Every year, on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, the members of Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield walk to nearby Lake Accotink. There they perform the Tashlich ritual, symbolically throwing away their sins by tossing bread crumbs into the water.
“It’s a very brief service,” said Rabbi Bruce Aft. “We usually sing ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ [‘Our God, Our Ruler’]. We throw our sins away. Then there’s a family that provides ice cream for everybody.”
It’s an informal celebration of the New Year amid the pomp of the services inside the Conservative synagogue. And its physicality helps the 100 congregants who usually attend visualize the abstract concepts of sin and “teshuvah,” or turning from sin to God, Aft said, adding that tranquility of the setting aids serious reflection.
Synagogues across the Washington area perform Tashlich, which means “casting” in Hebrew, a custom that was developed in medieval times and drawn from the last verses from the prophet Micah: “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
The rabbis interviewed from this story said the outdoor ritual is an opportunity to consider their congregations’ sins against the environment.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, asks congregants to throw leaves and twigs into Rock Creek, rather than bread, during Tashlich.
“The Chesapeake Bay ecosystem has way too many nutrients in it, and it’s already creating algal blooms,” he said. “So while bread is seemingly harmless, it changes the chemistry of the stream.”
During Tashlich, which typically draws 80 people, Dobb encourages his congregants to think about casting off pollution, racism, sexism, willful ignorance of facts and other perils of society.
“Tradition is very clear that we must honor everyone created in the divine image,” he said. “So when we say on the High Holy days that black lives matter, and that we stand with immigrants, that is an extension of our spiritual practice.”
Members of Kol Ami Reconstructionist Congregation in Arlington typically walk to a stream in Alcova Heights Park to hold their Tashlich service.
“It’s a park that’s an attractive natural oasis,” said Herb Levy, Kol Ami’s community coordinator. Plus, it has a playground, so kids not tuned into adult spirituality can have some fun.
About 50 people typically attend. They eat apples and honey, a Rosh Hashanah tradition, and then toss their bread, which Levy calls his “spiritual schmutz,” Yiddish for dirt.
Levy said he hopes to focus on the environment. He said he is motivated by the Trump administration’s loosening of environmental policies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s restrictions on asbestos use.
“The whole notion of Tashlich is transformational,” he said. “It is turning something that is not quite right into something better and sharing sustenance. And that root lends itself quite effectively to the environment.”
At Hill Havurah in the District of Columbia, congregants hold Tashlich on the Anacostia River near the Navy Yard and Nationals Park. The stadium and high-rise buildings on one side and the river on the other provide a comforting setting for casting away sins, according to Rabbi Hannah Spiro.
“For most of us, we don’t go into a retreat in the month of Elul,” she said, referring to the month of reflection before Rosh Hashanah. “We’re in our lives, trying to reflect, and so having Tashlich surrounded by big buildings feels appropriate.”
Using Tashlich as a vehicle to cast off collective societal ills such as intolerance is important to Spiro. But she said the key is to focus on what the individual can do to alleviate such sins.
“My struggle and the Jewish community in D.C.’s struggle is one not of intolerance and hatred, but one of apathy,” she said. “I want us to feel like there’s something you can do.”