As the sun sets tonight, when faithful Jews across the region flock to synagogues to honor creation in services steeped in tradition, thousands of others will gather with picnic dinners in a Baltimore County park.
The event, "Rosh Hashana Under the Stars," will be an informal evening service designed to draw young families and others who might not otherwise celebrate the Jewish New Year.
"When we take it outside, it becomes an event that is much more open and inviting," said Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen, who will lead the service for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue sponsoring the event.
In recent years, congregations around Maryland and across the country have been trying creative methods to reach Jews -- particularly young adults -- who are unaffiliated with synagogues, whether the barriers are cost or culture.
B'nai Israel Congregation on Lloyd Street is offering a special "beginners" service, as well as free tickets for High Holy Days services to people younger than age 30.
And tomorrow afternoon, Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills will hold its fourth annual Tashlich service, inviting people to cast bread crumbs representing their sins into a stream at Meadowood Regional Park in Green Spring Valley. Afterward, they'll enjoy a picnic, a shofar-blowing contest and other activities.
Jews who aren't very active in a congregation are more likely to "dip in" for services on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur on Sept. 22, said Vanessa Ochs, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and author of Inventing Jewish Ritual. The two holidays bookend the High Holy Days, or days of repentance.
Outreach services can attract them. "They're all about being enticing and creating a mood and an environment where someone who might not be likely to come feels welcome," Ochs said.
Participants have been invited to bring a picnic dinner to enjoy before the service begins at 6:30 p.m., featuring contemporary music and creative use of the shofar, or ram's horn.
"We want people to feel comfortable and also challenged and inspired, and we want to reclaim some of the awe and the majesty of worshiping in a beautiful place in the middle of the created world," the rabbi said.
Baltimore Hebrew had to shut down registration early this month after 2,500 people signed up for tickets to attend the hourlong celebration at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeysville. About two-thirds are not members of Baltimore Hebrew, Sachs-Kohen said.
This service takes the place of Baltimore Hebrew's family service, which about 300 people attended last year.
Although participants weren't asked why they wished to come, Baltimore Hebrew's leaders have heard that some want to bring their kids and not feel as if they're disturbing anybody and that some are interested in the location.
"Others are drawn to the fact that they don't have to wear a suit and tie," the rabbi said.
The free service is part of a "membership enrichment" initiative at Baltimore Hebrew, which includes reduced membership dues and enhanced education programs, said Executive Director Jo Ann Windman.
In addition, the synagogue has eliminated religious school fees, aside from training for bar or bat mitzvah, or confirmation. Overall, congregation members have pledged more than $1 million toward these efforts, including the Rosh Hashana program.
Frank Boches, co-president of B'nai Israel, said about 55 people have signed up for High Holy Day tickets, bringing their estimated total attendance to more than 210. Last year, about 170 people came to services, he said.
The idea grew out of a popular Friday night Shabbat series aimed at young people, Boches said. "We just wanted to keep this going," he said.
The modern Orthodox congregation, on Lloyd Street east of downtown Baltimore, was able to provide tickets thanks to donations from benefactors within the congregation.
B'nai Israel is also holding a shorter "beginner" Rosh Hashana service designed by the National Jewish Outreach Program that will incorporate both English and Hebrew, Boches said. In addition, they have also begun accepting credit cards for payments and will soon allow members to make reservations for holy days online.
"If we have an open heart, we need to have an open door," said Rabbi Alan Yuter. "Sometimes you have to get people in the door to see what you have to offer."
Har Sinai is expecting more than 200 people to come to its Tashlich service, which is aimed at young families. It will be followed by a sing-along, relay races and a bake-off using the traditional ingredients of apples and honey, which represent the sweetness of the new year.
But the event's highlight is the custom of casting breadcrumbs into the stream, said Rabbi Bradd H. Boxman. "The idea is cleansing yourself, freeing yourself to start a new year fresh and clean," he said.
After a traditional morning service, the informal Tashlich is an excellent complement, the rabbi said. "It's not the stuffy kind of service their parents might have gone to," the rabbi said. "That's an alternative to reach people we might not otherwise reach."