AJT asked a few of Atlanta’s rabbis known to have pets about the experience of owning a furry family member. They spoke about the joy and fulfillment their pet – in some cases more than one – brought to their personal and spiritual lives. Here are their answers.
Rabbi Josh Hearshen
Rabbi, Congregation Or VeShalom
Tell us a little about your pet. Our dog is named Zahavah. She is 7 years old and is a mutt that has a lot of yellow lab in her.
How long have you had your pet and what made you decide to get one?
We have had Zahavah since 2014. Our older daughter Ayelet had wanted a dog for quite some time. When we were in Israel, she actually believed that she would ask for a dog at the Wall and she would be handed one right after as we were leaving. She was so sad afterwards when we were leaving sans dog.
One night while I was meeting with conversion students, they told me their hobby was rescuing dogs. I jokingly said that we had been talking about a dog and they told me they had just rescued one that day. My wife came over to the synagogue that night to meet her and the next night she came to meet Ayelet – our younger daughter had not been born yet – and they hit it off. We had told Ayelet that a friend was just bringing her dog over to play. When Ayelet woke up the next morning, Zahava was in our room and we told her that we had adopted her.
What has a pet added to your life?
Zahavah is a caring dog and has taught us to love more and to also look out for those who cannot look out for themselves. She also reminds us that having fun matters.
Are there Jewish values you believe align with having a pet?
We believe tzaar baalei chayim, treating animals with compassion and love. My wife Carrie loves to always remind me that we are required to feed the dog before we eat as she cannot feed herself.
What’s the best aspect of having a pet?
Seeing her interact with our daughters.
Rabbi Joshua Lesser
Rabbi emeritus, Congregation Bet Haverim
In brief: Here are some reflections on our pup Opal.
We won the dog lottery when we adopted Opal, a Labrador and possibly a Whippet mix from the [Atlanta] Humane Society.
Pet decision: My husband Alessandro and I had been looking to adopt a puppy for nearly a year, but the day of the 2016 election, I turned to my husband and said, “It’s time. We need some joy in our household.” When we arrived at the shelter, a new litter of puppies had just arrived. In a mix of brown puppies, there was this one cinnamon swirl cutie; she was the only female. With her brindle color, and my penchant for naming my previous dogs after jewels, we brought our Opal home. Imagine our delight to discover that she was born on the exact same day as our engagement. It was meant to be. Weighing in at 100 pounds, she is a sweet and loving dog that can be very protective of her daddies. Her worst habits are shedding more than any short-haired dog can, drooling profusely at the sight of any cooked food, and eating sticks. My husband is the one who spoils Opal with table scraps. He cannot resist her dramatic eyes. Whereas I am the one who is the disciplinarian, to whom she listens and obeys.
What added to life: Opal has added so much love and joy, but during the pandemic she truly became a lifesaver for me. During the pandemic, I worked from home and so Opal was often by my side or at my feet. Just out of sight from the Zoom screen, she would be there waiting for me to pet her. During this, my insomnia increased and without the outlet of the gym, I started running outdoors at 4 in the morning. Opal became my running companion. Not only did I feel safe with her, the joy she had running was infectious. In many ways, she encouraged me. And we would return home, both ready to sleep a bit more before tackling the day.
Jewish values: There is much debate in traditional halachah (Jewish law) about having dogs and pets, most of it concerning the prohibition of having an “evil dog,” whose definition varies but almost always includes a dog who bites. We are very fortunate that Opal is a source of much blessing and no evil. Instead, I am guided by the tradition mentioned in Talmud Berachot 40a that interprets the verse “I will give grass in your fields for your animal, and you shall eat and be satisfied.” (Deuteronomy 11:15) as a dictate to feed your animals first. But I would even expand this teaching as a directive to empathize with our pets’ needs so that we do not see ourselves as owners, but rather as guardians taking care of the well-being of these animals in our care.
Best aspect: The best part of being a guardian to Opal is that she is a significant part of our family. She is silly, loving and playful, and during a time when there has been so much serious and challenging news, she brings delight and invites us — even demands us — to be in the present tending to her.
Rabbi Shalom Lewis
Rabbi emeritus, Congregation Etz Chaim
In brief: Jack is our Shih Tzu and he’s 13 1/2 years old, weighs 8 pounds, pretty grey hair. Jack has a sweet temperament and always likes to be near us. He will follow us from room to room. His favorite spot is the low living window where can survey the front yard and watch the world pass by.
Pet decision: This is the first dog that I have ever owned, but for Cindy, she has always had dogs.
When Cindy and I were discussing marriage, I knew that unless I adopted her last dog Bandit, I would have remained single. Having a dog was part of the marital package. I knew where I stood in the pecking order.
What added to life: Jack has given us a sense of responsibility and what it means to express unconditional love.
Jewish values: Jewish tradition has great respect for animals. One of the seven fundamental principles known as the Noahide laws is compassion for animals. A bold statement underscoring Judaism’s respect for all life. Tradition requires that we feed our pets before we feed ourselves.
Best aspect: Always someone there to greet you after a long day at work. Inspiring source of love. Jack is a paragon of forgiveness. I’ve locked him in the basement accidentally. Kicked him in the dark accidentally. Left him outdoors on the deck in the chill of winter accidentally. But never is he vindictive. Nasty. Cold. He doesn’t pout nor storm away into another room. He is quick to forgive. Dogs can help prepare us for Yom Kippur. Though occasionally wronged, they quickly move on with a lick and a wagging tail.
They are remarkable exemplars of loyalty, devotion and forgiveness.
Rabbi Larry Sernovitz
Senior rabbi, Temple Kol Emeth
In brief: Peaches is a 10-month-old Aussiedoodle. She came into our family just after the High Holy Days last year.
Pet decision: When we were getting ready to move to Atlanta, we were in the middle of COVID. My kids never got to see Atlanta or to go house hunting. We bought our house after an iPad tour with our real estate agent. My kids wanted something in return, and asked for a puppy. Of course, they wanted to name her something that would connect with our new life in Georgia. So, they chose Peaches.
What added to life: Peaches is an Aussiedoodle and is a herding dog. She makes sure she is everywhere we are. She does not like to be alone and when you least expect it, she is there. That includes Peaches opening up the bathroom door! She was an instant friend and a perfect addition to our family. When we wake up and when we go to bed, Peaches is there with her tail wagging, her tongue out, bringing joy to a challenging 2020. The love she has shared with us, and everyone who meets her, has been so well worth it!
Jewish value: Peaches reminds us every day what loyalty and love is all about. In a world that has struggled to see the holiness and humanity in the other, Peaches recognizes everyone and makes them feel welcome. Everyone is created in God’s image to Peaches. She also reminds us of the interdependence of the world. We all depend on one another and without each other, we will not survive.
Best aspect: When she cuddles with us, licks us, and makes sure we are not alone, we know that there is plenty of hope and love to go around.
Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner
Senior rabbi, Temple Beth Tikvah
In brief: Duncan is a little bit golden lab, with a shepherd’s tail and bark — a lovely Holy mix. He was a rescue; he and his siblings were dumped on the side of a road in rural Missouri. Thankfully, someone found the litter and turned them over to an animal rescue group.
When we adopted Duncan, he weighed maybe 3 pounds. He was so small. Sitting toward the back of his cage, he caught our attention, with his mascara rimmed eyes and sweet little bark. My daughter Zoe and I knew immediately that Duncan needed to come home with us.
He turned out to be rather sickly; he had mange and almost died from double pneumonia, but he was a fighter.
Today Duncan is 13 and while an old guy, still makes his presence known!
Pet decision: Once the children came along, we always had pets. Goldfish, hamsters, hermit crabs and dogs.
Animals bring companionship and comfort. They help a child learn responsibility, commitment and compassion.
At the time when we adopted little Duncan, we had an older dog at home named George. He, too, was a rescue. We all adored George; he was the family dog. Duncan was a gift for our youngest child Zoe, who was then just entering eighth grade. She had been asking for her own pet for a number of years and we felt that she was old enough for the responsibility.
George taught Duncan how to be a dog (since Duncan had no mother to teach him) and the kids learned so much by watching Duncan and George interact.
What added to life: Unconditional love! NO matter how rough the day might be, when you come home, that dog is so incredibly happy to see you. Sitting and stroking his fur calms the soul and makes everything else melt away. The miles and miles of walks keeps you fit, too!
Jewish value: Having pets has certainly taught our children the Jewish value of tzaar baalei chayim, the compassionate treatment of animals. All of our children, now adults, have pets of their own (We have four grand-dogs, all rescues, three of whom spent time with us during the pandemic.)
Our children all engage in activities that focus on relieving suffering in the world – human and animal. Two practice veganism as their religious food ethic and they all strive to leave a softer footprint on the planet. Much of their way of being comes from their time learning from the pets they had growing up.
Another thing that our pets have taught us is how to grieve. All of the children experienced the death of a beloved pet, bringing many important life lessons.
When a pet becomes part of the family it brings everyone together and teaches love and kindness. There’s nothing better.
As members of the family, the dogs all participated in all the holidays with us, sitting under the seder table. Duncan sits at the Shabbat table and waits for his challah, especially the homemade challah! They have attended Shabbat in the Park services with the family.
As a rabbi, I have arranged special programs for people to learn mitzvot for caring for their animals and special days for bestowing blessings for their pets.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
Rabbi, Congregation Beth Shalom
In brief: We have two rescue dogs:
a) Older white dog is Rafi. He’s a rescue mixed poodle, around 9 years old.
b) Brown dog is Coco (admittedly my favorite due to her sassy, playful personality). She’s a rescue mini goldendoodle; a beautiful dog that we ended getting when Linda saw her on a rescue list. When we applied to adopt her, she is such a gorgeous dog that 80 people applied for her that very same day. We somehow got in the top 10. And when the foster mom brought Coco over to “interview us,” the two dogs couldn’t stop playing with one another. So they were immediately sold on letting us adopt Coco.
Pet decision: We have ALWAYS been dog people; and have always had at least one dog. We used to have a 70-pound standard Poodle, but now that we are a little older, we decided to “downsize” to the minis!
What added to life: Snuggling! All they care about is hugs and love. You are a rock star whenever you come home, and they always greet us with over-the-top joy! Both dogs make an excellent alarm system (oftentimes too excellent).
Jewish value: Dogs give us unconditional love, ahavat chinam. Pikei Avot teaches that you always greet your fellow b’sever panim yafot, a cheerful disposition. That they always do, and I wish people always acted that way! We can learn a lot from dogs. Our dogs join us for dog-friendly Jewish activities like Tashlich down by the river. And we’ve brought them to our synagogue Alefbet Preschool to play with the kids on Pet Day.
Best aspect: They love to “take us” on walks, play with our grandchildren, or enjoy a movie and popcorn with us on movie nights.
- Roni Robbins
- Rabbi Josh Lesser
- Rabbi Shalom Lewis
- Rabbi Larry Sernovitz
- Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner
- Zoe Shuval-Weiner
- Rabbi Josh Hearshen
- Carrie Hearshen
- Ayelet Hearshen
- Galit Hearshen
- Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
- Congregation Or VeShalom
- Congregation Bet Haverim
- Atlanta Humane Society
- congregation etz chaim
- Cindy Lewis
- Temple Kol Emeth
- temple beth tikvah
- Congregation Beth Shalom
- Alefbet Preschool