Kids learn power of puppy love at Compassion to Animals Day

Congregation B'nai Israel in Petaluma had some unusual guests Sunday morning: Max, Isaac and Benzinger. None was wearing a yarmulke but, other than that, they were dressed for the occasion. Isaac sported a purple T-shirt and Benzinger was quite dashing with a purple bandanna tied around his neck. The trio got a very warm welcome from the children. But that's what you'd expect.

Max, Isaac and Benzinger are dogs.

It was Compassion to Animals Day at B'nai Israel, where discussion and activities centered on animals: the part they play in our lives, their presence in the Bible and how we can help take care of them. All humans attending were expected to bring an animal toy. Max, Isaac and Benzinger got in free.

The idea to devote a day to animals came from several sources.

"The board wanted to bring a guest rabbi in," said religious school principal Daphne Shapiro, adding that parents were interested in having a mitzvah-oriented day. "I knew about PALS," she said, referring to Pets Are Loving Support, a nonprofit organization that offers physical and financial assistance toward helping the pets of Sonoma County AIDS patients who are unable to care for the animals themselves.

"Children love animals, so it seemed a perfect combination."

And it was. Owning an array of pets ranging from dogs, cats and fish to newts, ducks, chickens and horses — one boy tried to claim his little brother as a pet — the children already knew a lot about animals. Guest Rabbi Elisheva Sachs, with her personal menagerie that includes a dog, three cats, seven birds and two horses, was the perfect person to take charge of the day.

The morning began with a presentation from Max, Isaac and Benzinger's human companions, Rob Clark and Cathy Hawkins. Clark and Hawkins are the president and vice president of PALS.

"When you're sick you need a good friend," Clark told the children — and what more devoted and loyal friend can there be than a pet?

Every month PALS volunteers deliver pet food to 150 AIDS patients. They also arrange for vaccinations and medical care. When pets need to be placed in temporary or permanent homes, PALS makes those arrangements.

In addition to being good friends, dogs can be humans' helpmates. Clark told the children about Canine Companions and Guide Dogs for the Blind, two organizations that train dogs to assist people with visual or other disabilities.

Back in their classrooms, the children talked about some of the animals in the Bible: A whale or big fish transported Jonah so he could be a prophet. A raven fed Elijah while he was on Mount Sinai. The dove, which has become a symbol of peace, returned with the olive branch telling Noah the flood was over. And the serpent led to Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden of Eden.

Perhaps most interesting is the shamir, a creature about the size of a grain of wheat that eats anything, including stone. According to Sachs, some believe the shamir may be the agent that, with the guidance of Moses, chewed through the stone to carved out the words that make up the Ten Commandments.

Sachs also pointed out several passages in the Torah that command humans to be kind to animals, including the prohibition against taking the mother bird along with the eggs. In the afternoon, Sachs led a discussion group in which this and other Torah sections that pertain to the treatment of animals were discussed.

Sachs also told the children about dogs who visit sick people in the hospital and asked, since animals do so much for us, what we could do for animals.

Some children suggested not buying fur coats so that animals wouldn't be killed for no purpose. Other suggestions included giving people food for their animals, adopting animals from the humane society rather than buying a pedigreed pet or volunteering at the humane society to feed and walk the animals.

And the easiest thing: Give animals love.