Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars draws big crowds to Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County.

When Covid brought a halt to most in-person group activities last year, it also changed the plans for a popular religious event that has attracted Jews from around the area for years to Oregon Ridge Park to commune and celebrate one of the most holy days of the year – Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah, which means “head of the year” in Hebrew, is the celebration of the Jewish New Year. It is a two-day holiday that begins the “High Holidays,” a 10-day period of repentance and reflection of the past and future. Traditional observances include special foods and services with messages of hope and atonement in the new year. This year, Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset September 6.

Fifteen years ago, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen created Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars to bring together Jews who may or may not be affiliated with a temple or synagogue but want to celebrate together. Attendees begin filing in the Cockeysville park around 4 p.m., where they set up blankets and chairs in a picnic-like setting while waiting for the official service to begin at 6 p.m.

“When the service starts, the focus shifts,” said Sachs-Kohen, who officiates the event. “There’s another layer of feeling, a sense of awe.” When Rosh Hashana Under the Stars began, Sachs-Kohen said she thought it might draw 500 or so participants, but 1,000 showed up. “It has become an institution in a way I never imagined. The growth speaks to a community celebrating a sacred moment. It’s not just a gathering, it’s a service.”

Service begins with the blowing of the shofar, a hollowed-out ram’s horn, which symbolizes a call to repentance, songs, prayers and sermon by Rabbi Sachs-Kohen.

Over the last several years, about 6,000 participants registered to attend the service. And although last year’s program was pushed to a virtual event because of COVID, this year, organizers said the pace of registrations are similar to pre-COVID years, largely because the event is held outdoors and participants feel comfortable.

“I’m so looking forward to being back together and celebrating Rosh Hashanah among friends and family,” said Jill Feinberg, event chairperson. “We know that folks have been wanting to be together and this service offers a safe and sacred way to do so.”

To make sure attendees are safe, a task force was established and a list of COVID protocols were put in place for attendees by physicians and other public health experts who are members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Precautions include vaccinations for those who can, while encouraging the unvaccinated to celebrate Rosh Hashana at home; wearing masks upon entry, on the playground, when mingling, at the restroom and while singing; and maintaining a safe, social distance.

Virtual services were not the same for Debbie Hill and she is looking forward to returning to the in-person service at Oregon Ridge Park. Hill said she has been coming to services from the beginning when her children were young and rolling down the hill at the park that used to be a downhill ski slope. These days, while the children are off on their own, they come back to enjoy the service. “Seeing the thousands of people worshipping together is beautiful, exciting and fulfilling. We will never stop coming.”

Rabbi Sachs-Kohen said she is finalizing her message for worshippers. And while she doesn’t know all that she will say, she is sure of the themes. “We are gathering in hope and coming together at a very important time.”

Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars is free and open to the public with advance registration, although donations are welcome. Registration information is available here.

A shofar blows to mark the start of the Jewish High Holiday season.

Walinda West is an experienced communications professional who has served a variety of clients at the local, state and national level and is a longtime writer for Baltimore Fishbowl.