Rabbi Robin Nafshi and Cantor Shira Nafshi share a passion for Judaism and for animals. Robin is associate rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough and community rabbi at the Ohr Tikvah Jewish Healing Center of Somerset, Hunterdon & Warren Counties. Shira is cantor of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown.
On the six acres they share in Lebanon in Hunterdon County, they live with four cats, three dogs, and three horses.
Now they hope to share those twin passions with others, at a cantorial concert to benefit a New Jersey farm that offers temporary care for pets whose owners are unable to do so themselves.
Shira and four other cantors will perform on Saturday evening, Feb. 13, in a private home in Upper Saddle River.
All proceeds will support Seer Farms, of whose board Robin serves as president.
The Nafshis readily acknowledge that a cantorial concert for a temporary animal shelter is “a lot kooky,” in Robin’s words, because it bears no immediate connection to either Jewish or musical causes.
But all of those involved have developed a connection to Seer Farms, from Cantor Haley Kobilinsky of Armonk, NY, whose aunt’s cats ended up there when she was ill, to those who are just animal lovers and supporters of the shelter.
And there’s another connection: Seer Farms’ mission goes beyond animals to caring for pet owners as well.
Located in Jackson, the farm was founded in 2009 by Laura Pople, who volunteered in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and saw people having to separate from their pets. Seer Farms is not a traditional animal shelter. Often, people who place their pets there are facing a financial or health crisis, a natural disaster, or even domestic violence.
For Robin, finding Seer Farms brought her two life passions together. She could always volunteer at a standard animal shelter, she said, but that would never tap into her rabbinic training, and particularly her expertise with pastoral counseling, a big part of her rabbinate.
At Seer Farms, she does both.
“Our clients are often very fragile and in a place of crisis,” she said. “And so being a pastoral counselor, I’m able to spend some time talking with them, do little interventions.” She also provides advice to the staff.
There is plenty of heartbreak. One family, living in a tent with nine cats, had to move to a homeless shelter when the temperature dropped. They brought their cats to Seer Farms. Another family was threatened with eviction unless they got rid of a large dog. In each case, the families hope eventually to be reunited with their animals.
And then, said Robin, there was the “the six-foot-four-inch burly guy with tattoos up and down his arms who cried like an infant when he left his pit bull with us.”
Clients who are in a financial position to do so are asked to contribute $50 a month. While few people intentionally abandon their animals at Seer Farms, the staff is realistic.
“For a lot of people who are in crisis, one crisis leads to another crisis and things spiral out of control, and their animals may not be on the radar screen,” said Robin. Seer Farms has a volunteer whose role is to stay in touch with families.
Robin said she hopes that the shelter will not only expand but will also serve as a model for similar efforts.
She shared another vision: “that more and more Jews, and rabbis in particular, and Jewish teachers would really begin to teach more about the concept of compassion for animals,” she said.
Shira, an accomplished horsewoman, and Robin, who got her first dog at the age of 12, both take credit for coming up with the idea for the concert. But the real catalyst was David Iskovitz, director of education at B’nai Or and a dog owner. The couple visited him at his home last year and realized they had found the perfect venue for a benefit concert. His home not only offered a layout conducive to the gathering, but it was also accessible to cantors from New Jersey and Westchester.
In addition to Shira Nafshi and Kobilinsky, performing cantors will include Dana Anesi of Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, NY; Orna Green of the Progressive Havurah of Northern NJ; and Leon Sher of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.