Shofars, the sculptured ram's horns blown to mark the Jewish New Year, sounded in places of worship around the world on Thursday, including the sanctuary of the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church.

It was here that the Bethesda Chevy Chase Jewish Community Group, the first Jewish congregation in Montgomery County, held its 50th year of High Holiday services.

From its humble beginnings -- one of the first High Holiday services was held in the office of a lumberyard -- the group has maintained an informal structure.

It has no buildings, no regular religious liturgy and low dues. Its only scheduled weekly events are Hebrew and Sunday school classes.

Its emphasis is on family worship, and it sponsors Friday night family gatherings and family camping weekends.

The Jewish holidays, which reunite families often separated by great distances, are a special time for the congregation.

Rosh Hashanah, the day marking the Jewish New Year, begins a period in which Jews reflect on their transgressions of the past year.

This contemplative time continues for 10 days through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Benjamin Bruckner, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, has led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for 28 years.

Judaism does not require a rabbi at such gatherings.

Bruckner was a biochemist for the Bureau of Standards and Measures when he became involved in the group.

One of Bruckner's colleagues, who already belonged, approached him.

"They had lost their seventh-grade Sunday school teacher and he asked me if I was interested," Bruckner said.

The history of the congregation and its distinct character are important to its members.

Rita and Leon Kosofsky have participated in the group to some degree since 1957 and have been part of its half-century of evolution. The Kosofskys were recruited by their neighbor when they moved to Bethesda.

Soon the Kosofsky children were students and Rita Kosofsky was a teacher at the Sunday school. At that time, religious classes were held at Green Acres School in Rockville.

The Kosofskys, like other active members of the congregation, were attracted by the informality of the organization.

Rita Kosofsky recalled, "When I was teaching, rather than having a textbook as the source for the child's education, we tried to have some kind of experience that would lead to the students' coming to conclusions."

In one fifth-grade class, she asked children to play out a situation where a black child had just enrolled in their previously all-white school. She then asked the children discuss their feelings.

"We were having students try to think through social situations involving values. Teachers didn't feel as if what they said had to be the last word. We didn't have to fill the children like vessels. We were pleased to have them come away with questions.

"I like to think we were politically and religiously free-thinking," Rita Kosofsky said. "There was no authority figure as a rabbi might be."

She identified three additional qualities that make the group attractive: fewer financial burdens (the annual dues are $50 a member, far less than more traditional synagogues), acceptance of interfaith marriages and educational reforms in the Sunday school.

Among those attending services this week was the Liebes family.

Jerry and Sherry Liebes, who are part of a Jewish community of 165,000 in the Washington area, joined the congregation this year.

In previous years the Liebes had observed the High Holidays with the Hillel Foundation in College Park.

The Liebes said they became interested in the Bethesda Chevy Chase group as a way of providing their two young daughters with a more structured Judaic education than the Hillel Foundation offered.

After some exposure to the organization, the Liebes discovered that the congregation's religious philosophy fit their own.

"We like the emphasis on the family being the center of Jewish life, not buildings," Sherry Liebes said. "It seems that at some temples the focus of the religion gets lost on the building and building funds."