Our canine companion, Harley, travels with us everywhere we go in North America. She has visited more states than most people and, because she has visited over 100 synagogues, we call her our synadog. She is a Shiba-Inu, a Japanese breed that is one of the six earliest canine breeds, descended directly from the wolf. At 23 lbs. Harley is exactly breed standard.
A sane person might ask why would people who travel a great deal add a dog to their travelling equipment. Further complicating our travels is the fact that Harley is highly allergic. She therefore eats a special diet which must be kept frozen. To supply her frozen cuisine we carry a large cooler in the back of our car and re-stock the cooler with dry-ice two or three times per week.
How did Harley the synagdog enter our lives? Harley was one of several dogs owned by our daughter, Jill, who lives in California. One day while we were photographing a synagogue in Italy we received a phone call from her. In a distressed voice she told us that Harley was in the hospital with 14 stitches and a concussion after being on the losing end of a fight for dominance with one of our daughter’s other dogs, a 90 lbs. Rottweiler-Mastiff mix. Clearly the two dogs could not live in the same house any longer. Jill asked, would we adopt Harley? Understanding that our mobile lifestyle would not readily accommodate a dog, Jill said that if we would take Harley, she would have Harley trained as a service dog so that she could stay in hotels, visit restaurants and fly on airplanes. What’s a Jewish parent to do? We said yes. After her training Harley adopted us and launched her new career as Harley Davidson the synadog.
Her first visit to a synagogue was at huge and imposing Congregation Sherith Israel of San Francisco. The executive director said that dogs were allowed in the sanctuary. I began setting up my equipment and Ronnie began taking a few photos of the decorative details. Somehow Harley slipped off her leash and went rocketing to the bema. We were abashed. She was standing right in front of the ark in this awesome synagogue. When the executive director spoke we were sure it would be to ask us to leave. But, instead she said “No, problem. Harley must smell the Rabbi’s dog. He brings it to all the services.” And indeed, there was no problem. After checking the area for whatever dogs check for, Harley chose an out-of-the way corner for a good snooze.
Congregation Sherith Israel is one of the oldest west of the Mississippi. in September of 1849, some months after the discovery of gold in California, a small group of Jewish pioneers began meeting in a wood-framed tent. Without a rabbi or Torah scrolls, the first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were celebrated in the San Francisco. This band of Jews came from Prussia, Bavaria, England, France and the eastern United States. They met again to celebrate Passover and the High Holy Days in 1850. By 1851 they had formed a permanent congregation occupying a temporary home which was destroyed in the famous San Francisco fire of 1851. The current byzantine-revivalist style 1400 seat building was completed in 1904. Its magnificent Murray Harris organ is recognized as an historic treasure of American organ building.
For almost four years Harley has traveled with us on our synagogue photo-safaris in the USA and Canada. She has made good friends in more than 100 synagogues where the staff are always sorry to see her go. In only three instances, all involving grumpy old men of foreign extraction, we ran into problems. A case in point is Poile Zedek of New Brunswick, New Jersey which was established in the early 20thcentury by immigrants from Russia and Poland. The well preserved building has a wonderful old-world charm. The three of us (Ronnie, Harley and I) were ushered into the building by the congregation’s president who then left so we could take photographs. Photographic work turned to fireworks when an irascible Russian began to berate us for having a dog in the building. To no avail, we explained that Harley the synadog’s presence was approved by both the rabbi and congregation’s president. Admittedly, my Yiddish is weak to non-existent. However, I believe the word tsimmes is used to describe such situations. Vladimir Putin was not the recipient of such harsh rhetoric when he took Crimea and invaded Ukraine.
Just this last July we photographed Temple of Aaron in St. Paul, Minnesota, designed by Percival Goodman. Temple Aaron is not just a building. It’s a whole campus of interconnected buildings including a day school, sanctuary, chapel, multi-purpose rooms, social hall, Judaica museum, kitchen and offices all gracefully resplendent upon a generous grassy lawn facing the Mississippi River. We were shown around the complex by the executive director who explained that he would leave us alone in the building to do the photo-shoot. We should simply make sure the doors were locked on our way out. He had an appointment elsewhere and the staff had left early as it was Friday afternoon.Ronnie roamed the building photographing architectural details and artwork while I photographed the gorgeous sanctuary. When my work was complete I went to look for Ronnie and Harley. As I left the sanctuary I found the labyrinthine building complex dark. The building super had turned off the lights. Wandering in this sparsely lit maze I eventually bumped into my spouse but Harley wasn’t with her. The stealthy synadog had taken advantage of Ronnie’s concentration on shooting photos and sneaked away. We panicked. How do you find a dog in a huge, virtually unlit building complex? A moment’s thought and the answer became obvious: you head for the kitchen. We did, and there she was, enjoying all the wonderful aromas of Jewish cooking.
If all of this sounds a little over-the-top, just read “How to Raise a Jewish Dog” by the Rabbis of Boca Raton Theological Seminary. We won’t seem so crazy in comparison.