It's an unlikely setting for a religious ritual, behind a busy grocery store parking lot and nearly underneath a rumbling expressway.
But this stretch of the Jones Falls — the stream rather than the highway that takes its name — provided the necessary running water on Monday for the first day of Rosh Hashana, when Jews celebrate their faith's new year by symbolically casting off the sins of the last one.
"This year, I don't have much to throw away," said a smiling Diane Wacks, president of Beit Tikvah congregation, which organized the Tashlikh on the banks of the Jones Falls behind the Whole Foods in Mount Washington.
Nonetheless, she tossed generous pieces of home-baked bread into the water, much nicer than the crumbs that traditionally are cast into flowing water to represent whatever needs to be washed away to start the new year afresh.
It's the second year that the Roland Park congregation has taken to this stretch of the stream, which members turned to after their previous waters, Lake Roland, became inaccessible when Robert E. Lee Park was being renovated. But already, Wacks said, the denizens of the stream seem to be expecting them.
"It's amazing. It seems like the ducks know we'll be here," Wacks said as a group of the birds paddled in the stream and accepted the offerings.
For Joan Freedman, a member who brought her two teenage daughters and an exchange student from Senegal, the ritual is not about carbo-loading the resident ducks.
"It's more like an emotional cleansing ritual," Freedman said. "It makes you feel good."
While Tashlikh stems from a prophet's directive to "hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea," what is being tossed has a much broader meaning.
"It's really letting go of what holds you back in life," said Becca Gould, the rabbi of Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist synagogue. "It's very freeing to do."
On the sun-dappled afternoon, away from the bustle just beyond the tree-lined bank, the congregation launched the Jewish new year of 5773. Members sang along to guitar and ukulele to geographically appropriate songs such as "Down by the Riverside" and "Wade in the Water." Rabbi Ruth Smith of the congregation's Kesher School even added a few dance steps.
"We can clear out all the old garbage," she told the group. "We want to make room for change … for something new in our lives."
Jessica Leshnoff, who came with partner Holly Beatty and their friend, Juliana Zuccaro, said the new year is a joyous time.
"Rosh Hashana is a very hopeful time of year," Leshnoff said. "You really feel like you're starting with a clean slate."
Zuccaro — "my father is Italian-American, my mother is Jewish" — said she uses Tashlikh to think about how she wants to improve her relationships in the coming year.
"I don't know if it's so much about casting away as reminding yourself how to go forward," she said. "How do you maintain and do better with your relationships, your personal ones, your work, your relationship to the world as a whole, not just people?"