OPENING NIGHT Synagogues prepared for Rosh Hashana


A Rosh Hashana sermon is different.

For a regular Sabbath, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann will spend a week preparing a sermon. But for Rosh Hashana -- which ushers in the Jewish New Year at sundown tonight and continues through the Ten Days of Penitence to Yom Kippur -- the rabbi will take a month to find the proper theme.

He will write, rewrite, polish every phrase until the words are just right.

"It's different because this is the start of the Jewish high holy days, and because of the big crowds we expect," says Lehmann, the assistant rabbi at the Orthodox Beth Tfiloh Congregation at 3300 Old Court Road. "A Rosh Hashana sermon is like moving up to play in the big leagues."

Just as big league ball clubs will make special arrangements to gear up for Opening Day, local synagogues have been working since early summer to prepare for Rosh Hashana.

The name of the holiday translates from Hebrew as "head of the year." Tonight will mark the start of the year 5751 on the Jewish calendar.

Brass has been polished, curtains changed, extra seats set up, even new access ramps and heating systems installed, all in preparation of the most holy time of year for Jews around the world.

"Thursday and Friday -- the two days of Rosh Hashana -- and Yom Kippur are the three days of peak attendance all year," says Rabbi Seymour Essrog of the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation at 9411 Liberty Road.

Beth Israel usually draws 150 to 350 congregants for a regular Sabbath service, but tonight and tomorrow, Essrog expects 1,900 at each synagogue worship and another 700 in a service held simultaneously at the nearby Blue Crest North banquet hall on Reisterstown Road.

"The big challenge is getting 1,900 people into a building that was built for a lesser crowd," the rabbi says. "Fortunately, we have electric walls so two rooms in the synagogue can be turned into one big room."

Similarly, at Temple Emanuel Synagogue, a Reform congregation at 3301 Milford Mill Road, a wall in the building can be moved to increase the usual capacity from 250 to 600, says Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl.

The Reform Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, at 7401 Park Heights Ave., will hold three services tonight that will be attended by 5,000, says Rabbi Murray Saltzman. About 4,700 will worship at five different services tomorrow.

A new access ramp into the Baltimore Hebrew sanctuary was installed last week and will get its first real workout during this week's services, says Saltzman.

At Beth Tfiloh, where a regular Sabbath service brings in 400 to 500 people, Lehmann expects 2,000 for each Rosh Hashana service.

And at the unaffiliated Beth Am Synagogue, at 2501 Eutaw Place, about 1,400 will worship at each service this week, says Reconstructionist Rabbi Ira Schiffer. About 100 to 200 usually come to Beth Am, where workers have just finishing putting in "TC new heating system.

Because the downtown synagogue has no parking lot, it is operating a bus shuttle to services this week from the lot at Pimlico Race Course.

Schiffer says that, at his request, city police have helped keep traffic moving during holiday services in recent years. The county synagogues routinely make the same request, according to Cpl. Frank Spadaro of the Western Traffic Division of the Baltimore County police.

"It's the kind of thing we'll also do for some of the big churches" on major Christian holidays, Spadaro says. "We'll station one officer at each synagogue. We'll help people get off the parking lots and try to prevent backups on the main roads."

To the rabbis, the inordinately high attendance at Rosh Hashana services can seem a mixed blessing.

"It does bother me a little to see these big crowds only for the holy days," says Essrog. "I'm just happy to see people whenever they come. I know some rabbis will scold a little in their sermons, but my feeling is, I'll try to give them heaven instead of hell. I don't want to make them feel bad."

Schiffer says, "The obvious thing would be to scold people for not turning out in such numbers all the time. But you don't state the obvious. The people who come once a year don't want to be reproached. The challenging thing for a rabbi is to make the holiday experience positive enough to make them want to be more committed to Judaism."

Lehmann says, "On the one hand, there's a sense of exhilaration to have all these people in one place at one time. It's the beginning of the new year, you start it with a multitude of people, and that's certainly upbeat. On the other hand, there's the sense that it would be wonderful if we could get that sense of commitment all year."

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