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Jewish observers in Catonsville, Towson areas ‘physically distanced but spiritually one’ on Rosh Hashana

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen blows the shofar, a ram's horn, at the start of a Rosh Hashana Under the Stars service at Oregon Ridge Park for the Jewish New Year.
Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen blows the shofar, a ram's horn, at the start of a Rosh Hashana Under the Stars service at Oregon Ridge Park for the Jewish New Year. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Rabbi Dovid Reyder expected the Chabad of Catonsville’s first Rosh Hashana celebration to be quite different.

The Jewish New Year, a two-day holiday that begins at sundown Sept. 18, is typically rung in with family meals over brisket, fish and lekach, or honey cake, followed by a lengthy evening service and the traditional rituals of blowing the shofar and Tashlich, when observers cast off their sins in a flowing body of water.

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The start of the Hebrew calendar year also marks the beginning of the High Holy Days, a period of reflection and renewal for Jewish observers that ends with Yom Kippur.

“We celebrate it by actually tuning in, reflecting on what is our purpose? What are our values? What is something that we need to work on for the coming year to make that better?” Reyder said.

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This year, some Jewish leaders said Rosh Hashana has taken on new meaning. And they are adjusting despite the public health hazards that large gatherings pose.

“It’s got all kinds of layers of meaning; it is the celebration of the new year and a new beginning," said Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen, of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, which organizes Under The Stars, an outdoor service at Cockeysville’s Oregon Ridge Park for the Jewish New Year.

“I can’t think of a year where I more desperately wanted a new beginning and a new year. A new start,” Sachs-Kohen said.

Although houses of worship were allowed to resume indoor services at limited capacity in June, some Baltimore-area rabbis say they don’t feel comfortable with that yet. Under The Stars, for instance, will be a virtual program this year, given that the service draws thousands, Sachs-Kohen said.

The virtual program, this year called Under Your Stars, will commence with the prerecorded blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn, followed by a service and family activities through Zoom, like braiding challah bread that Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews traditionally dip in honey at meals throughout the weekend.

The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is prerecording other High Holy Days services, too, Sachs-Kohen said.

In many communities you need to belong to a synagogue to attend holiday services, she added. “Under your Stars has the same outlook that it has always had — it is meant to be accessible and warm and welcoming and available to the whole community.”

Rabbi Mendy Rivken, who runs Chabad-Lubavitch of Towson, a Hasidic Jewish outreach group that functions under the umbrella of the American Friends of Lubavitch, said he was still hashing out how the Chabad House, which mainly serves Towson University and Goucher College students, will observe the new year.

In previous years, Jewish students would listen to the shofar sound at Towson University. With the campus closed to most in-person classes and student housing, Rivken said many students the Chabad House serves are scattered or living with families, and some fear putting their loved ones at risk by attending Shabbat dinners or other services.

To that end, Rivken said prepackaged meals will be available on Rosh Hashana to pick up at the Chabad House, and an outdoor service is scheduled for those comfortable enough to stay.

“We’re gonna try to serve everybody as best we can,” Rivken said.

Chabad of Catonsville, which opened just before Rosh Hashana last year without enough time to plan a service, will hold a socially distanced outdoor service this year for its congregants — mostly students from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, with which the Chabad house is affiliated through a Chabad student group.

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Because Orthodox Jews cannot use technology on the Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest on Saturday, Reyder said performing virtual services would not be feasible.

He expects the backyard of the house, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters, can safely accommodate between 25 and 30 people for a traditional Rosh Hashana dinner Saturday evening. For those who are not comfortable staying, Reyder is packing to-go meals with traditional Rosh Hashana fare like apples and honey and pomegranate.

Reyder also plans to blow the shofar on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, at the Chabad house in Halethorpe’s Arbour Manor, which symbolizes a message of awakening that “is so much stronger this year,” Reyder said.

“We listen to that shofar blast, you stop everything you’re doing and you contemplate,” he said. Amid the pandemic, everything has come to "a complete stop. Everything we knew that was normal is no longer acceptable.”

During his prayers, Reyder said, he will be thinking about the Jewish people who cannot observe Rosh Hashana with loved ones this year, especially those with underlying health conditions.

“Whether it’s at home by themselves or in synagogues, we are physically distanced, but spiritually one,” Reyder said.

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