Robbie Silverman felt uneasy approaching his rabbi about the subject, fearing the spiritual leader of his congregation would find it weird, or at least silly.
But Silverman had lost a loved one only weeks before, and he wanted to do something.
He stepped into Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro's office at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah synagogue in Baltimore County and broached the subject of installing a memorial tribute board similar to those in the hallway and the chapel honoring members of the congregation and their relatives.
"I didn't know what to expect" from Shapiro, or from Jeff Forman, the president of the congregation, whom he also approached with the idea, Silverman said. "I was just hoping and praying my idea to them wouldn't be silly or foolish."
Both were receptive, though, and now the modern Orthodox congregation in Pikesville appears to be the first synagogue in the area to give animals an honor usually reserved strictly for people.
"That's a brand-new one," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, adding that he has four dogs himself and is happy to hear about the pet tribute. "I've lived in some interesting places, including L.A. I've never heard of it."
Shapiro, who has led the congregation for four years, said the question of where animals fit into Jewish religious custom is complicated.
"It's a fascinating subject because it's not so clear-cut," said Shapiro. On one hand, because he grew up with a mixed Labrador and Brittany spaniel named Einstein, he said he respects people who treat their pets as members of the family and sees no harm in observing rituals that were established for people.
On the other, he can see how some would reject it as a "sign of corruption of society."
Indeed, two local traditional Orthodox rabbis frowned on the project, saying it diminishes the significance of memorial rituals meant for people.
Rabbi David E. Herman of Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation near Druid Hill Park, said he had a cat growing up and understands emotional attachment to animals. Still, he said, rituals established to honor the memories of people should not be observed for animals.
"We don't equate human life to animals," said Herman, adding that he did not want to pass judgment on Shapiro's decision.
Rabbi Shaye Taub of Arugas Habosem Orthodox synagogue in Park Heights agreed.
"It's really watering down the respect owed to family members," he said.
Silverman met with Shapiro weeks after his long-haired black-and-white cat, Sylvester, died in March. Tweety — a short-haired tabby who came to live with Silverman along with Sylvester in 1999 — died in 2006.
Silverman was distraught when he went to see Shapiro but was relieved when the rabbi told him that he liked the idea and wanted to run it by Forman to get a sense of how the board of directors would respond. He figured if Forman approved, the board would agree.
"I thought it was a great idea," Forman said. "We talked about how pets are important to people's lives."
Silverman paid $1,400 to a local glass maker — the same man who created the stained-glass windows, a Star of David and decorative menorah for the main sanctuary — to build a display with space for metal plaques. For a $100 donation, members of the congregation and the general public can have a plaque bearing their pet's name posted permanently on the board.
It costs $400 to place a person's name on a metal plaque on one of the 22 traditional memorial boards, which are also open to nonmembers. Those boards are more somber-looking, though, made of dark wood and equipped with bulbs that are lighted to mark the anniversary of the death.
The pet board is clear glass, with room for 52 plaques — but no lights — topped with a blue panel: "Hashem's Little Angels/The Sylvester and Tweety Silverman Pet Remembrance Tribute Board."
"Hashem" is a Hebrew expression, meaning literally "The Name," used as a euphemism for God.
The center of the board bears a short, anonymous passage written perhaps 30 years ago called "The Rainbow Bridge," describing an afterlife where pets and their owners are joyfully reunited.
The board was recently completed and is displayed in a room off the main hallway used for meetings and for children's activities.
"Very few people have said, 'What, are you nuts?' " said Forman, who was quick to put down his $100 for a plaque remembering five dogs that have been part of his life over the years: Friskie, Missy, Candy, Rover and Jasper.
That's one of three plaques on the board, along with two posted by Silverman: one for Sylvester, one for Tweety, each with the slogan, "Forever Loved."
Other plaques are on the way. Shapiro has ordered one for Einstein, and congregation member Allan Diener has paid for one for his grayish-brown short-haired cat Charlotte, who died this spring.
"You feel for them," Diener said. "You'd like to have something that shows it. … I want people to know there was a cat named Charlotte."