Jewish ‘Santa Claus’ Makes Those with Paws her Cause

Jill Cooper dressed as Santa Claus with her pooch Ziva. | Photos provided

Christmas came a little early for those of the canine variety.

Pooches of all ages and their proud parents had a meet-and-greet photoshoot with Santa “Paws” Dec. 16 at the West Mill Creek Park in Narberth. The event raised money — more than $400 — for the Pennsylvania SPCA.

But for the woman behind the beard, dressing up as Santa has less to do with the holiday and more to do with making the world a better place.

Jill Cooper, executive director of Beth David Reform Congregation, said she focuses her tikkun olam efforts around helping dogs, because “people can mostly help themselves; animals rely on people to help them.”

“Watching dogs play is better than any Xanax on the market,” she joked. She supports other canine charities like Dogs for the Deaf, which she’s been supporting since her son’s Bar Mitzvah project almost 20 years ago. The organization, now called Dogs for Better Lives, trains rescue dogs to become service dogs for people with different disabilities.

She joined the Friends of the West Mill Creek Park group in 2013, after the park became the first off-leash dog park in the area in 2009.

The group of mainly women took it upon themselves to make the space personal and improve the habitat for all people, dogs and wildlife of the park.

They fundraised to add large rocks for dog owners to sit on while their pets played in the creek — a favorite activity for the pups year-round. They also added an enclosed fence to prevent dogs going too far to the neighboring road of the roughly 9-acre park.

But their fundraising efforts each year focus on giving back to the pooches who make this space enjoyable.

The Pennsylvania SPCA Santa Paws fundraiser usually sees about 100 people trickle throughout the day.

Other members of the Friends group provided free doughnuts and hot chocolate for the attendees (and dog treats for the four-legged attendees).

“The [SPCA] needs the biggest amount of help from us,” Cooper said. In the spirit of giving, they’ve raised more than $1,500 over three years.

And she’s happy to take on the Kris Kringle role — “What other opportunity do you get to sit down and have a million dogs in your lap?”

Cooper’s rescue dog Ziva — a 7-year-old husky and Lab mix — also attended the fundraiser, and managed to squeeze her face into every frame of other people’s photos.

“The [dogs] who are in shelters very often don’t find homes, and rescuing animals saves their lives,” she noted. (She even spreads this message in her checkbook, which states “rescue is my favorite breed.”)

But creating this park affinity group is important for the volunteers, too. Cooper moved to the area eight years ago and didn’t know a soul, but taking Ziva to the park enabled her to make friends over their mutual love for mutts.

Ellen Briggs, president of the Friends park group steering committee (along with her “canine adviser” Lizzie, a 9-year-old English Shepherd), said the fundraiser also benefited homeless dogs who were displaced by the series of recent hurricanes, an effort of the ASPCA.

“We all love our dogs, and we wanted to remember dogs who are less pampered than any of our dogs and who really need our help,” she said.

Karen Garbeil, membership chair, noted she came up with the Santa Paws idea years ago because their dogs are often “indulged and spoiled” with love, so she wanted to give back to the dogs who don’t have that.

Her 9-year-old golden retriever Junior is also known as “Foygl hunt,” which is Yiddish for “bird dog.” The breed is known for retrieving, though “the only birds [Junior] sees are cooked chickens,” she laughed.

She said the dogs enjoy the off-leash park, but the owners enjoy it more, as it’s a chance to see each other and catch up.

But Garbeil, who is Jewish, reiterated that dogs in shelters seriously need help and homes.

“Our dogs never miss a meal. They’re never loose. They’re always with their owners. The dogs that are in the shelters are less fortunate. They need a permanent home,” she said. “So we feel if we give to [Pennsylvania SPCA], we’re doing a mitzvah.” 

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