By Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov
As a rabbi, I have had the opportunity to officiate and preside over all types of life-cycle events. I’ve done lots of weddings, my fair share of funerals, a good number of b’nai mitzvah and more than a handful of baby-namings. However, up to now I’ve only ever done one BARK Mitzvah- well what someone called a Bark Mitzvah…
Now, before you write me off as a bizarre (or really “new-age”) rabbi, let me explain. While I was in Rabbinical school a very dear friend of mine approached me and asked me about doing a “Bark Mitzvah” for one of her dogs. This friend of mine, who was in fact a certified dog trainer, was not crazy or eccentric; she just had a big heart and loved her dogs immensely. She was never blessed with children and in some ways her dogs became like her kids as she bestowed a great deal of adoration upon them.
I think my first reaction might have been to laugh or to say- “Are you serious?” But, I restrained myself. Instead, I asked my friend to explain her idea. As a committed Jew she didn’t want to make any form of a mockery out of Judaism or out of a Bar Mitzvah. However, she did want to find a way to celebrate the life of her aging dog whose health was failing and whom had brought her much joy. In fact, it was because she was so connected to her Judaism that she had to find a way to celebrate her animal companion through her faith, a way to honor her beloved pet through her Judaism. After listening to her and trying to understand, I agreed to help her. I decided to officiate at what she called a “Bark Mitzvah,” or what others would deem, a “Blessing of the Animals.” I was adamant that this would be a service for humans, yet would allow us to honor her beloved dog.
I must admit, that the “Bark Mitzvah” was really a lovely day. We gathered at my friend’s home along with about 30 of her friends, some of whom also brought their dogs. All the animals played in the backyard while we conducted a beautiful and moving service. The ceremony contained standard liturgy with poems about dogs and the love they bring to humans. During the service we even paused to pray for the health of various animals in the lives of the people present and we even took a moment to give thanks for the animals people had loved who were no longer living. In lieu of gifts, people were asked to make donations to the ASPCA (though my friend’s dog did get a handful of shiny, new toys). Due to this event a very sizable donation was made to help animals in need. After the service we all shared in a delicious bagel brunch filled with camaraderie between both humans and dogs. We even left with a parting favor of stuffed animal- a dog wearing a yarmulke and a tallit!
As you read this you might think- “wow-that’s great– can you do a Bark Mitzvah for my dog?” OR you might be thinking- This is the most ridiculous thing, bordering even on blasphemy. To be honest, I myself was caught between both emotions…At the time, I didn’t “get it.” Growing up, the only pets I had were hermit crabs- definitely not the same thing as a dog. So, while I appreciated the love my friend had for her animals, I didn’t really understand their impact in her life.
However, all that changed two years ago when my husband and I adopted our dog, George. I know it might sound a bit extreme, but our little dog has enriched our lives in ways I never could have imagined. When I talk about him to “animal-people” they get it- they can appreciate how I speak of him in almost human terms. To non-animal people, I probably sound a bit “nuts.”
George has opened my eyes. I was greatly impressed by all of God’s creatures before he entered my life, but now I see God’s work even more fully in the unconditional love I receive from him.
This week, as we read the Torah portion of Noah, it is an opportunity for us to celebrate all of God’s creatures- an opportunity to give thanks for all kinds of animals. There are many ways to show our love for animals- including supporting organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund or the Humane Society. One way many congregations, including my own, will celebrate both this week’s parsha and our love and respect for animals is by having a “Blessing of the Animals.” At my congregation it won’t be a “Bark Mitzvah”- in part because some of the animals coming don’t bark. However, it will be an opportunity to thank God for enriching our life with our companions of all species.
Rabbi Emily Ilana Losben-Ostrov is the Rabbi at Sinai Reform Temple in Bay Shore, NY. She and her husband Ruben love to spend time spoiling their dog- George!