To Congregation B’nai B’rith Cantor Mark Childs, there are four m‘s that characterize spiritual Jewish music and its power “to create holy moments.” There’s meeting, in the way it brings people together; there’s meditation, in its ability to cause the listener to pause and reflect; there’s the memory it brings, of family traditions and more ancient ones; and there’s a majesty, a power to “move the soul to perceive a greatness beyond itself.”
This year marks Childs’s 25th as cantor to the B’nai B’rith congregation, and it comes just as the temple celebrates 90 years of serving Santa Barbara’s Jewish community. Childs’s years as cantor and the B’nai B’rith’s anniversary will be jointly celebrated at the upcoming Dreamers Ball at the Bacara Resort & Spa on Sunday, January 22.
Whether aiding transitioning teens with Torah cantillations or helping a person through mourning, Childs has aided his congregation in meeting one another as they meet challenges in life. He has orchestrated meditative sessions, forged celebratory memories, and given the faithful in the temple a musical route to encountering a sense of majesty. “Twenty-five years is considered one generation of time, and for me it’s true,” Childs told me. “The kids who were born when I first got here, and we celebrated them coming into the world, I’m now celebrating their weddings and their first children. It’s so gratifying.”
Childs grew up attending a liberal congregation in Pittsburgh and remembers being “mesmerized by the sound of the organ and the sound of the cantor.” With that memory in his ears and a love of the Steelers still in his heart, Childs and his family moved to Toronto, where he met another inspirational cantor at his synagogue there — “an amazing artist and a wonderful, warm person.” Role models like these, he said, guided him along his path. He studied sacred music for five years at Hebrew Union College, and after receiving a variety of offers from synagogues, he found the right one in Congregation B’nai B’rith.
He knew right away it was a special place, he said. He didn’t anticipate staying for as long as he did, but through the temple he met his wife, Shari, and started a family, just as his role “was growing, my family was growing, and there was mutual fulfillment and growth.” He’s seen the congregation through times thick and thin and through many changes, stresses, and periods of growth. One of the “greatest joys,” he says, is working with Rabbi Steve Cohen. “There’s respect between us, there’s mutual learning between us, and genuine friendship and warmth between us, and that’s kind of rare,” Childs said.
Picking music can be a challenge, as Childs must make a repertoire that’s appealing to all ages and multiple generations. A typical service means striking a balance between the ancient musical traditions of chanting Old Testament prayers while being inclusive toward contemporary Jewish music. The music serves, in a way, to challenge the worshippers as they give voice to ancient words with new breath. “The end goal is a dialogue with God, for getting people to struggle with their relationship with God. … We tend not to serve spirituality on a platter,” he said.
Childs is especially proud of the ways he has bridged the congregation’s presence in the community with those of other faiths. “Interfaith dialogue is really important to me,” he said of his work with the Interfaith Initiative of S.B. County and with many choirs around town.
In the coming years, Childs looks forward to using a recent grant to commission new works by “the best Jewish composers to create music for the synagogue and impact the world,” including a new piece to be debuted at the Bacara on Sunday. Locally and far and wide, Childs has certainly made an impact. L’chaim!