No put-downs in this Idol contest

The emcee walks across the platform with the microphone, announcing the names of participants while engaging in light banter with some of the judges as they comment on contestants’ outfits and the décor of the show.

Upcoming performers are seated nervously around the stage, hoping that finally they’ll have their big debut and become a star.

Is this a clip from the hit reality TV show “American Idol”?

Not exactly. The emcee is Shannon Guggenheim, co-founder of the Fremont-based National Jewish Theatre Festival, who is hosting the “Jewish American Idol” competition, which will be held for the third consecutive year at To Life! on Sept. 17.

Devised by Guggenheim and her husband, Scott, “Jewish American Idol” showcases young hopefuls who vie for prizes, including the chance to appear onstage at the NJTF’s show “The MeshugaNutcracker” at San Jose’s Flint Center in December.

Despite the name, the show carries a different flavor than Simon Cowell’s version.

“It’s not our job to make a mockery of these kids,” Guggenheim says. “It’s better to help them out and give them good advice than brutalizing them about their costumes. It takes a lot of chutzpah to get onstage and keep your integrity!”

Participants are organized into three divisions: youth (ages 6 to 9), junior (10 to 12) and senior (13 to 17). Idol contestants will show their stuff at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on the children’s stage. The finalists will perform on the main stage at 3:30 p.m. for the overall title.

To Life! Program Director Stephanie Brown had no qualms about scheduling this competition for a third year.

“It’s such a hot thing,” she says. “It grows every year, and every year I get such positive feedback from everyone.”

With up to 40 participants expected, the competition will be steep. In addition to performing, each contender will likely receive invaluable advice from the judges — who may include local voice teachers, cantors and other music professionals. Some of the judges are former child stars who can bring a helpful perspective, like opera singer Stephen Guggenheim (Shannon’s brother-in-law).

“Child stars are struggling with changes in their voice and getting different direction from teachers and parents,” says Shannon Guggenheim. “[Stephen] is helping singers make choices early, which can really affect the longevity of their careers.”

Contestants are restricted to singing songs that tie into Jewish arts in some way — think Broadway in, Madonna out. Past repertoires have ranged from prayers to show tunes to personal compositions.

As with any performance, there is always the threat of mistakes, but Guggenheim appreciates the ambition of these young entertainers.

“My fondest memories are the kids who go up and rise above whatever has plagued them, like one who messed up the lyrics to a well-known song, but just barreled through,” she says.

Not only do the kids on stage provide excellent entertainment, but the audience sometimes throws in its own hilarity.

“The parents crack me up,” says Guggenheim. “They run the gamut from the ones who stand on the side quietly to the gung-ho ones who want to make sure everything is precisely fair. They make it so fun and interesting to do the competition.”

Those expecting this contest to be as cutthroat as the Fox version, however, will be disappointed. “The key difference is making the kids feel valued rather than patronized,” said Guggenheim. “Although I do try to be like [“American Idol” host] Ryan Seacrest!”