For members of the 500-family Columbia Jewish Congregation, this year's Rosh Hashana observance may prove more demanding -- and spiritually rewarding -- than any the congregation has held before.
In addition to the traditional rituals that accompany the Jewish New Year, which began at sundown yesterday, the congregation will divide into 30 groups from various neighborhoods for intense discussions of the holiday and its meaning.
"It's never been done before," said Rabbi Martin Siegel of the small group discussions, which will take place before, during and after formal Rosh Hashana observances marking the start of the Year 5755 in the Jewish calendar. "The idea is to make the holy days more real."
For Jews, Rosh Hashana is a time of hope, repentance and seeking forgiveness from God. It marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Penitence, which end Sept. 15 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most holy day of the Jewish calendar.
To mark Rosh Hashana, a long ram's horn called a shofar is blown, alerting Jewish people to change their ways and to be spiritual, God-abiding people.
Jews pray for forgiveness, read from the Torah (the Jewish holy book) and symbolically toss their sins into the water.
Rabbi Siegel, whose congregation meets at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills, said this year's discussion program is an attempt to prepare members for the holy day and to keep the spiritual momentum of Rosh Hashana going throughout the holiday and afterward.
Members of the congregation also will have an opportunity to "throw sins into water" on Rosh Hashana by tossing rocks and pieces of bread from a dock in Wilde Lake, Rabbi Siegel said.
Dr. Claire Waltman, an endocrinologist who lives in York, Pa., and a convert to Judaism, said the holiday provides an occasion for introspection.
"It's really a time to reassess who I am, particularly spiritually, to rethink values and to reassess priorities and think about what sort of things I should do better," she said.
A former Southern Baptist, she converted to Judaism about three years ago and joined the Columbia congregation.
During this year's Rosh Hashana services, Rabbi Siegel and Marc Shandler, a rabbinical student in Pennsylvania, will share duties in serving the growing congregation.
The two met several months ago when the congregation was searching for an additional rabbi to lead Rosh Hashana services.
L Associate Rabbi Robert Saks will conduct a service tomorrow.
"I think it will be a wonderful opportunity to share the passion, excitement and trepidation that these days bring us," Mr. Shandler said. "For all Jews, Rosh Hashana represents a time to do some soul-searching and be introspective, to look for opportunities to change and grow."