Service for the Dogs and Cats

The rabbi wore a pooch-print tie.

The rebbetzin sported a pussycat brooch and a doggy bone pin “to give equal time” to man’s best friends. The congregants arrived two by two, with canines and felines in tow.

On the occasion of Parshat Noach – the yearly Torah reading of the Noah’s Ark story – some 40 members of B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester gathered for their fourth annual “Celebration of the Animals” on the shul’s cement courtyard. Rabbi Michael Beals’ collie, Yofi (“Beautiful” in Hebrew), shook paws to the command of “Shalom.” A 100-pound great Pyrenees named Romeo nonchalantly sat in his own chair. Westchester United Methodist Rev. John W. Mills, Jr. fussed over his feisty Jack Russell terrier as someone introduced a 13-year-old mixed-breed named Bubbie. There were chows and West Highland terriers, tabbies and mutts, meowing and yapping along with the animal-related readings. The unique program just won an award of excellence in the ritual category of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Beals noted over the cheerful din. “There’s never been an event like this in Conservative Judaism, or any Judaism,” he said, cradling his blue-eyed ragdoll cat, Shovav (“Naughty”).It all began while Beals was finishing up at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997, when his veterinarian wife, Elissa, noted the line that stretched all the way down Amsterdam Avenue the day the local Episcopal cathedral offered its “Blessing of the Animals.” “She came home, all excited, and said, ‘We should do this,'” Beals recalls. “And I said, ‘Uh, well…'”

A “Celebration of the Animals” would be liturgically correct, Beals discovered, after finding myriad animal references in classic Jewish texts. Moses, for example, gets the OK to lead the Jewish “flock” after he’s concerned enough to search the desert for a lost sheep.

At the B’nai Tikvah celebration, participants shared shaggy dog stories in between readings from Talmud and the Tur (a medieval Jewish commentary). Richard Seigel, 9, described how his beagle-mix, Jazzy, was rescued from an abandoned trailer; the mutt’s since been known to bury bagels in the backyard. A mom spoke of how her golden lab, Lady, previously a breeding female, had never lived in a house and was scared of TV when she was adopted by the family. Now the pooch is helping her 5-year-old daughter to sleep in her own bed.

The owner of a couple of Australian blue shepherds confided that “Celebration of the Animals” brought him to shul for the first time ever. “An event like this helps get people through the door to encounter their Judaism,” concurs Beals, who hopes other temples will follow suit.

“We want lots of copycats,” he quips.

People interested in organizing “Celebration of the Animals” at their own shuls can call Rabbi Beals for information at (310) 645-6262.