My shoes scuff the pavement as I try, to no avail, to slow my pace. In one hand is a leash connected to a 70-pound dog who is dragging me down the street. In the other is a bag containing the aforementioned dog’s poop.
Could this be a radically Jewish act? I think to myself.
Well, okay, that’s not exactly how things went. The part about being pulled along by a large canine is true, but it was not in that moment that I realized just how connected dog fostering is to Judaism. That part came later.
Anyone who has done their research into Judaism will likely be familiar with the Torah’s emphasis on fostering others’ wellbeing and welcoming the stranger: “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt”, proclaims Exodus 23:9. Growing up, I heard my rabbi discuss the concept of welcoming newcomers plenty of times. Like every other kid who would have preferred a Saturday morning sleep-in rather than find themselves attending Hebrew school, I wasn’t exactly engaging in a critical analysis of my rabbi’s sermon.
Be nice to the new guy, okay, got it, how hard can that be? I thought. Then came Java.
Java was a Rhodesian Ridgeback-Doberman mix. He was also my first foster dog. Java was rescued from Texas, and though I was never able to uncover his full backstory, it seems likely his past owners had to give him up due to financial constraints caused by COVID. He could not be left alone due to his tendency to confuse the couch for a giant chew toy. He consistently peed in the living room, ate my favorite pair of running shoes, and routinely howled at night. In the moments when I found myself fearing a noise complaint from my landlord or sweeping up the rubber soles of my chewed-up sneakers, I couldn’t help but wonder why I had ever welcomed Java into my home, let alone my life.
Luckily for Java, misbehaving was not his only attribute. He loved cuddles, peanut butter, and walks. When he got excited, he would do a full body wiggle so unexpected for a dog of his size and athletic appearance it couldn’t be anything but criminally cute. So, whenever Java tested my limits, I was able to forgive him.
Without even knowing it, I was acting out a Jewish value by choosing to look after him and allowing him into my home… even though he mistook basically everything in my apartment for a treat or toy. Though Java wasn’t exactly the kind of stranger the Torah references, he was a stranger to being cared for. Each time I found myself frustrated with him, I tried to remind myself of that fact.
As I was being dragged along by Java, his bagged poop in hand, it started to rain — and something inside of me snapped. No matter how much self-reminding I did, my regret for having taken him in was on the rise. By the time we got home, all I could think was: Why did I decide to take care of this monstrous dog? Fostering was a mistake. I would be giving myself too much credit if I said it was then that I had a moment of Jewish clarity, overcoming my physical discomfort and irritation by reminding myself of Jewish law. Nope, that’s not what happened. I made myself a cup of tea and went to bed bitter.
It was only in the coming days that I found an answer to my question, and remembered how much I loved spending time with goofy, affectionate Java. The answer, though, just so happened to be hiding within Jewish principles I’d known of all along. Hospitality, for one, is a very Jewish concept. If you look closely, the Torah is practically begging us to welcome and care for others. Leviticus 19:34 is but one example, stating that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you.” While I didn’t have any biblical quotations handily memorized after Java dragged me home in the rain, the more I looked into the connection between Judaism and hospitality, the more I found.
It was through thinking about the Torah’s emphasis on welcoming the stranger that I remembered both why fostering was something I had chosen to do, and how much I loved spending time with sweet, clumsy Java. When I thought back to all those times I’d heard my rabbi talk about how critical lending a helping hand to newcomers is to leading a Jewish life, it made sense: Where would the Jewish community be if not for the ways in which we continue to foster our own communities while looking out for those of others? Taking care of others — whether they’ve got four legs or two — no matter how different from ourselves they may be, is in itself a Jewish act.
By welcoming fosters into my home, and accepting there will be upsets along the way (most likely in the form of chewed household items), I’m engaging with a Jewish value. While I understand if others would rather explore an avenue of Jewish charity that involves less poop baggies and muddy paw prints, there’s something to be said for holding your door open for someone right when they need it most.