In Columbia, Rosh Hashanah happens outdoors

Tashlich ceremony after main service in 2017, led by Rabbi Craig Axler and Cantor Becca Droller. They are standing on a bridge over the creek. Photo by Eric McCormick Photography

There’s a group shofar-blowing. And there’s a Torah procession that winds through hundreds of people sitting on a lawn. Everyone — children especially — is invited to ask questions and comment as a High Holiday-themed story is told and discussed. And there’s a snack.

This will be the sixth year for Rosh Hashanah in the Park, the outdoor afternoon family service of Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation in Fulton, in Howard County, said Rabbi Craig Axler.

“We are bringing the celebration of Rosh Hashanah outside. We are bringing it to the community,” said Axler, who called the service “joyful.”

Temple members and unaffiliated people turn out, toting blankets and lawn chairs. Held the first day of Rosh Hashanah, this service may be the only time during the High Holidays that some Jews hear the sound of the shofar, he said. The service is free.

Axler estimated that half of the outdoor worshipers are not affiliated with the temple. That’s not an inconsequential number, as attendance estimates have reached 500 or more, with a rainy day as the only time turnout dipped to about 200.

“The kids really love it, the singing, the story. It’s a very long hakafah, the Torah processional,” said Rachel Petroff Kessler, the temple’s family educator.

“The nice thing about being outside is that if the kids get antsy, they can go run around,” she said.

“We usually bring a grandparent with us, so it is a nice multigenerational experience,” said Amy Becker of Columbia, who attends with her husband and their two young children. “Before we were members we started going.”

Sometimes they are among the families arriving early with picnic lunches, she said. The service, she said, is designed so that families can participate, and it is followed by tashlich, which she said prepares youngsters for Yom Kippur.

In addition, she said, with the High Holidays coming around the start of the school year, the service offers a back-to-school and community experience.

The service has roots in the former indoor family service. Last year, the outdoor service moved from Centennial Park in Ellicott City to the Chrysalis amphitheater in Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods in Columbia, which has more parking and is more accessible, Axler said. The outdoor service is in addition to the regular indoor High Holiday services.

Temple Isaiah is not the only congregation to take a High Holiday service outside. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Washington Hebrew Congregation, both Reform, hold Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars.

Leading what Axler called a “highly musical” service are Axler; Daniel Plotkin, the congregation’s rabbi educator (both play guitar); Cantorial Soloist Becca Droller and Petroff Kessler.

The hourlong service opens with familiar songs, such as “Hinei Ma Tov,” and features prayers that include the Shema and a shortened Amidah, with Aleinu and Kaddish at the end. The Torah service is the creation story, as the holiday is traditionally thought of as “being about the birthday of the world,” said Axler. Other aspects of the holiday, such as reflection and renewal, are in various parts of the service.

Embedded are a story and shofar-blowing.

“We always tell some sort of interactive story, geared so that young kids can ask questions … express some thoughts. We are really trying to involve the whole congregation in the story,” he said.
Children are invited to sit up close — sometimes they play roles in the story — and the story unfolds with its High Holidays theme. Past stories include the star of the apple (inner beauty) and the land of no apologies (repentance and forgiveness).

The shofar-blowing — as many as eight congregants blowing shofar together — isn’t artificially amplified, as there’s no need. But the rest of the service is, Petroff Kessler said.

The service ends on a sweet note: a holiday-themed snack. In the recent past, it’s been a more portable version of the signature apples and honey: apple chips and honey straws. Tashlich follows at a creek close by.

People attend for a variety of reasons — spiritual, social, the atmosphere, the children. But part of the draw of the service, Axler said, is that “this is a time of renewal, the start of the New Year, and being part of a larger Jewish family.”

Temple Isaiah’s Rosh Hashanah in the Park, Chrysalis at Merriweather Park in Symphony Woods, Columbia, Sept. 10. BYO picnic at 1:30 p.m, service at 2:30 p.m.; tashlich at 3:45 p.m.; free; information at

Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.

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