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Meet Jenna Mark, Woodlands' New Cantor

From Houston to Broadway and back to the bimah. How Jenna’s journey brought her to Woodlands. 

By Mike Winkleman

Beshert. Meant to be. Though that might not be the exact word that both the committee that chose Jenna Mark to be our next cantor and Jenna Mark herself would use when describing the connection they see between Jenna and Woodlands, it’s certainly what’s implied. 

Listen, for instance, to Mark Kaufman, a member of the Cantorial Search Committee and an accomplished musician often seen playing saxophone on the Woodlands bimah: “She became my first choice the moment I heard the first note. I was captivated by her singing, her leading, her engaging us, her bringing us into song.” 

Or Jenna Lebowich, co-chair of the committee: “She had a real sense of who we are. She knew how to talk to us, what pieces to put into her service, how to engage us in the conversation.” 

Or Lois Izes, another search committee member: “She had an edge on the other candidates. She is so bright, so articulate, so kind. And she spanned the ages. She was great with the young kids. Even the teens thought she was cool.” 

But maybe it’s best conveyed in Jenna Mark’s own words. Describing a visit to Woodlands one Friday night several years ago, Jenna recalls, “Everyone was so warm. I remember walking in, and everyone immediately came up to me and said, ‘Hi, how are you? Who are you? Tell me about yourself.’ The general kindness of the community was huge. And then, hearing more about all the work the temple does in terms of social justice and education, all the good that the synagogue is doing for the rest of the world, made me think, this is a place where I would love to be.”

Jenna was accompanied that evening by Ellen Dreskin, with whom she had collaborated a few years earlier on a special Shabbat morning family program at Central Synagogue—a program that Jenna says, “taught me so much about what it is to be a clergy person.” At the time of her visit to Woodlands, Jenna was already going out with Zach Plesent, then Woodlands’ rabbinic intern and now Jenna’s fiancé, but, as Jenna describes it, “no one knew I was connected to Zach when I arrived.” 

Beshert? Without a doubt. 

But let’s step back further to see how Jenna got here. 

Understanding What It Is to Be a Human Being 

Growing up in a large Reform congregation in Houston, Jenna, as she puts it “dove into everything Jewish.” She went to the URJ’s Greene Family Camp and, later, to Kutz Camp for leadership training. She was active in her temple youth group and served as a NFTY regional vice president.

At the same time, she “was actively involved in theater and thought I wanted to be on Broadway.” So, when it came to looking at colleges, she concluded that “I couldn’t do the Jewish professional thing and the theater thing,” and theater won out. 

She chose a theater program at Nebraska Wesleyan University, in large part, she says, because the program “felt like a comforting place to be—a place that would build me up in a very human kind of way rather than tear me down to then build me up again.” This approach, she reflects, contributed to, “my understanding of just what it is to be a human being.” 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, out of 1600 students on campus, there were only two Jews. “This made the holidays very interesting,” Jenna recalls. “I taught people how to play dreidel and eat matzo brei.” And her professors were accommodating, going so far as to drive her to Omaha for High Holy Day services. 

When college ended, Broadway beckoned, and Jenna headed off to New York for a life of auditions and waitressing, while waiting for that big break. But in the midst of all that, something else was going on. “I realized pretty quickly,” Jenna says, “that what I needed to keep going was some sort of spiritual connection, which hadn’t been there in a long time.” 

A Gateway Back to Jewish Life

She found that connection, accidentally, when she auditioned for a role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” that was set to be performed at Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side. “I didn’t even realize I was going to a synagogue until I got there,” she says. But once she did and once she threw herself into the role, working alongside both professional actors and congregants, Rodeph Sholom became “my gateway back into Jewish life.” 

During this time, Jenna became close to one of Rodeph Sholom’s rabbis, Rabbi Leora Kaye, who, it turns out, was once an intern at Woodlands. Rabbi Kaye encouraged Jenna to take classes, go to services, to, as she put it “do whatever you want. It’s on us. We just want you to learn and do what makes you happy.” And so she did, finding herself becoming part of the community in the process, and even enhancing her Jewish professional experience by teaching at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. 

As she moved away from Broadway and toward a more Jewish professional life, she says, “I thought I would be a rabbi, rather than a cantor.” The reason? “The cantor I grew up with,” she recalls, “is a phenomenal human being, but he’s an older Russian man. So, in my head, that’s what a cantor was.”

The Light Bulb Cantorial Moment

But again, Rodeph Shalom provided new insights. Though Rabbi Kaye told her, “Musical rabbis are great. You can play the guitar and sing,” Jenna noticed, at one service she attended, that the cantor “looked very much like me, which was cool to see. She taught this beautiful niggun, and everyone around me started singing along and holding each other in this really beautiful way that I didn’t realize I needed from the community and from life. And I remember thinking in that moment, ‘I can do this. This is what I should be doing. And if I can help anybody to feel part of something and to feel even a little bit healed through music, then I’m doing the right thing.’” That, she says was “the light bulb cantorial moment.” 

With the light bulb lit, Jenna went off to teach at Central Synagogue and then to HUC’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, from which she’ll be ordained as a cantor this spring. 

During cantorial school, Jenna interned at both Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, and at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. Lois Izes spoke with B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi, Matthew Gewirtz, who said that he believes that within 10 years, Jenna will be “one of the most important cantors in the country.” One of her key strengths, he told Lois, is that “when she is with you, her eyes are with you and her heart is with you.” 

No Flinching, Lots of Smiling 

Search committee members echoed that, reflecting on her wide range of different but complementary talents. 

Lauretta Kahn found Jenna “charming and articulate” and notes that “she didn’t flinch from any questions. You can see the polish there.” 

While noting that Jenna Mark “has a maturity and good sense of people and how to read the room,” Jenna Lebowich says she was “blown away” by Jenna Mark’s teaching. In a lesson about the Song of the Sea and music as a midrash, Jenna “wove music through it,” providing a comparison of different versions of mi chamocha. "It wasn’t a frontal lecture delivery. She showed a facility for being able to engage us in conversation while weaving the music and the text together.” 

Mark Kaufman elaborated on that. As a frequent Hevra Torah attendee, Mark found Jenna “engaging, exciting, and thought provoking in discussions, willing to go off script and see where the conversation goes.” 

But as much as Mark is looking forward to Jenna’s facilitation of Hevra Torah, he’s also, he says, “looking forward to playing music with her.” 

As is Woodlands Singer Jenna Lebowich, who commented that Jenna Mark’s voice displays lots of diversity. “She has a musical theater voice,” she says, “but you can hear her singing like Dar Williams and chanting traditional chazanut.” 

For Jenna Mark, being part of Woodlands puts a big smile on her face. She recalls a day, early in the pandemic, when her fiancé, Zach Plesent, then Woodlands’s rabbinic intern, came home from a service-planning session with Rabbi Mara and, she recalls, “he looked happier and more excited than he had in a really long time. And I said, “What’s going on here?” And he said, “I’m just really invigorated by my conversation with Mara.” And I remember thinking how great it would be if I could find something that could make me smile as much as Zach had just smiled.”

There’s no doubt that there will be lots of smiling with Jenna on board. She’s got lots of ideas for ways to incorporate music into all aspects of Jewish life, all week long (maybe even a tap class), for kids as well as for adults. But in the meantime, she says, “I’m very honored, excited, and humbled to be welcomed into this community. Everything I wanted I’ve found in this place. It’s a special community, and I can’t wait to be part of it.”

Sat, May 21 2022 20 Iyar 5782