Members of the Jewish community gathered in a parking lot at Pimlico Race Course on Monday morning and tossed leavened leftovers into more than two dozen incinerating barrels, burning to a crisp items including slices of pizza and boxes of Cheerios.
Bert Miller of Park Heights, who parted with a piece of bread, proclaimed it one of the largest nationwide gatherings for the annual burning of chametz, or leavened foods that cannot be consumed during Passover, the observance of the exodus of Jews from Egypt.
"This is arguably the oldest religious ceremony in the world still being observed. We've been doing this for 3,000 years," said Miller, 67, a member of Star-K Kosher Certification, a Baltimore-based certifying agency and one of the event's organizers. He said nearly 6,000 people participate at Pimlico annually.
The ceremony comes a day after three people were killed at two Kansas City-area Jewish centers. The suspect, identified as Frazier Glenn Cross, 73, is expected to face federal hate crimes charges as well as local charges, authorities said Monday.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based organization that monitors hate crimes, Cross, who is also known as Frazier Glenn Miller, founded and ran a paramilitary group in North Carolina in the 1980s. He had a prior criminal history and was known by law enforcement and human rights groups as a former senior member of the KKK movement, according to the FBI.
Those gathered at Pimlico decried Sunday's tragedy.
"In this season of a celebration of freedom, it's a reminder that we still have so much work to do," said Joann Levy, 56, of Pikesville.
The spirit of community was strong at the Baltimore event.
Betsy Gardner, Jewish community liaison for Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, coordinated city agencies to help out at Pimlico. As police directed cars to the lot, people with bags and boxes of food lined up to dump them in rusted barrels, some tossing the morsels from several feet away. Department of Public Works hauled away the charred ashes.
Gardner said that the council president's office teamed up with the nonprofit groups Park Heights Renaissance and Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. to collect unopened perishables.
Odessa Neale, 29, community organizer for Park Heights Renaissance, said that the food would be donated to food pantries and soup kitchens. She anticipated collecting enough food to take up half a rental truck.
It was the first-ever chametz burning for Rachel Moses of Pikesville, 39, marketing manager of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. She lauded not only the ritual but the outreach efforts. "It's so heartwarming," Moses said, "to see the community coming together to help the community that does not celebrate Passover."
Gardner, who has been organizing chametz burning since it moved from the Glen Avenue fire station about a half dozen years ago due to increased participation, said her memories of chametz burning go back to childhood. "It's very meaningful because it traces back to the time when Jews were escaping terrorist persecution," said Gardner, 48. "We're paying homage to our ancestors."
Reuters contributed to this article.