Bat mitzvah gifts go to the dogs…and other critters

When confronted by adults who insist she cannot grow up healthy without eating meat, she stands up to them and confidently counters that it is not necessarily true.

When given a present, she saves the box and covers it with pictures of animals that she's cut out from magazines. In the box, she collects spare change from family members and friends and donates the money to an animal advocacy organization.

In her makeshift bank, 12-year-old Gwendolyn Silver of San Bruno accumulated $50, and she is already putting a dent in her second collection box.

Gwendolyn's efforts at helping animals do not stop at home. At her upcoming bat mitzvah party in early September, she will place on the guest tables boxes for donations to animal advocacy organizations, and educational pamphlets about animals. She will also donate a percentage of her gift money to this cause.

Depending on how much she is able to raise, she will give the money to one or more of the animal organizations to which she belongs.

The young animal activist donated her first box of money to Pets Unlimited Hospital and Adoption Center. The San Francisco nonprofit cares for sick and injured animals and puts them up for adoption.

"It was all her idea to collect the money," says her mother, Elaine Silver, who works at Pets Unlimited.

Gwendolyn's first priority for her bat mitzvah money is to assist the Farm Sanctuary near Orland, 30 miles west of Chico. The organization wages campaigns to stop farm-animal cruelty and educate the public about the "victims of food animal production." Farm Sanctuary provides life-long care for hundreds of animals rescued from factory farms, stockyards and slaughterhouses.

Gwendolyn hopes her donations will allow the farm to adopt a "downed" animal and pay for its expenses to recuperate.

She would also like to make a donation to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or give additional money to Pets Unlimited.

Gwendolyn has attended two educational sessions at the Farm Sanctuary. In June, Gwendolyn, her mother and a friend went to the "country hoe-down." They also toured the farm, fed the animals, and listened to speakers from various animal-rights groups.

Gwendolyn is too young to volunteer with the actual care of the animals at Farm Sanctuary, "so I go and learn" instead, she explains. It's not often the center gets recruits her age.

On the home turf, Gwendolyn hands out educational pamphlets, such as "The Truth About Meat," to friends and family members. She intends to distribute such literature at her bat mitzvah as well.

During the ceremony at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in San Francisco, Gwendolyn will read from the Torah and deliver a speech quite relevant to the causes she has adopted. Her bat mitzvah falls on Shabbat Ki Tetzeh, a portion in Deuteronomy, which addresses the proper treatment of animals — an extremely befitting subject.

"As I become a bat mitzvah and get more connections to the Jewish community," she says, "I take what is most applicable to my life from my Torah portion."

In some ways, she adds, these are the easiest Biblical commands to carry out because they are relevant to modern times.

And yet they can also be difficult to follow, Gwendolyn explains. "It is not easy to convince others to treat animals with the same respect as people."

Gwendolyn was brought up a vegetarian, and at home, her family is strictly vegan. "She never really wanted to do anything different," says her mother.

Gwendolyn has even convinced some friends not to eat certain foods, namely beef and chicken. And though it is not the motivator of her actions, Gwendolyn adds, "it makes me feel real good. It makes my friends think that I've done good things to help all living creatures."

Her long-term goal is to become a veterinarian. Until then, she intends to volunteer at as many places as possible, and continue her fund-raising. She also cares for her three cats — who haven't had the easiest of lives.

Snowball was found at the age of four weeks in the Silvers' backyard. Binky was retrieved from a shelter. Happy was adopted from Pets Unlimited after a bout with ringworm.

Elaine Silver says she and her husband David are "thrilled" with their daughter's activism.