Patricia Bernman guided her 5-year-old grandson around the "Sin Buffet" aboard an Inner Harbor cruise ship Sunday, stopping to ask whether he had ever failed to be a good friend or if he had pretended to be sick when he wasn't.
The boy, Asher Fradkin, shook his head no as the pair moved along the table lined with plates of bread crumbs labeled with various transgressions — "I lied" and "I cheated" — prompting members of Baltimore's Beth Am Synagogue to reflect on their wrongdoings from the past year.
The cruise offered a novel take on the ancient Tashlich tradition in which Jews gather near a flowing body of water after their new year, Rosh Hashana, to cast away bread crumbs representing sins.
"It's wonderful when you have an action that is representative of what we're all trying to do: Make ourselves better people," said Bernman, a 25-year member of the Reservoir Hill congregation. "This time of year is all about self reflection."
About 200 joined the hour-long Spirit of Baltimore voyage that provided fellowship and a chance to make the ritual accessible to the youngest members, said Rabbi Kelley Gludt, director of the synagogue's congregational learning.
Gludt said Beth Am's Tashlich services have grown larger each year, and the congregation has looked to find suitable places to gather. Druid Lake won't work because it's waters are still, and the parking lot is too small at Lake Roland Park (formerly Robert E. Lee Park), she said.
"There are certain obligations you have to have: It has to be running water and there has to be fish," Gludt said. "It has to work for toddlers and people with mobility issues. In Baltimore, you only have so many places you can do this."
An anonymous donor paid about $5,000 for the congregation to take the cruise, which included a brief service with prayer, songs and the tossing of bread into the harbor that attracted a flock of sea gulls in the ship's wake.
Besides the "Sin Buffet," Gludt set up several stations to give the members more opportunities to reflect. One offered washable markers with sheets of paper to write down "something you want to let go in the new year" before soaking it with water to make the ink disappear.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Beth Am's spiritual leader, said the unique approach to the Tashlich service gave the congregation a chance to practice their faith in a way that was both serious and fun.
"In order for something to be meaningful, it doesn't have to be somber," Burg said.
He called on those gathered Sunday to think about the mistakes they made in the last year and how they can do better "for God and for one another, for our families, for our parents, for our children, for our friends, for our colleagues and co-workers, for our teachers and our students."
Burg said the more society advances, the more many look for grounding in ancient values and traditions.
"The idea that we, like generations of Jews, centuries and millennia before us, can go out to a body of water and enact this ancient tradition by casting our bread into the water, it has a certain resonance of authenticity that no modern technology can quite replicate," Burg said.
Brian Whippo and his wife, Monica, stood at the ship's stern, as he opened a napkin and released the bread crumbs he had gathered. The Patterson Park man said he liked the synagogue's novel twist on the tradition, which is part of the rituals of the Jewish High Holy Days that culminate later this week with Yom Kippur.
"It makes you stop and think about the different ways you could have done better, and you literally have to pick the bread crumbs up and throw them away and be done with your past mistakes," Whippo said.