A chance encounter between two religious American women last fall resulted in a grassroots initiative that transcends religious and ideological differences - thanks to their common concern for cats! "When we made aliya with our cat 18 years ago, people thought we were nuts," says Penny Hauser, a writer from Old Katamon. "The average Israeli couldn't understand taking a cat into your home, and even less, that you have a commitment to that cat. And they certainly felt no affinity with the hapless street cats, who, rather than compassion, aroused a feeling of revulsion in them. Thank G-d that has changed significantly in recent years, although the change is certainly not fast enough or widespread enough." Penny and Dr. Charlotte Slopak Goller, a psychologist and couples therapist from Baka, met over Shabbat dinner at the home of a mutual friend. "She asked me whether I would like a kitten," Charlotte laughs. "I looked at her and said, 'We already have five cats.' 'I have four,'" Penny responded. Charlotte moved to the other side of the table to sit next to Penny, and the rest, as they say, is history. Troubled by the plight of the thousands - no one knows the exact number - of homeless cats that roam Jerusalem's streets, they decided, together with two cat-owning acquaintances, to use American skills and know-how to help put the Jerusalem Society for the Welfare of Street Cats on the local map. The JSWSC was founded as a non-profit organization in 2000 to ease the suffering of Jerusalem's homeless cats. With no readily available source of food, these cats are forced to scrounge the garbage for scraps in order to survive. Countless numbers die of hunger, thirst and dehydration in Jerusalem's hot summers, and exposure to the biting cold and wind during the winters. They are vulnerable to illness and injury, and shamefully, often suffer abuse at the hands of children or even adults. JSWSC operates a call-in rescue service for cats-in-distress (052-870-1277) and arranges veterinary care, temporary shelter, and when possible, adoptive homes. "Unfortunately, few people knew of the wonderful work these volunteers were doing," says Rachel Alexander, from Talbieh, one of the founding four. "And without adequate funding to pay for ongoing expenses - veterinary services, food, etc. - they were in constant financial straits. We wanted to expand the JSWSC's base of support and at the same time double as a mutual support group for the many people like us who feed homeless cats and are concerned about their heartbreaking condition." As word got around, new members were slowly coopted into the group. While still primarily Anglo, the group now includes sabras as well as native French-speakers, Spanish-speakers, and even non-Jews. "We do not expect everyone to love cats, and can understand that there are people who dislike or are afraid of them," say Dr. Dori Gould from Maaleh Adumim, a scientist, who manages the group's website. "But no one wants to see - albeit for different reasons - half-starved, sickly creatures jumping out of garbage cans. Our goal is to ensure a stable population of healthy cats that keep Jerusalem free of rats and other disease-bearing pests. That is a win-win situation." To achieve this, it is essential to control the size of the cat population. "While the group has arranged for the spaying (females)/neutering (males) of cats that members feed - paid for out of their pockets - it's like sticking a finger in the hole in the dike," says Alexander. "It will solve the immediate problem to ensure that our cats don't multiply. But it is a Sisyphean task. "The average female cats produces 2-3 litters a year - up to 18 kittens. An aggressive spay-neuter campaign, like those that are carried out in cities like Tel Aviv and Herzliya, is the only answer." The many Orthodox members rely on permissions issued by various rabbis, ranging from giving the cat to non-Jews (similar to selling hametz for Pesach or the entire country for shmita year) to blanket permission to perform spaying and neutering in order to prevent cruelty to animals. The JSWSC works in close cooperation with the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In addition to the clinic it operates in Kiryat Hayovel, the JSPCA will open a spay and neuter clinic at its site in Atarot shortly after the holidays, which will be open to the public at rock-bottom prices. Unlike most organizations, apart from an informal steering committee the group has no formal organizational structure, and decisions are made by consensus. Furthermore, although annual dues are encouraged, (basic membership has just been raised to NIS 100), becoming a member requires only filling out a form. "Our goal is to expand our circle of supporters and capitalize on their skills to help in whatever way they can. We now have an infrastructure, we've established committees, and we're embarking on serious fundraising efforts," says Slopak Goller, who is membership chairman. The group works closely with Jerusalem councilwoman Dalia Zomer, who as part of her campaign to put the plight of cats on the municipal agenda, has spearheaded a cross-coalition effort to obtain municipal funding to benefit several animal welfare organizations. "We want to eliminate the suffering of the cats and the suffering of people who can't bear to witness the cats' distress, as well as the suffering of people who don't like cats. We want a Jerusalem that is free of suffering," she says.