BEVERLY – One of the last things you’d expect to see on the expansive front lawn of Temple B’nai Abraham is Rabbi Alison Adler sitting on the grass surrounded by children holding their dogs, and warmly singing a blessing over the animals.
But there she was on a recent Sunday morning, conducting a heartwarming pet service for children of all ages and their parents. It’s been a tradition at the conservative temple in Beverly whether rain or sun for 13 years. One year, the services were held under tents as the heavens opened up.
“The ancient rabbis taught that that we have an obligation to treat animals kindly and responsibly, a mitzvah called tza’ar ba’alei chayimtza’ ar ba’ aley chaim,” Rabbi Adler explained to some 35 children and parents, along with a dozen or so well-behaved dogs of various ages and breeds, along with a few carefully cradled stuffies.
Sisters Sarah and Ariella Kaufman of Lynnfield, ages 12 and 7, clutched the leashes of Mazel and Dreidel, their Mini Goldendoodles, as they listened to the rabbi.
“It’s really fun,” said Lyla Feinberg, a sixth-grader from Beverly. “Being with the animals is really cool. I brought my hamster one year and I think she really liked it.”
With one hand holding her own new 3-month-old rescue puppy, Zev, and a few dogs barking excitedly in the background, Rabbi Adler recited a blessing that tied in the Biblical story of Creation with an understanding of the important role that pets play in the daily lives of all those participating in the service.
“You inspired us to establish relationships with our animal brothers and sisters by commanding us to name and take care of them,” the blessing said, in part.
“When they grow old, may they be kept safe and comfortable. May they always know that they are important parts of our families. May they be treated only with gentleness, care, and respect.”
There are teachings from the Torah and throughout Jewish tradition about compassion for animals, Rabbi Adler said. For example, we must feed our animals before we feed ourselves. Also: animals get to rest on Shabbat, too.
“Whoever has compassion for other creatures is shown compassion from Heaven,” a Talmudic reading says. “Whoever does not have compassion for other creatures is not shown compassion from Heaven.”
As the 30-minute ceremony came to a close, Rabbi Adler led the families with the prayer for healing, Mi Shebeirach, and asked everyone to speak out aloud the name of a pet that they had lost over the years. “Balto, Fenway, Honey” and other names sadly rang out.
It was no coincidence that a few miles away at Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover, some 25 Hebrew School school students brought photos of their pets to class. Rabbi Idan Irelander also led them in a blessing, explaining that taking care of animals connects with Jewish values of compassion and love.
Both services were related to the Torah reading of Parashat Noah, the story of Noah’s ark.
“Animals are part of the story of creation,” Irelander explained. “Every part of the Creation makes the world whole. Pets add love to our lives. They make us complete.”
Right now, the new congregation holds class and services in what is called the shul@1600, a warm, welcoming space in a modern office building. The shul features traditional artifacts inherited from Congregation Ansha Sholum in Lawrence. But when his congregation eventually builds a synagogue, Rabbi Irelander said he would also encourage children to bring their pets for a service.
“The services for animals provide an opportunity to teach children Jewish values such as the importance of caring for animals as well as about such topics as kashrut and tzedakah to children,” according to Deb Schutzman, executive director and director of education at B’nai Abraham.
Next to a table with treats for the children – what’s a Jewish service without food? – there was a giant tzedakah box where families deposited bags of dog food and toys for animals which that were being collected for the Northeast Animal Shelter. in Salem.
The inaugural pet service at the synagogue, according to Rabbi Adler, was created by Max Blake as his Bar Mitzvah project in 2009, and has since become an integral part of temple life.
“Our school is values-based and it’s important to teach how Jewish values inform how we see the world and live in it,” Rabbi Adler said. “Often, they give Jewish language to what we are already feeling or doing. Caring and compassion for animals come naturally to children and are often an important part of their lives already.”.
While there is no record of when synagogues began offering special services for animals, there are stories, anecdotally, of a growing number of congregations around the country providing offerings not unlike those of B’nai Abraham.
“It’s wonderful to show them that we can have blessings, healing prayers, and even mourning rituals for these important members of our family,” Rabbi Adler said. Θ