Sacred yet casual: Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars is a regional tradition

When Laura Black was a schoolgirl in Miami, she loved the Jewish High Holidays because they meant great-tasting food and warm family gatherings.

The formal services, she dreaded.

“They were about putting on uncomfortable shoes and a fancy dress and sitting by myself at children’s services while my parents went into the sanctuary,” she says. “It wasn't a child’s idea of a good time.”

She now has has a friendlier alternative — and so do her grown children, her three grandchildren and thousands of others in the region. Black will attend Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars for the 11th straight year Wednesday.

Sponsored by the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Northwest Baltimore, the outdoor Jewish New Year service in Oregon Ridge Park has become a full-fledged regional tradition, drawing up to 6,000 people per year, in large part because it’s low-key and comfortable.

Attendees dress the way they want, relax on a hillside, hear popular as well as sacred music, take in much of the action on Jumbotrons, and dig into picnic fare while Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew leads prayers that date back thousands of years and delivers a sermon.

Sachs-Kohen, who has presided over the event since its inception, admits she doesn’t fully grasp the reasons for its sturdy popularity. But she has some ideas.

She, too, grew up associating the High Holidays with formal traditions that could feel alienating to a young person: the decorous attire, the requirement that attendees purchase tickets in order to attend, the expectation that worshippers maintain a respectful silence during services.

She sees Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars as a powerful alternative, especially for modern Jews who wonder whether observing such traditions is necessary to cultivating a worshipful environment — or is even required by Jewish law.

“At our service, you can spread out a blanket and eat your brisket,” Sachs-Kohen says. “You sit in your lawn chair, bring your own flowers as a centerpiece. You can have your meal while the service is going on.

“Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars is radical in an extreme way, in that it says we take this holiday incredibly seriously and you can wear flip-flops.”

Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sunset on Wednesday, marks the start of the New Year — this year, the 5778th — of the Jewish calendar.

It also inaugurates the High Holidays, or Days of Awe, a ten-day stretch of meditation, fasting and repentance in the hope that God will approve the believer’s inscription in the “book of life” for another year.

Rosh Hashanah has its origins in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, when God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to “observe a solemn day of rest” on the first day of the seventh Jewish month, an occasion that should be “a memorial proclaimed with a blast of trumpets.”

Customs include the blowing of a ram’s horn, or shofar, as well as tashlikh, in which Jews cast bread into flowing waters to represent a casting-away of sins.

Many gather for seders, dinners in private homes that feature the reading of blessings and the eating of symbolic foods, including the apples and honey that represent a hoped-for “sweet” new year.

Synagogue services typically feature prayers, ancient religious poems, biblical verses about God’s awesome sovereignty, power and faithfulness, and plenty of celebratory singing.

Black, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household, remembers the formal and informal elements of the holiday as almost completely different experiences. Mindful that regular attendance at synagogues was slipping, she approached the leadership at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation a dozen years ago with an idea: What about sponsoring a service that would be both comfortable and reverent?

“I didn't see why those two things couldn't come together," she says.

A basic formula was born: Invite the surrounding community regardless of faith or denomination; let guests in a couple of hours early, so they could set up picnics, socialize and relax in the park; begin the service at about 6 and conclude it a little before sunset.

The first year, advertising mainly by word of mouth, they expected about 500 people. More than 2,000 showed up.

Within two or three years, the crowd swelled to between 4,000 and 6,000, depending on such impossible-to-control variables as the weather forecast and the Ravens’ schedule.

Organizers hired an audiovisual company, Maryland Sound, to set up oversized video screens — one beside the stage and another on a truck parked behind the crowd — and a booming sound system.

Early arrivals on Wednesday will hear pop music before the service begins. Then it’s prayers scrolled across the screens — Sachs-Kohen dispensed with prayer books and printed handouts several years ago — and the rabbi’s sermon.

The gates open at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Sachs-Kohen advises arriving as early as possible to avoid the inevitable traffic snarls.

Tamar Alexia Fleishman, a Baltimore attorney and freelance writer, has attended eight times.

Raised in what she describes as a less-than-observant household, she attended High Holiday services with her late grandfather, an Orthodox Jew. Because his synagogue barred males and females worshipping side-by-side, he took her to Conservative services.

Even then, she recalls, she had to wear stiff shoes, a hat and a party dress. What she loves about Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars is the picnic atmosphere.

She has been getting ready for days.

“I just went on Sunday to a deli and got various kinds of smoked fish, bread, apples and honey and some bottled water,” she says. “I have a good picnic backpack, too — I can put the whole picnic on my back.”

Like a growing number of Jews in recent years, Fleishman is not affiliated with a synagogue. That makes her part of the demographic Sachs-Kohen says Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars originally targeted. But organizers say the crowed is far more diverse.

Andy Wayne, the former director of communications and engagement at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, coordinated logistics for the event for a decade. He says about a third of those who attend belong to other synagogues in Baltimore and beyond, and that group, along with unaffiliated guests, represents a range of denominations and levels of commitment.

What they’re seeking, he says, is a sense of broader Jewish community — one built around common themes rather than differences.

“People know they're going to be part of a meaningful service to start the new Jewish year, but we’re social people, too,” he says. “In a crowd of 6,000, you're pretty much going to see everybody you know.”

Black attends with a larger group each year, including her husband, Charles Klein, one or both of her children, and all three of her grandchildren, a 10-year-old girl and twin six-year-old boys.

They’ve been attending Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars all their lives, Black says, and she’s happy to say they’re developing their own sense of what the holiday is about.

“Just the other day my granddaughter came up to me and said, ‘Bubbe, Bubbe, Rosh Hashanah is coming!’ " Black says. “It's so nice to hear that excitement.”

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