Tuesday, March 6, 2012


There's a great article in the NYTimes today about SHABBAT ELEVATORS. A Shabbat elevator (they are also called "Sabbath elevators," "Shabbos elevators," and "automatic elevators"), is an elevator that stops on every floor so that Orthodox Jews--who are forbidden from operating machinery on the Sabbath and who therefore cannot push the elevator buttons--can still use the elevator to access their apartments. The article does a great job of outlining some of the issues here: on the one hand, the elevators--like the ERUV and the SUKKAH BALCONY-- allow Orthodox Jews to live in modern urban environments, and are therefore a positive thing. However unlike the eruv and the Sukkah Balcony, Shabbat Elevators can be really annoying to non-Jews. Shabbat Elevators are a great example of what legal scholar (and Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion contributor) Lior Jacob Strahilevitz calls an "exclusionary amenity:" while they are an amenity to Orthodox Jews, they seriously inconvenience non-Jews who are forced to endure long waits for no good reason, and who therefore might opt to live in a building that doesn't have them. From this perspective, Shabbat elevators have a segregating effect. Indeed, the article points out that brokers sometimes leave Shabbat elevators off their advertisements for fear of violating the Fair Housing Act: "Apartments must be marketed to the general public, and saying there is such an elevator could very likely be interpreted as targeting a single group and excluding others."

At the risk of offending Jews, we should point out that exclusionary amenities exist in all religions. A community prayer speaker that wakes Muslims up at the crack of dawn for prayer and non-Muslims up at the crack of dawn for no good reason at all would be an example, as would the presence of a church in a private community to which residents had to pay a mandatory maintenance due (as is the case in the private community of Ave Maria in Naples, FL).

The article is also interesting for the tactics that building owners and residents use to avoid conflict. (e.g. building owners can program the elevators to shoot up to the penthouse and then work their way down, or exchange "Shabbat" and "normal" operations mode every five minutes, while residents can jump into a regular elevator and hope their fellow passengers head to a floor near their own destination).

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