‘Bark Atah’: JCC to Host Blessing of Dogs, Pool Party

Harley is a light golden retriever sitting with his tongue out in front of an outdoor swimming pool.
Harley swimming in the Kaiserman JCC outdoor pool after its summer season | Courtesy of Amy Foster

Harley, a 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, is a Jewish dog, at least according to his owner Amy Foster, the chief program officer of the Kaiserman JCC.

After all, he’s ever-present around the table for holidays (though perhaps just looking for scraps); has a Jewish mother; and, like any middle-aged Jewish man, loves paddling laps at the Kaiserman JCC pool (though he only does so after outdoor pool season, when his slobber won’t be a concern for avid pool-goers).

“As part of our family, he feels Jewish,” Foster said. “I’m sure he feels Jewish.”

Though the dog days of summer have ended, Foster believes that Harley shouldn’t be the only canine with pool privileges this year. On Oct. 2, the Kaiserman JCC will host Paws in the Pool, an opportunity for area dogs, Jewish or not, to take a dip in the outdoor pool, which is closed for the season.

The JCC has clearly barked up the right tree: Twenty dog parents have already expressed interest, and Foster expects a ruff estimate of 10 more pooches to show up.

“It’s great to socialize him with other dogs,” said Talia Kassie of her dog Stitch, a brown and white Boston terrier adopted in December 2020. 

Stitch plans on showing off his shark fin life jacket at the event.

“I’d like to give her a new experience besides just the dog park,” Oreet Schwartz said about Nala, her 3-year-old rescue beagle-husky mix.

In addition to a day of swimming and butt-sniffing, the dogs will be blessed by Adath Israel on the Main Line Rabbi Eric Yanoff.

The blessing Yanoff plans to give is a play on words that requires a little bit of background Torah knowledge: “What we say is, “Y’simcha elochim — may God make you — t’Kalev ve ne’eman — like Kaleb.”

Kaleb is the figure in the Torah who was one of Moses’ 12 scouts sent to survey Israel and return to the wilderness to report back. While 10 scouts returned and deemed Israel as an unfit homeland, Kaleb and Joshua returned, insisting that God had promised that land to the wandering Jewish people; they were the only two scouts who had demonstrated loyalty and faith to God’s word, Yanoff teaches.

Great story, rabbi, but more importantly, what does this have to do with dogs?

“It’s not enunciated the same way, but ‘Kaleb’ is spelled the same way as ‘kelev,’ which is the word for dog,” Yanoff said.

Like Kaleb, Yanoff said, a kelev also demonstrates loyalty and devotion.

Of course, Yanoff understands the absurdity in his forthcoming task of bestowing a Hebrew blessing to dozens of wet dogs, which most certainly do not count toward a minyan. But he believes the absurdity is rooted in Jewish tradition.

A brown and white Bostom terrier runs from the waves on the beach. He is wearing a grey and blue life jacket with a shark fin sticking up near the back.
Stitch showing off his shark fin life jacket at the beach | Photo by Talia Kassie

“When you are able to be playful in that way, it makes you feel part of something, right? And every value structure and every group has its language, its inside jokes, its lore, its history,” Yanoff said. “And when you resonate with something like that — in a playful way — it is very affirming.”

Jews engage with this same playfulness during Purim, when spiels draw on popular culture to poke fun at Jewish culture, at the same time bringing to life and adding meaning to a story of Jewish history told year after year.

It’s also a Jewish practice to find the principles of Torah in unexpected places from unexpected teachers. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but old dogs may be able to teach Torah.

Among the dog owners planning on attending Paws in the Pool, there’s a unanimous feeling that Foster describes: “You just feel like dogs are part of your family.”

Sure, it’s going to be darn cute to see some good boys and good girls doggy paddle in the pool, but the dog parents are concerned with more than just a good time. They want their fur babies enriched, socialized, tail-wagging and panting with happiness. It’s an infectious joy that comes with being a dog owner.

Yanoff describes that two-way street of a relationship between dogs and their owners.

“The care of a dog is constant,” he said; a dog will rely on you for the entirety of its life. However, for the duration of one’s time with their dog, there’s also a lifetime of love that a pet has to give. It’s a never-ending cycle of having to care for someone and receive love in return.

“It’s a very Jewish thing to have both constancy of care and constancy of love,” Yanoff said.

For more information about the event, visit phillyjcc.com/pawsinthepool.

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