The Friday, July 28, Shabbat service at Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace was certainly not a typical one.
Amid the singing of prayers, the occasional warbling of a parrot or the whining of a dog could be heard, and the congregation included several four-legged congregants in addition to the normal two-legged ones.
This was because the synagogue was holding its annual Paws & Claws Shabbat service, its first under Rabbi Meeka Simerly. In addition to serving as a fun get-together for animal-loving congregants, the service presented them with an opportunity to bless their pets like they would any other member of their family, and to raise money for a good cause.
This was far from the first time that Temple Adas Shalom has held such a service. The event was previously called Pet Shabbat and has been happening at the synagogue every year for the past 10 years, according to Executive Board President Mark Wolkow. But 2023’s was the first one hosted by their new rabbi, who is set to be installed on Aug. 12.
“The idea is that, for some of us, animals really are family,” Simerly said. “I’m incredibly blessed to have a congregation that really embraces animals and pets into our lives.”
She noted that she has held pet-inclusive Shabbat services at her previous synagogues, such as Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, California, and Temple Beit Tikvah in Wayne, New Jersey.
Simerly and her husband, David, brought their own dogs to the service — Oreo and Mocha, both Bernedoodles. The rabbi often brings her dogs to Adas Shalom’s HJC Early Learning Center in order to help young children who are afraid of dogs by giving them positive experiences with them.
Also attending were several other dogs and two birds. One congregant, Charna Kinneberg, brought her rescue Moluccan cockatoo, Buddy.
“Moluccan cockatoos are probably the most rehomed animals there are, because they’re so high needs,” Kinneberg said. Taking him to a service was nothing new for her, as she regularly takes Buddy for walks around the neighborhood and on trips to the local farmers market.
Rescuing animals was a major focus of the service, as the event also raised funds for the Shih Tzus & Furbabies Small Breed Dog Rescue in St. Mary’s, Georgia. Two Adas Shalom congregants, Linda and Stu Needel, have been fostering dogs from the rescue for several years.
“Growing up, [my family] wasn’t allowed to have dogs,” Linda Needel said. “My dad was bitten by a dog when he was younger. We were only allowed to have fish from the Purim carnival, and that was the extent of our animals.
“I was determined that my children would grow up with dogs, so they’ve had dogs their whole life,” she added.
The Needels have fostered 42 dogs with Shih Tzus & Furbabies. They have only had a single “foster fail,” which is when a pet foster ends up adopting the animal they are fostering — their dog Sophie, whom they took with them to the service.
“Some [dogs] we’ve had for a week, and others we’ve had for months,” Stu Needel said. “A lot of people ask, ‘How do you give these guys up?’ It’s a commitment every single time.”
Simerly donated a check from the rabbi’s discretionary fund to go toward the rescue’s continued operations.
Much of the service also focused on how people care for animals, and how their treatment of animals reflects their treatment of other people and the world around them. Simerly and other congregants discussed how a person’s actions toward “lesser” beings such as animals and insects can reflect their personal integrity. Actions that might be considered mundane, such as the usage of pesticides and single-use plastics, can be harmful to nature. People should reflect on how their actions affect the world around them and how they treat God’s creations.
After the service, congregants enjoyed a pet-friendly kiddush, complete with treats for the attending animals.
“The Bible tells us that ‘A righteous person cares for the needs of animals,’” Simerly said during the service, citing Proverbs 12:10. “May we continue to care and love our pets, and in taking care of them, we share God’s love for all God’s creatures.”