were fortunate. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the state transportation agency in 2019 demolished a bridge inside an eruv to build a new light rail line. People living east of that bridge had to detour for several miles to get from their homes to one of several synagogues on the other side.

After the Fern Hollow Bridge reopens this month, Silver plans to incorporate the new structure into the eruv boundary. PennDOT and city officials rushed to rebuild the bridge, completing its design, engineering studies and construction at breakneck speed to reopen Forbes Avenue (and simultaneously restore the eruv boundary). 

Even though the new structure will close the chapter on the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, that’s not the end of the story for Pittsburgh’s eruv overseers.

In the wake of the bridge collapse, reports surfaced on the deteriorating conditions of many other Pittsburgh bridges. And, the Fern Hollow Bridge wasn’t the only bridge in the eruv boundary.

“We have a lot of bridges in the eruv,” says Silver. 

One that’s on Silver’s mind a lot is the Swinburne Bridge in Oakland. “They keep repairing it,” Silver explains. “It’s not in great condition. But we’re using it as long as we can and then we’ll have to work something out.”

In the meantime, Pittsburgh’s eruv checkers will continue their weekly circuits carefully examining the poles, wires, walls and slopes that comprise the eruv boundary. 

David S. Rotenstein is a historian, folklorist, and award-winning freelance writer. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and he writes about urban history, race, and the history of organized crime in Pittsburgh.