Ron Reitman remembers how silent his synagogue always gets at Rosh Hashana services, right before the shofar is sounded.
"You could hear a pin drop, it's so quiet," he said. "Everyone stands at attention."
Tomorrow, Reitman will blow the ceremonial ram's horn himself, in a less hushed environment: a hospital room.
Reitman, a transportation planner who lives downtown, has been trained along with other volunteers to blow the shofar in time to bring this element of the Rosh Hashana celebration to Jews too sick to attend services.
In other places, hospital chaplains, rabbis or rabbinical students from nearby Jewish communities live close enough to make these visits on the holiday.
But Baltimore attracts so many people to its world-class hospitals, "I couldn't do it on my own," said Rabbi Levi Druk, who with his wife, Chani, directs the Chabad-Lubavitch of Downtown Baltimore.
The Chabad center is part of an international organization of Hasidic Jews that emphasizes outreach to other Jews.
So the rabbi asked some volunteers to join him. "Why not train some lay people and have somebody else be part of this great mitzvah, this great good deed?" said Druk.
About a month ago, he organized a sort of Rosh Hashana boot camp to prepare four volunteers to blow the shofar as well as lead the blessings. His wife taught other volunteers how to bake the sweet version of challah bread typically served on Rosh Hashana. The volunteers made some bread for their own families and will share it with patients as they accompany the shofar blowers.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, commemorates the biblical creation story. It marks the start of Days of Awe, a period of self-examination before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
"The shofar is basically a wake-up call," Druk said. "We want to wake up people. Wake up and do good, wake up and do more good. That's the message of the shofar."
Although the instrument is simple, playing it is not.
"The shofar is very similar to other wind instruments. But you've got to learn to do it and do it with ease," Druk said.
During Wednesday's lesson, Reitman, 32, and Ted Jessa, 43, took turns practicing the sounds.
Druk warned them that the sounds might move some patients to tears. It's because "they're being remembered," Jessa said. "Being in a hospital, you're not part of services."
Several Judaica stores had donated shofars for them to use, although Reitman had made one himself with a Chabad rabbi while studying at the University of Maryland.
"Over the years I would just pick it up and just play with it and try to practice," he said. "I never quite got it until recently, just practicing with Rabbi Druk.
"Now, since I've practiced, it's a lot easier to use this one," Reitman said, gesturing to his handmade instrument.
The holiday is statistically the second- or third-most-common time when Jewish people are doing something Jewish, Druk said.
"It's a time lots of people want to get together with family," Druk said. "It's hard enough to be in the hospital as it is. To miss out on this auspicious time is even more troubling."
Volunteers will be visiting any patients who request it, and based on the interpretation, the horn must be blown a total of 30 times, although at services, the shofar would sound 100 times customarily.
"It can be strenuous," Druk said.
Druk also reminded two shofar blowers how the limitations of Rosh Hashana, when observant Jews refrain from work, including driving, would affect them. Volunteers will be walking from the Chabad center to the hospitals, avoiding automatic or revolving doors and using the stairs instead of taking elevators to patients' rooms.
Rabbi Tzvi Schur, the Jewish chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said he and other chaplains have received requests for holiday visits but were unable to respond to them for several reasons.
Many rabbis or Jewish hospital staff members are spending time in synagogue and with their families on the holiday. Others were reluctant to walk to city hospitals on Rosh Hashana, Schur said.
"Johns Hopkins is not the safest neighborhood," Schur said. "No one would go down there."
Schur remembers, from when he was a chaplain in Milwaukee, patients who started to cry while hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana.
"Rosh Hashana is a very sentimental time as it is," Schur said. Hearing the shofar "just awakened that sentiment. You can't bring the synagogue to them, but you can bring the shofar blowing," he said.
Last year, he learned from personal experience how touching such a visit can be.
He was recovering from heart surgery on Rosh Hashana when Rabbi Zev Gopin of Chabad of Johns Hopkins walked to Union Memorial Hospital to share the holiday with him.
"It meant so much to me that I did not miss out on hearing the blowing of the shofar," he said.
Chabad Lubavitch of Downtown Baltimore • 407 South High Street • Baltimore, MD 21202-4334 • 410-605-0505