Tracy and Todd Berger of Cary asked for prayers for Tar Heel, their golden retriever who has cancer.
Amy Dvorak of Apex thanked God for her best friend, a sheltie named Pippin.
Rabbi Ariel Edery praised God for the furry, four-legged members of the Beth Shalom family.
“Animals and humans were created in the same day,” Edery said, referring to the story of creation in the book of Genesis. “So they are almost as special as we are.”
More than 30 Jews from across Wake County led their dogs to Beth Shalom’s back lawn Saturday morning for the synagogue’s first “Bark Mitzvah.”
In Judaism, a bar or bat mitzvah is a coming-of-age ceremony for 13-year-old boys and girls that’s not taken lightly. The teens study Hebrew for years to be able to read passages from the Torah and speak on the importance of faith.
Scripture doesn’t offer much guidance for Bark Mitzvahs. So Edery invited congregants to the grounds of the synagogue on Yates Mill Pond Road to celebrate their pets in a familiar but unconventional way.
The festivities began with a song from the book of Psalms. The sun blanketed the grass behind the temple, but the air was so cold that some clung to their canines for warmth as they sang.
The rabbi then asked congregants to share stories about their pets.
Ellen Dershowitz of Apex recalled that her son, Matt, cried when she first brought home their terrier-poodle mix. Dershowitz is allergic to most dogs, so her children didn’t think they’d ever have one as a pet.
“He said he wanted to name the dog Lucky because he felt so lucky to have him,” Dershowitz said. Lucky, who wore a green sweater, sat next to Dershowitz as she explained how much her two sons love him.
“He’s really taken care of our whole family,” she said.
Mark Walsh of Holly Springs grew up without a dog. Six years ago, he adopted Charlotte, a black Lab, from a rescue center in the Queen City. Walsh said the dog is so gentle that he occasionally takes her to assisted-living homes to provide therapy.
“She reminds me to be a better person,” he told the group.
Tracy Berger, stroking her golden retriever’s head, said she thinks dogs are a vehicle for God’s message because “they’re so good at showing unconditional love.”
Edery then led the group in a Hakafah, a traditional Jewish celebration where adherents dance or walk in a circle. Beth Shalom usually performs the walk during services when reading from the Torah.
For the Bark Mitzvah, the group followed Edery as he sang and walked around the perimeter of the back lawn. Congregants then encircled Edery as he distributed dog treats.
Edery said he was surprised by how well the dogs behaved. There were no interruptions during the 30-minute ceremony.
“I’m afraid to say out loud what I have here,” Edery, a native of Argentina, said of the treats. “My dog sure knows the name of them.”
People laughed as dogs chased one another across the lawn. Dvorak, whose sheltie wore a traditional Jewish kippah, found the event fun and meaningful.
“It seems natural to thank God for animals,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything weird about it. He gave them to us.”
Dvorak whipped out her phone to show off photos of Pippin kayaking and boogie-boarding with her.
“I’m an empty-nester,” she said. “My dog is my best friend. He goes everywhere with me.”
Message of love
Bark Mitzvah ended with a speech from Dave Walters, co-founder of Pawfect Match Rescue and Rehabilitation in Holly Springs.
Beth Shalom member Cathy Snow is fostering a shy Rottweiler named Precious, one of the 2,000 dogs that Walters said he has saved and rehabilitated. Snow and Edery encouraged congregants to help his organization by donating dog food, and they brought more than 80 pounds.
Walters, who isn’t Jewish, thanked Beth Shalom and emphasized the importance of celebrating dogs by telling a story about Gabriel, one of his three huskies.
Walters was taking Gabriel to a lake near Willow Spring about three weeks ago when the 9-year-old dog got so excited that he had a heart attack.
“I did CPR on him but he died in my arms,” he said. “So don’t ever miss a chance to show your dogs how much you love them.”