Jews are a vital part of the pet rescue industry in Georgia, from the national to the local level and from volunteer to staff member. Most of those involved with sheltering and fostering animals see it as their responsibility to give back to their community and to care for those who don’t have a voice, but bring so much unconditional love to humans.
Let’s start at the top. Debra Berger is probably one of the highest-ranking Jews in the pet rescue world. She’s Georgia state director of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). But she started her volunteer “career” at the Atlanta Humane Society (AHS) many years ago. The two groups partner on many projects in Georgia, she said.
“Judaism guides my outlook on animal welfare,” Berger says. “My animal advocacy is strongly influenced by the biblical mandate of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, which commands us not to cause the suffering of living beings.
“Of course one does not have to be Jewish to practice compassion towards animals,” Berger says. “Being Jewish is just one of the many lenses to understanding the divine. The divine spark within us makes us empathetic to all of God’s creatures, human and non-human.”
There’s a definite connection between volunteering and Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, said Jackie Nix, volunteer coordinator for the Atlanta Humane Society.
While volunteering isn’t just a Jewish concept “everyone wants to make their community better,” said Nix.
Some of the volunteers Nix works with “may have four dogs and want to walk dogs or are a huge cat lover and want to help someone else find a cat. They want to give back to the community, whether they’re Jewish or not.”
The Humane Society tries to curb the population of animals on the street, she said.
“I think sometimes they are forgotten. There’s a lot of helplessness; they can’t tell you what’s wrong. They may not have had a good life, but they get to have a forever home. We help people find pets and make them happy.”
Sarah Rosenberg was a volunteer with LifeLine Animal Project before she became its community engagement manager 1½ years ago. LifeLine is one of the largest pet rescue and adoption organizations in Atlanta, caring for 30,000 animals at four shelters and two clinics.
“I became involved with LifeLine first as a parent chaperone of a 6th grader who wanted desperately to volunteer at the shelter. I soon found myself visiting the shelter during my own free time, without my daughter, and kept finding more reasons to stop off at the shelter while out in the community. In addition to volunteering, we started fostering, as well, and we were basically immersed in the LifeLine experience.
“Once we realized how many animals in our county shelters need the simple gifts of love and attention, we felt like we had found our niche in community service. With six rescue animals of our own in our home at the time, we knew that we could make a daily impact on lives, and that’s what hooked us.”
Rosenberg never had any pets of her own until her 20s. “My first dog was what people now refer to as a ‘pittie mix’ and I became at once completely enamored with and devoted to these dogs who have been so poorly treated and highly misunderstood in our society. I have shared my home with a series of dogs and cats over the past 25 years and consider each of my animal charges a part of my family.”
She says working with animals “is hugely personally fulfilling and truly makes a difference to the lives of so many in the Atlanta community.”
LifeLine spokeswoman Karen Hirsch became attached to animals at a very young age. “My mom and dad loved animals and we were always taking in stray dogs and cats.
Because of my love for animals, I became an advocate at a young age, canvassing our Atlanta neighborhood at age 10, and asking people to sign petitions against issues like steel leg hold traps, nets that trapped dolphins, etc. At age 16 my love for animals caused me to become vegetarian, and 36 years later, I still am,” Hirsch said.
“As an adult, I’ve rescued, fostered and placed hundreds of animals into homes, and have adopted many animals of my own. It really upsets me how Atlanta’s homeless animals were being routinely euthanized in county shelters, and so I advocated for better treatment of shelter animals,” she said. “It is wonderful to be able to work for an organization that is saving so many lives and working to put Atlanta on the map as a no-kill city.”
The new volunteer director of Ruffus Rescue, Carla Cohen, adopted her first dog from the animal shelter about five years ago and has since adopted four more. “The rescue was founded by Harriett Patterson, who by the way, was Jewish. She rescued and adopted over 3,000 dogs over a 10-year period and sadly she took her life this March.”
Cohen became friends with Patterson and told her that when she retired, she would volunteer. She did just that.
“I started going with her to rescue dogs from high kill shelters and other places and then go with her while they got vetted.” So when Patterson died, Cohen was asked to continue the shelter in her friend’s legacy.
“She was a one woman show and worked 24/7 and we knew we could never fill her shoes. But we wanted to give it a try. My main job is looking for dogs to rescue and communicating with the people the first week. We allow the people to foster a week before they decide to adopt. We get tons of texts and calls during that time with questions.”
The shelter is completely run by volunteers and depends entirely on donations. “We do charge an adoption fee, but every cent is put in our account and used for heartworm treatment and surgery and whatever other expenses we have.”
Cohen admits it’s difficult not to fall in love with the animals she helps. “I try not to get too attached because it is bittersweet: happy they get a good home, but sad when they leave.
We do make them fill out applications and screen every applicant to make sure they are going to the right home. There have been a few sad instances where I didn’t know if I could handle it, but my love for dogs is so great. I truly love, love, love my job.”