Rabbi Freehling’s pet project
Daylong synagogue attendance is rare among most Reform Jews. It’s even rarer for their dogs.
For almost 12 years, Lucy traveled each day to University Synagogue in Brentwood with her owner, Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, then the synagogue’s senior rabbi. The golden retriever mix soon became one of the most popular members of the Reform congregation.
“The kids coming in for Hebrew school used to arrive early, come to the rabbi’s study, and hope that they would be the ones to take Lucy for a walk before going to class,” Freehling recalled. “She was delighted to spend the whole day in my office. If there wasn’t someone to pay attention to her, she would usually just sleep under my desk.”
Freehling, now the executive director of the City’s Human Relations Commission, found Lucy at a city-run animal shelter in the San Fernando Valley. Through a series of community workshops he is helping to facilitate for Los Angeles Animal Services, Freehling is urging other local residents to seek pets from city shelters, too.
L.A. Animal Services has been sponsoring its “Humane L.A.” workshops — a series of 11 free, public panel discussions — every other week since August to educate Angelenos about what they can do to help make the city a “no-kill” haven. The workshops, which will continue through mid-December, focus on different facets of the agency’s “no-kill equation,” such as low-cost spay and neuter, rescue groups, foster care and adoption programs. Common-sense factors like these, the agency believes, can, in time, reduce the number of unwanted animals euthanized at city shelters.
“We do have a responsibility in terms of taking good care of the animals that are a part of our population,” said Freehling, who is sharing the role of facilitator with three other members of the Human Relations Commission. “Spay and neuter has to become something that is accepted by everyone, because the only way to curtail the population of animals is if they are not reproducing on a regular basis. For people who wish to have animals, for them to consider adopting as opposed to purchasing would also be a step.”
The senior rabbi at University Synagogue for 30 years, Freehling and his wife, Lori, adopted Lucy with social interaction in mind.
“Not wanting to leave Lucy home by herself, we purposely found an animal that would be good with adults and children,” he said. “An animal is a marvelous provider of comfort. That was the role that she played at the synagogue. Being greeted by her was, more often than not, a comforting experience.”
Lucy eventually died of cancer, and the Freehlings adopted Pearl, a black lab and pit bull mix, from an animal rescuer in Riverside. Pearl hasn’t had the same opportunity to follow Freehling to work since he was appointed to the commission in 2002.
“Here at City Hall it’s less likely that someone would bring an animal to the office on a regular basis,” he said.
Asked if it’s possible to make Los Angeles a no-kill city, the Chicago native does not hesitate before saying, “Yes.” But profound changes must first occur in the local population’s attitude toward its four-legged neighbors.
“I hope people will begin to understand what a no-kill city is all about and what our responsibilities are as part of that community, and not simply leave it up to a particular department within the city to solve the problem by euthanizing an extraordinary number of animals,” Freehling said. “It’s something we’re all in together.”
The Chosen One
Happy and outgoing, three-year-old Brandon Lefton sits on a rocking chair holding his guitar. “I gotta be a rock ‘n roll star now,” he announces and then lets loose a wild strumming of the open strings. His parents sit nearby in their neat, nicely furnished Simi Valley home, occasionally stroking one of the two family dogs, beaming over their son’s performance.
Brandon is friendly and talkative and shows little sign of the struggles he went through during the first 18 months of his life. Brandon was living in a foster home when a Vista del Mar Child and Family Services social worker mentioned him to Jack and Sally Lefton in the Fall of 1996. Vista is an affilliate agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“She told us that they had a little boy who was born addicted to methamphetamines,” says Sally. “The first time she called us, he was 10 months old. She told us they didn’t know if he was going to be placed up for adoption.”
But the Lefton’s had their first child to consider. Sally continues, “I said, ‘Ryan’s 5 years old I really don’t want to subject him to having a baby and then have him taken away. So we’re really not interested.'”
At that point the Leftons continued to search for another baby but soon heard back about Brandon. “She called back four months later and said that same little boy was available for adoption now. We went to look at him in the foster home and we fell in love with him.” They arranged to take him home three days later.
The night before they were supposed to pick Brandon up they got another call from the Vista social worker. “Oh by the way, Brandon’s really not available for adoption,” they were told, “and his mother still has visitation rights. So if you want him, you have to take him to visit his mother twice a week.” At that point Brandon had already taken up residency in their hearts and the Leftons decided to foster him through a special Vista program called Fost-Adopt. They were told that the visitation rights were “just a formality” and that nothing would come of them.
“This went on for about 2 months,” Sally recounts. “Then at the end of a visit, the social worker comes out and says, ‘I’ve got bad news. The birth mother’s parents,’ who never saw him and want nothing to do with him, ‘found out that he is in an adoptive home and want him taken out immediately. I have to take him now.’ She took him, right then and there.” With no warning and no time to prepare their five-year-old, Ryan. Sally had to bring home the bad news.
At that point, many would have given up. But the Leftons persisted. “It goes back to the Holocaust,” says Sally. “My mother lost her parents and ten brothers and sisters. My dad lost his parents and eight brothers and sisters. We have a very close family because of the people that were left.” She said to herself, “I’m not going to lose this kid because my parents lost so many people.”
Brandon was put back into a foster home. Though they were not allowed to visit, the Leftons kept tabs on him through the social workers. “They would say, ‘We’ll get you another baby.'” Sally remembers. “We didn’t want another baby. We felt so helpless because we knew that he wasn’t doing well. We thought, ‘we’ve got to do something.’ So we wrote letters to newspapers and congressmen and the president, anybody we could think of who could do something.”
Finally the Leftons gained visitations rights and began seeing him twice a week and then they were allowed to take him for weekends. At the end of October in 1997, when it was obvious that Brandon’s mother was not interested in taking parenting classes, the Lefton’s got a call from county social workers telling them they could come pick up Brandon. They were ecstatic, of course, to once again have Brandon back under their roof, but it wasn’t over yet. There were still the adoption proceedings and they still had a lot of red tape to cut through before Brandon was theirs.
After more than a year of lost files, replacement social workers and harrowing deadlines, the Leftons arranged to adopt Brandon during a group adoption in Dec. 1998.
Says Sally, “I heard that a Los Angeles law firm, Gibson, Dunne and Crusher, holds an adoption day once a year. They want to do as many adoptions as they can. The judges, the clerks, everybody volunteers their time.
“When we first got him. He was afraid of people,” says Sally. “He was 18 months. He wasn’t walking. He wasn’t talking. He was six months delayed. Then we had him evaluated again when he was three and he was right where he should be.”
Now Brandon is an unquestionable member of the Lefton family and of the Simi Valley Jewish community. “We had his baby naming over the summer. We had him circumcised,” says Sally.
“All this time one of our biggest support groups was the temple,” adds Jack, the president of the Congregation B’nai Emet Men’s Club and an involved member of the Simi Valley Jewish community. “Without the support of the temple,” he continues, “without the support of all our temple friends, it would have been very hard. That’s one of the reason why Sally and I are committed to doing a lot of stuff because you want to pay back that kindness in some way.”
Though their experience was a hard one, the Lefton’s still feel that adoption is a wonderful undertaking. “There are so many children, thousands upon thousands of children needing loving, caring homes,” says Jack.
“I would do it again. Only because now I know what to do,” adds Sally. “Thank G-d it had a happy ending,” she continues, “It might not have. Our whole life was consumed for a year and a half with this. If we had not pushed them, he would still be in a foster home. That’s why I want this told as much as I can because this cannot happen. If it happened to us, it’s happening to other people and it shouldn’t.”