It was billed as a night of music and prayer, a collective and contemplative way to send off one year and ring in the next.
The 30th annual New Year’s Eve service at St. Ignatius Jesuit Church in downtown Baltimore drew hundreds in from the fog to sit and listen to an array of speakers, song and instrumental performances. It was the first time in three years that the event was officially held in-person and with most pews full, though not to capacity in part due to a rainy, though balmy, evening with the temperature reaching nearly 60 degrees.
A prelude started off the program at 8 p.m. as began as people filed into the building, most visibly over the age of 50 with no kids in tow. They shook the vestiges of water from their coats and umbrellas, some greeting friends and congregants as they settled in for a more optimistic way to celebrate the start of 2023.
In the lobby before the start of the concert, Cantor Thom King of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville collegially noted that “it should be fun.”
The first item on the docket, the call to prayer, was led in the Buddhist tradition by Matt Fetting of Burning House Zendo in Westminster. Soon afterwards, King sang “Sim Shalom” in a baritone that seemed to wrap the crowd in a seasoned sweater with its warmth and comfort, especially to the Jewish members in the audience.
Rabbi Naomi Zaslow, also of Beth El, led the first prayer, emphasizing: “May we each find a path of peace. … Help our feet run to do goodness. May the endless possibilities feel alive and in front of us.”
‘Strengthen the bonds of fellowship’
Such significant words were not recited in a vacuum. After a year marked by a national and global rise in antisemitism, the gathering of leaders of major faiths symbolized camaraderie and a more positive way forward.
It came after a summer where southern Maryland saw antisemitic fliers with hateful messages, and more recently, the words “Jews not welcome” painted on an entrance sign to Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and a swastika drawn on a bench at Montgomery Mall, also in Bethesda. That ensued after two cases of vandalism in November: the etching of three people hanging from a noose with the words “No Mercy for Jews” at the Bethesda Trolley Trail; and swastikas with white supremacy symbols were painted at Old Georgetown Road and Tuckerman Lane. While not in Baltimore proper, the messages hit home.
The second prayer of the evening of recited by Rev. Christian Iosso of First & Franklin Presbyterian Church and the third prayer by Rev. Lauretta Halstead of Kingdom Worship Center. Imam Ismet Akein of the Islamic Society of Baltimore followed with a reading from the Koran and a reflection by Pastor Mark Parker of the city’s Breath of God Lutheran Church.
Shortly afterwards, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison led a prayer for public safety and community partnerships, and speaking near the end of the program was Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott. He recited: “We particularly hallow Your name on this final evening of the year 2022 when we come together in all our diversity to strengthen the bonds of fellowship.”
At his very first New Year’s Eve concert, Father Brian Frain, the new pastor of St. Ignatius, made a point of welcoming those gathered in his remarks, clearly awed by the size of the crowd and the quality of the singing. (The church choir performed more than once, directed by Paul Teie.) Frain has taken the helm over from longtime Father William J. Watters, who first started the interfaith celebration back in 1993. Watters has said: “When we all gather for this, it’s so representational of the people of Baltimore — the faith traditions, the backgrounds.”
The closing prayer was led by Cantor George Henschel of Kol HaLev Synagogue Community in Lutherville. He led a responsive reading called “Litany of the Shofar” and then proceeded to sound the wind instrument most often heard during the High Holidays, blowing for 41 seconds — not his longest blast, he stated afterwards, but certainly long enough to reverberate throughout the room, getting audible impressive remarks from attendees not used to the sound.
Prior to the event, he noted that this gathering brings representatives from nearly every element of life in the city — the arts, safety, health, education, law and justice communities, in addition to political leaders, charitable organizations and the media. “But the music is truly the centerpiece,” he stated. “Nothing carries the hopes and prayers for the coming year better than music.”
Tables piled with cheese and fruit, homemade dishes, hot beverages and a cornucopia of desserts (including panettone, baklava and rugelach), brought a large portion of concert-goers together afterwards, with conversations lingering until about an hour before midnight. Then people slipped back out into the dissipating fog, many promising to return next year.