How did a mistreated dog from Egypt end up in an Israeli household in Closter?
If you ever have been in love with a dog, you’re well on your way to understanding right away. If not, you should know that when your dog looks up at you and wags her tail and cocks her head and smiles at you (and yes, dogs do smile), well, it’s just a tiny little side trip to heaven.
Okay, “you,” in this paragraph, means me. Not everyone loves dogs; there are those benighted souls who have not yet given over their hearts, and others who suffer from allergies and cannot. But it is fair to say that dogs offer the kind of pure, unconditional love that people, being much more complicated beings, simply cannot.
Although dogs have love to offer, often they are mistreated, abandoned, and abused. Often such dogs end up in shelters, which work hard to try to find homes for them; some shelters keep dogs until they can be placed, but others run out of space and euthanize dogs who have come to be seen as unadoptable.
The possibility of that fate is what drives Robyn Urman of Dumont. She’s a full-time hairdresser whose second full-time job, a volunteer one, is running the rescue service called Pet ResQ Inc, a group that, according to its website, www.petresqinc.org, “saves dogs from high kill shelters, puts them in foster homes, and gets them ready for their forever homes.”
Ms. Urman is Jewish, and a Jewish-based sense of obligation to work toward repairing this broken world has been a guiding force for her. “I have always loved animals,” she said. “I have always been a caregiver. Through the years, I volunteered at places where I recognized the true horror of what people do to animals.
“Once you walk into a shelter, it changes you,” she said.
Ms. Urman grew up in Paramus; when she discovered her love for rescuing dogs she lived in New Milford, in an apartment where she was not allowed to have pets. “Instead, I transported them, and I did what I could,” she said. When she could have dogs, she fostered them, taking in special needs cases, nursing them to health, and then arranging their adoptions by people who could surround them with love while she took on the next challenging situation.
“I took the dogs no one else would take,” she said. “I had a dog who was blind because someone threw battery acid in his face, and a border collie who was beaten with a baseball bat, and ended up in a great home in Tenafly.
“It’s fortunate that I’m a hairdresser in Tenafly” — at Salon Pavel, she said — “because I meet everyone, and everybody knows me, and I’m not shy.”
Although Ms. Urman has been working with abused dogs for more than 20 years, the emotional ante was upped even further for her when she went to New Orleans to help rescue dogs endangered by Hurricane Katrina (and discovered many killed by the storm and its aftermath as well). “I always say that it is the best thing I have ever done as a human being, and the worst thing that I’ve ever seen,” she said.
“I learned how not to shower, how to sleep in a parking lot, how to never think about nails and never think about makeup and meet the most incredible people from around the world,” she said. “The work was eye-opening.
“You get in the zone — at least I did — and I close my eyes, do what has to be done, and fall apart afterward.
“We rescued a lot of animals.”
Three years after Katrina — and three years less one month after Hurricane Rita, another devastating storm that triggered mass evacuations across much of the southwestern coast, and which drew Ms. Urman back for more rescue work — she and friends she’d met in the course of their work organized a reunion in New Orleans. “It was the first time I’d been there when they had running water,” she said. “And then Gustav hit the next day. It was gross.” That hurricane too also killed people, mostly in Baton Rouge.
She was drawn as well to a flood in Iowa in 2008. “I got to swim with dead pigs in the river,” she said. “Dead everythings. I came home with a really bad stomach thing.”
But something good came out of Hurricane Katrina for animal rescuers — it raised people’s awareness of the problems abandoned animals face, and the devastation it causes the families who are forced to leave them behind.
Back at home, Ms. Urman — who celebrated becoming bat mitzvah in 2005, when she was 42, with Dr. Dennis Shulman of Demarest, who is not only a rabbi but also a Ph.D. psychologist and the 2008 Democratic nominee for Congress, officiating — continued to place dogs. She talked to everyone she met about the dogs she fostered, and how she could use all the help she could get with the work. Everyone can do something, she said; if you cannot adopt or foster a dog, you can do all sorts of volunteer work, and you can provide financial support. “People either talk or they walk, and I am lucky to know a lot of walkers,” Ms. Urman said. “You should treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Pet ResQ works at rescuing animals, fostering them, and finding the homes in which both they and their new families will flourish. She has fostered some dogs herself, including some blind dogs, and she now has as a full-time, forever dog the one she calls her “heart dog.” “I have worked with over 2,000 dogs — but I love him,” she said.
“Animals make a big difference in people’s lives,” she continued, so it’s important to get the match right. “We are very careful,” she said. “People have to fill out an application, and we do reference checks and make home visits. We have to make sure that people understand how much it might cost if something happens.” Dogs eventually get sick, and veterinarians do not work for free.
“I am a big dog lady” — perhaps an unnecessary statement — “and I have learned not to expect other people to be like me,” she continued. “I get it. I get that. People only do what they are willing to do, and if you have to ask them to do it they will throw it in your face, so I don’t ask any more.”
That means, in practice, that Ms. Urman is careful about asking for help, and works at lowering her own expectations.
Sometimes, though, people rise to meet those expectations. “Pilots will fly dogs all over the country for me,” she said. “They have a lot of money, and they have the time.”
Ms. Urman finds dogs to rescue from all sorts of places, ranging from word of mouth to Facebook. “It’s all in the networking,” she said. Through Facebook, she heard that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were dipping dogs in gasoline, setting them on fire, and then tossing them as burning missiles, among other cruelties.
Through a Facebook friend, an Egyptian woman named Leila, who lives in Cairo and “who I adore,” Ms. Urman said, told her about a dog, then named Masoor. “This dog was one of the first I have ever gotten that didn’t have an issue,” she added; that is, he does not have any special needs. “He is beautiful, but she couldn’t find a home for him. Leila told me about him, and asked if I would take him, and I said yes, I would.
“He looks to be like a Doberman-German shepherd mix. They call them baladis, it means mutts in Arabic,” Ms. Urman said. “I said I’d take him. Leila and her friends raised money to get dogs out. She finds flight parents, who are coming to New York and are willing to say that the dog is theirs. If dogs come without a human attached to them, it would be another five hours at cargo and customs.
“So he came to Kennedy, and I got him on a transport on October 11, which was also the date of my big event, Woofstock.” (Woofstock, held in Tenafly each fall, includes vendors, entertainment, and activities for kids and their pets; it is also Ms. Urman’s annual opportunity to introduce Pet ResQ to the community.)
“The person who picked him up for me held him overnight, I got him on Monday, and then he got groomed — because he stank — and then he went to Nitza’s house.”
And he got his name changed, not because anyone objected to his Arabic name, but because “Autocorrect changed Masoor to Major,” Ms. Urman said.
Nitza Hockstein is fostering Major. “I have been fostering for a number of years,” Ms. Hockstein said. “I started when my kids, Ari, Noa, and Abby, were going crazy for a dog, and I didn’t know if they’d actually pull their weight if we got them, so I said we should foster first. We could take a dog for a few months, and I would see if they would take up part of the burden.”
They did. They adopted a dog — a three-legged Labrador who they decided to keep. “He loves company, so we decided to keep getting fosters too,” she said. “It is a win-win for us. We get to help by fostering, and he gets a friend.”
In fact, Ms. Hockstein’s youngest child, Abby, who is at Northern Valley High School, “is the one who drove us,” her mother said. “She is very interested in animal rescue, and she’s been volunteering all the time.”
Ms. Hockstein was born in Israel but moved to the United States as a baby. She spends a great deal of time in Israel, though, and her ties remain strong. “My son just finished serving in the IDF,” she said. “He made aliyah right out of high school.” The irony of the situation is not lost on her.
“I just wish the rest of the world would be like this, just taking care of what we have to take care of. Everything else really doesn’t matter — let’s just help out. And dogs are an easy thing to bond over. Robyn and Leila” — an American Jew and an Egyptian Muslim — “are both interested in taking care of dogs. They are both good people helping in bad situations.
“It shows what the world could be if we had our priorities straight,” she said.
Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Closter, who leads Shaar Communities, is “a proudly failed foster family,” she said; she found it impossible to give up the dog she had fostered and adopted it instead.
She finds deep inspiration in Robyn Urman’s work, and beyond that, in her life. “Robyn embodies the traditional mandate that we treat all of life with the utmost dignity, fulfilling our obligation to diminish tza’ar ba’alei chayim” — the suffering of living creatures. “She has dedicated her whole life to this, in a manner that is completely heroic, not only in saving these animals from horrendous shelters and almost certain death, but also in making the effort to find the right loving, nurturing homes where they can thrive.”
It’s not only the dogs who benefit, though, Rabbi Lewittes added. The no-tech gadget-free love they offer is medicinal. “In a world that is saturated with all kinds of distractions and pressures, she introduces an element of love that is healing and pure. Her gift extends beyond the animals’ well-being to the well-being of the families she creates with them.”
Ms. Urman’s inspirational effect on others “is evidenced by the extraordinary team she has been able to put together,” she said. “Veterinarians, dog walkers, groomers, foster families, office volunteers, pilots who have their own planes…”
Bring on more puppy love!