Rosh Hashana tailgating for all Jews?

Ask religion reporters to name the part of the beat that bugs them the most and a high percentage (give me your estimates, Godbeat walkers) will say that they worry about finding new, valid, interesting stories linked to religious holidays. I mean, dang it, how often does Christmas-High Holy Days-Easter-Ramadan-Etc. roll around? Didn't I write a story on that last month? The years simply spin past in a blur.

Over at the newspaper that lands in my front yard, Rosh Hashana and the Jewish High Holy Days have to be underlined on the calendar in bright red. The Baltimore area contains a large and extremely active Jewish community, including a large and vital Orthodox community. Anyone who drives around in some of the older neighborhoods in Northwest Baltimore on a Friday evening knows this.

Thus, I was intrigued when I started reading the following Baltimore Sun story that ran under the headline:

Service at Oregon Ridge puts tailgating spin on Rosh Hashana

Popular outdoor event draws thousands

Here's the top of the report.

For certain religious oenophiles, Wednesday's dinner presented an interesting question:

"What wine goes with services?" wondered Arnold Weiner.

Judging from the crowd gathered Wednesday night at Oregon Ridge Park for the popular al fresco Rosh Hashana service marking the Jewish New Year, white, red and rose all had their adherents.(For the record, Weiner, the lawyer famous for defending former Mayor Sheila Dixon in her corruption trial, went with a crisp pinot grigio.)

Started five years ago by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Rosh Hashana Under the Stars has become a tradition for thousands, who flock to the rolling grounds of the Baltimore County park for an event that has brought a tailgating spin to the ages-old service marking the start of the High Holy Days.

"I love the informality of it," said Leslie Greenwald, a Baltimorean who arrived when the gates opened at 4:30 p.m. with her husband, son and mother- and father-in-law. "I want to support something like this that encourages all Jews to come out. It's a great atmosphere."

I'll admit that I read right past the name of the congregation that organized the event -- Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. The key is that the name did not include the word "temple." In the cities in which I have lived and reported, most Reform congregations have the word "temple" in the title. Combine that with the reference to "all Jews" coming out and I thought this was a simply amazing story, one that involved all branches of Judaism in its organization and execution.

But the further I read into the story -- a good story, in many ways -- the more I doubted that. Note the name of the person who has led the rites for five years. That would be Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen. Would the Orthodox and more conservative elements of the community be flocking out for worship led by a female rabbi?

Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not. Almost certainly not? Thus, to what degree was this a ceremony for the whole Jewish community?

The story never openly addresses this issue, at all. I think the assumption is that readers already know that this is a liberal, progressive, Reform congregation.

So this was, readers are told, a "sacred assembly." That's a totally appropriate term for it, for many Jews.

Toward the end, the story finally hinted at these issues with this interesting passage:

This year, the prayer book was available for downloading, for $1.99, on smartphones, laptops, tablets and e-readers. It was a way to be more eco-friendly and more practical: As the night grew darker, it was easier to see the prayers on screen than on paper.

"My husband is in love with his iPad," said Ralene Jacobson, who was on the Baltimore Hebrew committee that worked with the Central Conference of American Rabbis to create a digital version of the prayer book. "Plus, we can share it."

The event has helped give the congregation something of an unusual brand in the area.

"Our doing this has given us a new face in the Jewish community," Sachs-Kohen said. "People perceive Baltimore Hebrew differently — they see us as open and cutting-edge. We were more of a standard Reform congregation before."

Thus, this congregation bills itself as being on the cutting, progressive edge of the liberal, Reform branch of Judaism. That's fascinating.

This makes me wonder what other members of Baltimore's diverse, outspoken and highly articulate Jewish community actually think of this service that is open to all Jews.

It might have even made an interesting theme to introduce into the story, just for the sake of balance and accuracy. If the Orthodox held services and declared them open to all Jews, would the Sun have taken them at their word?

Just asking.

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