The Lake Norman Jewish Congregation's Saturday morning Shabbat service June 18 blended the hum of boat engines, honking geese and barking dogs.
The congregation enjoyed the backdrop of Ramsey Creek Park on Lake Norman in Cornelius while celebrating its inaugural "Bark" Mitzvah.
"The focus is on being in nature and our responsibility to our pets, and the recognition that they are endowed with qualities like a soul," said Rabbi Michael Shields. "In some ways, while we care for our animals, they care for us, and they can bring great healing."
"Mitzvah" refers to commandments by God in the Torah, and to a moral deed performed as a religious duty. The term also expresses an act of human kindness.
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Thirty people gathered with their pets to share prayers and laughter.
"It's an easier entryway to a community, and it helps to break down walls," Shields said of the new service. "It doesn't matter if your spouse is not Jewish. It's not in a religious space, and for some people, religion carries negative connotations.
"Having it in nature makes it much more palatable."
"It sounded like a lot of fun and it's turned out to be great," said Dean Reganess of Terrell, who came with his family and Neeva, a golden Lab puppy.
The Saturday service is not the only time pet owners should care for their companions, said Shields. Judaism places great stress on proper treatment of animals: Under Jewish law, animals have some of the same rights of humans.
"Don't ask your dog to get the newspaper for you on Shabbat," said Shields. "Take care of your dog."
During the service, dogs lapped water and greeted each other as owners introduced themselves and their dogs.
Sara Serulneck, 12, brought her Chihuahua, Bella. "We always wanted to get her to meet other dogs, and we thought this would be a good way," said Sarah.