Lions and tigers and Torah: Temple Sholom visits zoo

The animals may have gone in to Noah's ark two by two, but the children and adults of Peninsula Temple Sholom streamed into San Francisco Zoo by the hundreds. There was no doubt that "See the Zoo through Jewish Eyes," the synagogue's family education day that took place earlier this month was a roaring, quacking, whinnying success.

Seven-and-a-half-year-old Ben Graham-Helwig, a penguin fan, was delighted to learn that new penguins will be born in May. "Each female penguin has 35 eggs," he said. His friend Lauren Rosenfield, 8, reported that she enjoyed seeing the peacocks and elephants, and that the zoo had taught her that "you have to be fair to animals and people."

Before leaving for the zoo, children studied for an hour at the Burlingame synagogue's Sunday school, learning how to look at animals from a Jewish point of view.

Adina Michael taught her fifth-grade class a phrase from the Torah, tza'ar ba'alei chayim, that translates as "the suffering of animals." She told the class that the Torah advocates feeding animals first thing in the morning, and that it allows for the breaking of Shabbat laws in order to ease an animal's suffering.

Even when killing an animal, Michael said, kashrut laws require that Jews act quickly, causing the least pain. In order to make a clean cut, the knife used for slaughter must be free from nicks and irregularities.

"The Torah has a lot of consideration for animals," she added.

The third grade learned Hebrew names for animals, such as peel for elephant, aryéh for lion and kof for monkey. They talked about how it might feel to be an animal in a cage, and discussed the advantages and disadvantages of zoos.

"If an animal's hurt in the zoo, it can get help, but if it's in the wilderness, it can't get help," said 8-year-old Elexis Feldbrill, solemn beneath a yellow PTS sun visor. But she wouldn't like to be a zoo animal since "you wouldn't be able to get a snack if you wanted one."

Preschoolers, meanwhile, were busy gluing paper animals onto outlines of Noah's ark, and coloring lion masks for the story of Daniel in the lion's den. Under the tutelage of Cantor Barry Reich and Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, they also thought of an animal name for each letter in theAleph Bet song.

"See the Zoo through Jewish Eyes" is not PTS' first creative parent-child study idea.

On the third Friday of every month, the temple hosts TNT, its Tot'N'Torah singing program for preschoolers.

For older children, the reading and discussion program Safer Safari ("safer" is the Hebrew word for book) has been a huge hit, according to Raiskin. "Even when kids are sick, they insist on coming in to change their books once a month."

Rabbi Andrew Straus, PTS' energetic spiritual leader-educator, says he first got the idea for a family zoo day while attending a Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education conference in Jerusalem some years ago.

"Someone else there had done it, and I remember thinking, `What a great idea.'" It took a few years for him to get the project off the ground, but he couldn't be more delighted with its outcome.

"It's been a great day — a chance for families to socialize and learn about the zoo from a Jewish perspective," said Straus.

To prove the point, he nodded at the parents and children sitting on the zoo lawn, chatting and laughing as they ate picnic lunches.

Veteran teacher David Nigel organized "animal relay" races after lunch, and the day concluded with some animal-oriented singing.

For Reich, strumming a reprise of the Aleph Bet song on his guitar, there was just one problem.

He still couldn't think of an animal beginning with the letter "N."