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A Mitzvah You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

by Michael Aushenker

December 5, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Call this your typical rags-to-riches story, except that it's set in Long Beach and stars two young Jewish boys and a baby blacktip reef shark.

Back in April, Benjamin Mayer, 7, and his brother Noah, 5, stumbled onto a 6-month-old shark at a Westside pet store. The Westwood Charter School elementary students became fascinated with the fish, and returned 10 times to visit her.

"It made me sad to see the shark there," said Noah.

"It kept bumping its nose on the tiny tank," said Ben. "It was too small."

"Benjamin and Noah would talk about the shark all the time," said the boys' mother, Kiersten Cluster.

In June, the Mayer boys decided to take action. They rolled up their sleeves, marketed lemonade, sold off their toys and raised $400, to which their parents donated the $200 difference, to purchase Barbara -- named after Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl ("Because my brother has lots of comic books about Batman," Noah said). On July 26, they rescued Barbara from her the small pet store fish tank.

"At first, Ben wanted to put the shark in the ocean, but we found out that it could not be done because ocean bacteria would kill her," Cluster said.

So the family called Sea World staffers, whom advised them to contact the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, a nonprofit education and conservation institution that is home to more than 12,000 ocean dwellers. The aquarium was more than delighted to welcome Barbara, who moved into her new digs in early September.

"This very special blacktip reef shark is now enjoying her new home in the aquarium's Tropical Reef Gallery," said Eric Forsman, biologist and shark expert at the aquarium, "thanks to the love and dedication of two young children that are inspirations to all of us."

Cluster said that she and her husband, Darryl, "have really tried to raise them to be compassionate toward all living creatures. It has a lot to do with Judaism -- justice, showing compassion, taking care. They're pretty persistent kids. Once they get their minds set on something, there's no changing their minds."

The best part of their mitzvah, according to the boys, was "seeing her at the new tank," Ben said. "It felt good."

To visit Barbara and other denizens of the sea at the Aquarium of the Pacific, call (562) 590-3100 or visit www.aquariumofpacific.org .

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