Jewish Community Center to host special children's events for Rosh Hashanah

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Every parent who has taken a child to a long, solemn religious service knows the dread of wondering if fidgeting will escalate to whining or crying and a conspicuous mid-prayer exit.

There will be no such fears -- and little fidgeting -- during the Jewish High Holy Days services for children at the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. The services, pioneered last year by Temple Sinai and co-sponsored this year by both organizations, are short and interactive.

Tiny tots can toddle among holiday-related activities on the perimeter while older children sing or learn Torah from Sheli the Puppet and his good friend Rabbi Ron Symons.

Rabbi Symons led last year's High Holy Day services, which drew children, parents and grandparents from across the community.

"We had a spiritual blast. I can't wait for this year," he said.

The wait is almost over. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight at sundown. It opens a 10-day period when Jews take account of their lives, what they regret and what they hope to do better. It ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and repent. Yom Kippur begins at sundown Sept. 13.

The Rosh Hashanah service will be 11:15 a.m. to noon Thursday and the Yom Kippur service 11-11:45 a.m. Sept. 14. Both are free, intended for children up to 10 years old and their families.

"We don't anticipate quiet," said Rabbi Donni Aaron, the Jewish educator at the Jewish Community Center, who will co-lead the services. "I call it organized chaos. They won't be running around. There will be focal points. The key thing is going quickly from reading to activities to hold people's attention."

Sheli the Puppet, who will be featured, is a regular at the Temple Sinai children's services, held the third Friday of each month. Rabbi Symons, director of lifelong learning at Temple Sinai, uses him for a comic dialogue about the Torah readings.

"He allows me to ask the simplest of questions about faith and about repentance and about ethics and about Jewish identity in ways that, if I were to speak them in an adult voice, people would yawn and go to sleep," he said.

"He has appeal across the ages. He's fun for the little ones and sometimes I think their parents love him even more. Some of the jokes are better for the parents than for the kids."

The services will have times when children can talk and share ideas for families between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

"We're going to give them little assignments to talk about as a family between those two holidays," Rabbi Aaron said.

"We will ask them to talk about the kind of year they had and how they can support each other," she said. "These are the themes of the holiday in terms of renewal and trying to make your life as well as the lives of the people around you better."

When they return for Yom Kippur "we will ask them about it. If they want to share -- no one has to -- they can tell us the things they talked about."

The children's services are timed so families that belong to a synagogue can go there, but take an hour out at the Jewish Community Center. However they are designed for the growing number of young Jewish families with no congregational affiliation.

The partnership with Temple Sinai grew from an effort by the Jewish Community Center to study changing local demographics "so we can play a greater role and a more proactive role in enhancing Jewish life at the JCC and for the community," said Brian Schreiber, president and CEO at the Jewish Community Center.

That reflects what he calls an "evolving" vision of the center's mission. Two decades ago its leaders stressed that it had no religious mission. Membership has never been restricted to Jews. The center began as a settlement house for Jewish and other immigrants to Pittsburgh "and its purpose in those days was to make them into Americans," he said.

But it has always been a center for Jewish culture. Over the past 20 years "it has become not just about not just religious identification but Jewish values and content-building," he said.

Among Jewish families with young children, "a very large percentage are not yet members of congregations and may not even identify with a religious movement. But they are looking for different forms of engagement and they are very comfortable at the JCC," he said.

Last year's inaugural children's High Holy Day services drew nearly 300 people. A larger crowd is expected this year, so it has moved to Levinson Hall, which is a bigger room.

"We know that there are partnerships that are good for the community and this is one of them," Rabbi Symons said.

"We know that this year we will reach even more people who, perhaps if we weren't partnering with the JCC, wouldn't have any semblance of what Rosh Hashanah is. It's a win-win-win. A win for the JCC, a win for Temple Sinai and most important a win for the community at large."


Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416.


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