Dreaming Big: Congregation B’nai B’rith’s 90 Year Celebration

Images from Congregation B'nai B'rith Dreamers Ball. Photos by Leslie Dinaberg.

Images from Congregation B’nai B’rith Dreamers Ball. Photos by Leslie Dinaberg.

Honoring yesterday, today and tomorrow, supporters of Congregation B’nai B’rith (CBB) recently gathered at Bacara Resort & Spa in tribute to the founding families who had the vision to create the home for Santa Barbara’s Jewish community in 1927.

This festive, elegant celebration was packed to the gills with 450 guests to mark the 90th anniversary of Congregation B’nai B’rith, Santa Barbara’s largest Jewish synagogue, which now serves as the spiritual home to more than 800 families.

Dubbed the Dreamers Ball, the Marc Chagall-inspired gala was beautifully reflected in decorations and touches throughout the ballroom and live music by We the Folk (whose talented accordion player is David Childs, son of Shari and Cantor Mark Childs).

Also honored at the event was Cantor Childs, who has served the congregation for the past 25 years, touching thousands of lives in the process.

The Dreamers Ball was organized by co-chairwomen Hallie Avolio, board president Judi Koper, Liat Wasserman, Marcy Wimbish, Bethy Fineberg and executive director Elizabeth Gaynes. Ruth Hartzman and Adele Rosen were the honorary co-chairwomen.

An impressive tribute book detailed the congregation’s history and leadership and was filled with glowing personal tributes to Childs and congratulations on the 90th anniversary of Congregation B’nai B’rith. Included in the tribute are excerpts from local historian Erin Graffy’s upcoming book about the history of Jewish Santa Barbara.

“Right now, we are setting the stage for the next 100 years of our CBB communal life,” writes Rabbi Steve Cohen. “We are establishing patterns of congregational life which draw deeply upon the best of Jewish tradition and values, and which are vibrantly alive … full of humor, creativity, moral integrity, intellectual rigor and honesty … and connect us deeply to this place, Santa Barbara, a place of awesome natural beauty and resources, nestled between the ocean and the mountains.”

For more information about Congregation B’nai B’rith, visit http://cbbsb.org/.

—Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons on February 16, 2017.

Congregation B’Nai B’Rith Celebrates 90 Years


Cantor Mark Childs to be Honored at Dreamers Ball on Jan. 22 

Congregation B’nai B’rith celebrates its 90th anniversary at a Chagall-inspired Dreamers Ball to be held at the Bacara Resort on January 22.

The dreamers theme—which honors yesterday, today and tomorrow—pays homage to the 14 founding families who had a vision to build a home for the Jews in Santa Barbara in 1927. What started as a dream thrived beyond expectation to the temple of today—a beautiful sanctuary that serves as a spiritual home to more than 800 families.

The Dreamer’s Ball celebrates the rich history of Congregation B’nai B’rith, the vibrant current community, led musically by Cantor Mark Childs,  and the commitment to innovation and strength into the future.

Cantor Mark Childs, photo by Jay Farbman.

Cantor Mark Childs, photo by Jay Farbman.

“This is a moment to pause in a long continuum of time to celebrate our growth, to honor those who kept us going over the decades, to remember those who have passed along the way, to sigh as we recollect the hard times, to laugh as we recall the high moments, to marvel at the vision of those upon whose shoulders we stand, and to embrace each other as we face our road forward,” says Cantor Childs who will be honored at the gala for his 25 years of service at Congregation B’nai B’rith.

“Congregation B’nai B’rith has been, and will always be filled with the spirit of close community and the priority of educating the next moral, ethical and literate Jewish generation,” says Rabbi Stephen Cohen, who has been the synagogue’s spiritual leader since 2014, and works in partnership with Cantor Childs.

“I believe that right now, we are setting the stage for the next 100 years of Congregation B’nai B’rith communal life. We will maintain our deep connections to the Jewish people around the world, and throughout history, but we are also finding our place in Santa Barbara, alongside the Chumash, and the Latinos, the marvelous interfaith community of Muslims, the Catholics, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Evangelicals, Mormons, Hindus and Buddhists. Here in Santa Barbara, we Jews have a role to play. Our congregation should be a light to our entire city, and a model of healthy, feisty, dynamic, reverent, warm and welcoming community,” explains Rabbi Cohen.

Through song, Jewish teaching and humor, Cantor Childs has touched thousands of lives in Santa Barbara since his arrival 25 years ago. From his weekly song sessions with preschoolers at Beit Ha Yeladim, to his work with hundreds of b’nai mitzvot students, to his inspired leadership, interfaith partnerships and connection with seniors and community members throughout Santa Barbara, Cantor Childs has been a role model and an inspiration, marking everyday moments and significant life-cycle milestones with music and prayer. “He is an exceptional human being, a brilliant and humble leader, a supremely reliable teammate and partner, and a gifted singer,” says Rabbi Cohen.

Congregation B’nai B’rith serves as a spiritual sanctuary to its diverse and inclusive community (the temple has over 25% interfaith families), but is also integral to the greater Santa Barbara community, through social action and religious outreach programs and collaborations with the Santa Barbara Interfaith Initiative, Cottage Hospital, assisted living homes, Showers of Blessings, Anti-Defamation League, UCSB Hillel, and many others.  A temple-wide annual Mitzvah Day sends volunteers into the community to benefit dozens of nonprofits. In addition, Congregation B’nai B’rith has ongoing programs serving food to the homeless community in Pershing Park and working with Transition House in their community kitchen. The temple’s reach even extended to build the Ubumwe Center preschool and elementary school in Rwanda, Africa.

The celebration takes place on January 22 at 5:30 p.m. at Bacara Resort & Spa, 8301 Hollister Ave., Goleta. To find out more about the Dreamers Ball, visit the event page at www.cbbsb.org/dreamersball, call 805/964-7869, or email dreamersball@cbbsb.org.

—Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons on January 4, 2017.


Grief Book Benefits Hospice and the Temple

The sun shined on Hospice of Santa Barbara and Congregation B’nai B’r61DjnDCK+3L-1._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ith Sunday afternoon at a special event honoring the publication of Sissy Taran’s new book, The Sun Will Shine Again: Life Lessons from a Year of Grieving, (www.thesunwillshineagain.com) with all proceeds going to support the two organizations.

“This is the first time in history of Hospice of Santa Barbara that we’ve ever sponsored a book,” said Executive Director Gail Rink, who interviewed Taran and Rabbi Steve Cohen about their experiences working together. Taran and Rabbi Cohen wrote the book–which documents Taran’s first year of grieving the death of her husband Bernie–through a series of conversations. They met once a week for seven months, primarily at the Breakwater Restaurant, to share the journey Sissy went through.

Rabbi Cohen said he viewed the project as a unique opportunity to learn more about the grief process. He was with the Taran family when they learned of Bernie’s cancer diagnosis, and with them shortly afterward when he passed away. “It was a wonderful but very short-lived period of intimacy,” which he welcomed the opportunity to extend through collaboration on the book project.

He initially decided to become a rabbi because it was important to him to be close to people in key moments of their lives, and saw this project as a rare opportunity for that type of closeness.

One of the most important lessons he learned was that there is not a linear progression from devastation to happiness, Rabbi Cohen said.

“We walk it all differently, but it’s our individual walk. So this, somehow, and I don’t know why, this book was burning within me. Somehow. Because I’ve never written and if I had to sit down at a computer I still wouldn’t have written a book,” said Taran, who taped all of her sessions with Rabbi Cohen and pieced together the book from the transcripts, with the help of editor Laurie Deans Medjuck. “We ended up throwing out about 75 percent of it,” said Taran.

Even though she was, and still is grieving, Taran said she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. “How can you have pity for yourself when you have someone who’s there for you with so much love,” she said of her collaboration with Rabbi Cohen.

“I don’t know how I or Sissy or any of us would have faced this journey alone,” said

Congresswoman Lois Capps, who was widowed in 1997. “You’ve created a beautiful thing out of most deep and personal pain. What a lesson and what a gift!”

Through writing this book I found something within me that wanted to help myself and other people, said Taran. “Today’s benefit is my way of giving back to two organizations close to my heart.”

Originally published in Noozhawk on February 12, 2008.

Young Jews embark on rites of passage with Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Photo by Peter van der Sluijs, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

While the passage from childhood to adulthood is murky, at best, for many of us, virtually all societies determine a specific age that separates the children from the adults — the age when an individual assumes his communal and religious responsibilities to society.

For Jews, the establishment of becoming a Bar Mitzvah at 13 years plus one day for boys and a Bat Mitzvah at 12 years plus one day for girls, has historically been viewed as a first step in a young person’s acceptance of the obligations to family and community as a responsible Jew.

Though Jews have wrestled with the problem of how to safeguard the spiritual elements of Judaism in an age that openly embraces materialism, most Santa Barbara Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are relatively low key, at least when compared to what goes on other places.

Jennifer Lebell, whose son, Jacob, recently had his Bar Mitzvah, recalls a family Bar Mitzvah, which took place in Canada. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life, ” she said of the ceremony, which she described as being “very light on the Judaism.”

“There’s this elaborate stage and then there’s this little stage with a flowered archway and these (two 15-year-old) glamour girls are on each arm of the Bar Mitzvah boy, as the master of ceremonies said, ‘And now, may we present…’ and it totally darkens, and then actual fireworks come out of the arch,” she laughed.

“I mean it was such a stereotypical … Hollywood would have just gone nuts. … It was so bizarre. We knew that if we were going to do anything, that was the one thing that we were not going to do.”

Avoiding the glitzy route, the Lebells elected instead to take the path advised by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin in his book, Putting God on the Guest List. “Decide as a family what you are celebrating and what this moment in your life means. This decision will help guide you through the rest of the planning stages.”

For the Lebells, this meant enrolling Jacob into Hebrew school (a large part of the Bar Mitzvah involves reading from the Torah in Hebrew) when he was in fourth grade.

“Learning to read in Hebrew was a special challenge for Jake because he has a learning disability,” said his mom. His teachers weren’t very optimistic, but his mother was determined. “It just proves that you can do something if your mom puts your mind to it,” she said.

“When I started working on my Bar Mitzvah, it was mostly about my parent’s expectations and their faith that I could master this stuff,” said Jacob. “It seemed too big and I was in denial, even as I went to my weekly classes. Eventually, it all started to make sense, and so what I learned is that if I keep showing up and have the right motivation, even huge things like this are doable.”

“One of the things during this ritual that I really love is the handing down of the Torah,” said Jennifer. “The Torah is taken from the ark by the rabbi and given to the oldest direct family member, in this case Grandma Malca and Grandpa Don, who then pass it to us (the parents), and then we pass it to Jacob who then processes around the sanctuary holding it allowing everyone else to touch it too. The other aspect I find significant is the grueling study and the humbling presentation before community. It really seems to give them acknowledgement for what they have done and confidence that if they can do this, they can do anything.”

For some families, instead of the traditional Torah reading and reception after the services that the Lebells did, this involves celebrating with another kind of journey. For example, last summer Madeleine Bordofsky and her father Michael took a trip to Europe to explore their Jewish roots. While Madeleine is definitely enjoying attending the Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties of her friends, describing one of them as “the best party ever,” she said, “I’d rather have a trip.”

Another important part of the ritual is a good deed, or a mitzvah, as part of the initiation into adulthood. A percentage of the total cost of the reception food is typically donated to Mazon, an organization that helps feed hungry people nationwide. Since money is commonly given as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah gift, most people designate a portion of their gifts to go to charity. For example, Jacob Lebell was planning to donate to Direct Relief International’s Tsunami Relief Fund.

While some may debate whether it’s realistic for a 13-year-old to be considered an adult, most Jews view the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony as just the beginning of the acceptance of responsibility.

As Jacob wrote, “Through the entire time of writing this speech, the rabbi, the cantor, my folks and my godmother kept asking me what does being a Jew and having a Bar Mitzvah mean to me. I still don’t really know, but I do know I have begun to find out.”


What is a Bar Mitzvah?

Historically Bar Mitzvah and later Bat Mitzvah is the ceremonial occasion that marks the time when a young person is recognized as an adult in the Jewish community and is responsible for performing mitzvot. For example, before children are Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they do not need to fast on Yom Kippur.

The ceremony consists of the young person chanting the blessings, and his or her Torah portion, which is the Torah portion of the week.

Over time the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration party has evolved. The custom is to serve a special meal to commemorate the mitzvah taking place. Moreover with extended families spread out over the country, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is also an opportunity for families to reunite and spend time together.

Children begin studying for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah by going to school some years before they actually turn Bar/Bat Mitzvah age.

In the year leading up to the event the person begins more intense training focused specifically on their Torah portion and the accompanying prayers. The day the young person is Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the first time he or she will have ever been called to the Torah.

In addition to preparing one’s Torah portion, the preparatory year serves as a chance for the young person to begin thinking about what being a Bar/Bat Mitzvah really means. In some synagogues the young person may make a commentary on their portion and try to apply the teachings of Torah to his or her own life.

Spotlight on B’Nai Brith

There are 28 young people scheduled to have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs at Congregation B’Nai Brith this year, said Cantor Mark Childs, who teaches the students at their final preparation stage. Of those 28, 13 are girls, he said.

“We’re a reform, progressive liberal synagogue, so we give equal status to both genders. You might find fewer girls being Bat Mitzvah in an orthodox setting,” Childs said.

Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are usually scheduled far in advance. For example, Childs said he put one on the calendar this week for June 2007.

While some students begin to study Hebrew in kindergarten, “even as young a preschool,” according to Jennifer Lebell, who has three children, “it really starts to get intense in fourth grade.”

For grades kindergarten through third, religious school is on Sunday mornings. In fourth grade, a Wednesday afternoon class is added. In seventh through 10th grade, students begin to attend a junior high and high school class on Wednesday nights, rather than Sundays.

In addition, when their Bar Mitzvah date is set, “they have private tutoring nine months before the date,” said Childs. After the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, conversational Hebrew becomes an elective, he explained, with further classes devoted to religious study. “We have a 90 percent retention rate after Bar Mitzvah, then they are confirmed at the end of 10th grade.”

While it’s tough to keep up that schedule in high school, “it’s a test of their priorities,” said Childs. “We hope that religious education is going to remain a primary priority.”

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on February 24, 2005.