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Service at Oregon Ridge puts tailgating spin on Rosh Hashana

For certain religious oenophiles, Wednesday's dinner presented an interesting question:

"What wine goes with services?" wondered Arnold Weiner.

Judging from the crowd gathered Wednesday night at Oregon Ridge Park for the popular al fresco Rosh Hashana service marking the Jewish New Year, white, red and rose all had their adherents.(For the record, Weiner, the lawyer famous for defending former Mayor Sheila Dixon in her corruption trial, went with a crisp pinot grigio.)

Started five years ago by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Rosh Hashana Under the Stars has become a tradition for thousands, who flock to the rolling grounds of the Baltimore County park for an event that has brought a tailgating spin to the ages-old service marking the start of the High Holy Days.

"I love the informality of it," said Leslie Greenwald, a Baltimorean who arrived when the gates opened at 4:30 p.m. with her husband, son and mother- and father-in-law. "I want to support something like this that encourages all Jews to come out. It's a great atmosphere."

Greenwald and her family had prime spots right in front of the stage, where they started off the evening with brie and wine. Kids ran around, and adults socialized with friends and those perched nearby on lawn chairs and blankets.

"It's not the traditional dinner with the matzoh ball soup and the brisket, but it's not about the food," Greenwald said. "It's about celebrating Judaism and the new year, a fresh start and a hope for peace."

Baltimore Hebrew started the al fresco service to attract those who might otherwise have skipped it, perhaps because they didn't belong to a synagogue or had small children. Every year it has grown, to the point that last year more than 6,000 attended. This year, with the forecast suggesting rain that never materialized, the crowd looked a bit smaller, although some 5,000 had registered to attend.

The congregation's rabbi, Elissa Sachs-Kohen, has led the ceremony each of the five years and said the outdoor setting makes the service even more meaningful.

"Much of our service talks about nature and creation, and to be outdoors when you're talking about that is very powerful," she said.

Sachs-Kohen said she'll always remember the reaction of one woman after attending the outdoor service the first year.

"This grandmother came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, 'I've never been able to get all my family together for Rosh Hashana until this year,'" Sachs-Kohen said. "I hold on to that. That's such a wonderful thing."

"Every year, people start coming earlier and earlier," said Jessica Normington, the program chairwoman, who was bouncing her 1-year-old in her arms as she continued stage-managing the event. "They want to stake out the good spots on the lawn."

With a pre-service performance by the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble and seemingly everyone arriving with a ball or Frisbee, the event is decidedly a family affair.

For Richard Lederman, attending a religious service outdoors reminded him of his late father, who used to take him fishing even during the High Holy Days, which conclude in 10 days with the solemn Yom Kippur.

"We're closer to God now because we're in nature," Lederman recalled his father telling him.

Indeed, as the sun set and Cantor Robbie Solomon led the congregation in song, the park seemed entirely appropriate for what Sachs-Kohen called a "sacred assembly."

It was also a modern one: This year, the prayer book was available for downloading, for $1.99, on smartphones, laptops, tablets and e-readers. It was a way to be more eco-friendly and more practical: As the night grew darker, it was easier to see the prayers on screen than on paper.

"My husband is in love with his iPad," said Ralene Jacobson, who was on the Baltimore Hebrew committee that worked with the Central Conference of American Rabbis to create a digital version of the prayer book. "Plus, we can share it."

The event has helped give the congregation something of an unusual brand in the area.

"Our doing this has given us a new face in the Jewish community," Sachs-Kohen said. "People perceive Baltimore Hebrew differently — they see us as open and cutting-edge. We were more of a standard Reform congregation before."

For Sachs-Kohen and synagogue members, it's been gratifying to watch the service become a tradition.

"It's a beautiful setting," said Dr. Ed Perl, a former president of Baltimore Hebrew. "Kids enjoy rolling down the hills; people enjoy visiting with their friends. It's open to everyone — people who belong to other synagogues, people who don't belong to any synagogue."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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