With a fair few barks and a hearty “muzzle tov” from Rabbi Fred Schwalb, members of the Hebrew Congregation of Somers — and their furry friends — took part in the third annual Bark Mitzvah, a special prayer ceremony honoring pets.
Inspired by the Christian ceremony of the Blessing of the Animals, Schwalb, who has led the Shenorock synagogue for almost a decade, said the event is a simple way to honor dogs, cats and other pets.
Schwalb said he once heard of a dog receiving an actual bar mitzvah — the traditional Jewish prayer rite that celebrates the entrance to adulthood — but he felt that was “a little going overboard.”
“But dogs, and pets in general, are such an important part of our lives,” said Schwalb, who came to the event with his four-year-old dog Tal. “In Christianity, there’s a ceremony in many churches where bring in your pets … so we adopted it from our Christian neighbors. This is what we do in lieu of that.”
The Hebrew Congregation of Somers is a 91-family synagogue that was started in the 1940s when Shenorock was still a summer colony. The synagogue belongs to the Reconstructionist denomination of Judaism, which favors creating new rituals to address significant modern events and celebrations.
Also at the event was a table where 12-year-old Dylan Chouinard sold homemade dog biscuits and collected money for the Briarcliff SPCA.
Chouinard’s mother, Ilene, said her son was raising funds for the center as part of a community service project to correspond with his October 13 bar mitzvah.
Dylan said the project is important because it will help serve a population that can’t help itself.
“I got my dog at an SPCA, and it just seemed like a good idea,” he said. “These are animals that should be cared for.”
Ilene Chouinard said Sunday was her first time attending the event but she had heard stories from other congregants about pets besides dogs that had attended.
“All pets are welcome — dogs, cats, I think someone had a lizard once,” she said.
During the Bark Mitzvah ceremony, Schwalb read a few modified Jewish prayers that paid extra attention to the non-human visitors — about 10 dogs attended the event.
“We gather today, people and pets, humans and hairy friends, furry family members,” he said. “We acknowledge the efforts that allow for their families to make this beshert connection with their pets.”
Beshert is a Yiddish word meaning meant-to-be.
Congregant Diane Karsch, who brought her dog Zeke to the event, said turnout may have been low because of Mother’s Day, but that the Bark Mitzvah is a wonderful way to bring the synagogue community together.
“I think it’s a lot of fun, a lot of members come — some people I didn’t even know they have dogs,” she said. “It’s just a nice way to get together on a beautiful spring day.”