Kids enjoy awesome New Years celebration

The Days of Awe for Jews around the world were truly "awesome" days for about 100 kids at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom.

While members of the Conservative congregation davened in the sanctuary, about 100 of their children — preschool-age to b'nai mitzvah-age — played, prayed, learned and even celebrated the birthday of the world.

Frustrated because synagogues often ignore the spiritual needs of Jewish children on the High Holy Days, Netivot Shalom youth education director Debbie Findling and youth tefillah (prayer) director Rena Dorph set out to create a substantial holiday program for everyone.

The result was Yamim Noraim L'Yeladim: Awesome Days For Kids.

"We believed the kids could have a meaningful prayer experience while connecting with the holidays," Findling explained. "We played on the [holiday's name] while encapsulating the spirit of the Days of Awe," the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

"We wanted to have a way for kids to engage," Findling said.

Nearly 100 children registered for the programs running from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. during Kol Nidre and 6:30 to 8 p.m. during the Ne'ilah service.

Divided into groups according to their ages, children read and listened to Bible stories, and participated in half-hour prayer services as well as "blessing walks" and "trust walks."

Strolling in the sunshine through North Berkeley near Northbrae Community Church, where services were held, teachers led the kids in prayers for various gifts of nature. They recited blessings for fragrant flowers they passed, for the water flowing in nearby streams and for the food that was tucked into instructors' backpacks.

On Yom Kippur the children paired off for the trust walks, in which they took turns blindfolding one another and leading each other around. Afterward, instructors led a discussion about being a responsible guide, overcoming wrongdoings during the past year and putting trust in others in the coming year.

The new year spirit was perhaps most evident on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when youths celebrated the birthday of the world.

At 11:30 a.m., kippah-clad kids streamed into the church's social hall, some giddy and holding hands, others looking skeptical as if the day might turn out to be awful rather than "awe-ful." Teachers and b'nai mitzvah students stood at booths along the walls, waiting to engage the young participants in games of "Concentration," Twister with Jewish symbols, apple-bobbing, guess-the-number-of-candies-in-the-jar and "stump the ram."

Other activities included shofar blowing, "pin the apple on the honey jar" and "Torah roll" — where children could touch the scrolls and ask questions about the five books of Moses. The youngsters played a tshuvah (repentance) game, symbolically throwing away their sins in the form of confetti.

In keeping with the Jewish law not to write on the holy day, kids' name tags had been written in advance and color-coded, "so we could be sure the right parents were getting the right kids," Findling said.

For games like "guess the number of candies in the jar," guesses were recorded by putting number stickers on the children's name tags.

Throughout the hour-long party, parents wearing prayer shawls poked their heads in to watch. More than once, moms and dads murmured, "I wish I had gotten to do this when I was their age."

Meanwhile at the "stump the ram" table, teacher Hyim Brandes donned a false gray beard and baldhead wig and tried to answer the young scholars' most poignant questions about the holidays — everything from the meanings of various symbols to why services last so long.

At the "bracha (prayer) booth," two b'nai mitzvah students led kids in prayers over "wine" (which was actually fruit juice), challah and sweets, offering up a little of each after the proper bracha was said.

In addition, each class performed a short skit or song for the group.

While waiting for their parents to pick them up from the party, children swept up confetti and nibbled leftover apples. Findling and Dorph slapped each others' hands in victorious "high five" fashion.

"We don't want passive recipients of knowledge. We want hands-on learners," said Findling.