Synaplex’s membership tip: put spirit back in Shabbat


The shades were drawn in the classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center. Lights dimmed. A white cloth anchored by softly glowing candles covered the center of the room. Sitting cross-legged on the floor or on straight-backed chairs, a group of men and women kicked off their shoes and closed their eyes as Rafael Harrington guided them in meditation.

At the same time in adjoining rooms, Mike Mason was leading a circle of fervent drummers, while Naomi Ackerman conducted a series of theater games focusing on Jewish identity.

These workshops, presented as possibilities for enhancing Shabbat offerings, were part of an afternoon organized by Synaplex, an initiative of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Family Foundation.

About 150 people, including rabbis, cantors, lay leaders and staff from 40 congregations representing all denominations — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Renewal — attended the Oct. 25 event, which was also sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.
The capacity turnout — some congregations got no farther than the waiting list — was a clear indication that Synaplex, with its promise to help build membership participation through innovative Shabbat programming, is addressing a need.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, STAR’s executive director, emphasized that most people are not currently happy with their Shabbat observance.

“We don’t want to lose the minority who are satisfied, but we have to add to what we’re offering, so more people have rewarding experiences,” he said. “We know there is no magic bullet.

“People have all kinds of yearnings,” Herring continued. “Some are looking for God, some for prayer and meditation, some for community. I don’t want to impose my definition of spirituality on anyone else. We all go through different stages; what fits us today might not fit us tomorrow. If you think of Shabbat as the destination, Synaplex provides many paths to get there. Synagogues take what we have to offer and imbue it with their own creativity and energy.”

Ready to expand beyond the 120 congregations it now works with throughout the country, Synaplex offered the afternoon as an opportunity for interested congregations to sample a variety of activities, as well as to hear from veteran participants in the program.

“Synaplex gave us the scaffolding to create an expanded Shabbat community,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, which has been involved in the program for three years. “We were interested in bringing in groups that weren’t participating in Shabbat. During our monthly Shabbats, we now have a Saturday luncheon for seniors that draws 50 people and a Shabbat romp for 30-45 families with small children.

“We’ve created a fusion service on Friday nights. We’ve gone from an average of 75-100 participants to well over 200. During a Synaplex Shabbat, there’s always something going on. We initially had simultaneous offerings, but the congregation didn’t like missing any of the activities, so our events are now sequential.

“Synaplex provided us an opportunity to experiment and explore and suggested new ways to create a sacred community,” Moskovitz reported. “In a sense, it’s completely transformed our service. Our Synaplex Shabbat was like a stone dropping on a calm pool of water. The ripple effect continues to reverberate in a positive and profound way across our temple community.”

Rabbi Laura Geller, describing the four years of evolution of Synaplex at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, said, “There are many different doors to Judaism. For some it’s spiritual, for some it’s cultural, for some it’s community, for some it’s learning, for some it’s social justice,” and the genius of Synaplex is that all those doors open onto Shabbat.

“Our Shabbat Unplugged Services were our most successful, but we wanted to add to that,” she said. “We wanted to bring in the most underserved segments of our population — families with young children, singles and older people. From the beginning, the project had a playful quality as we began to imagine new kinds of programs.”

Geller described a typical Synaplex Friday, which might have 300 people in attendance (the regular Friday night services draw 70-100.) There is a Tot Shabbat and a healing service, as well as dinners for families and empty nesters and a wine-tasting for young adults, followed by the Shabbat Unplugged Service. The evening concludes with a festive oneg, complete with cappuccino cart, and a program that might include a guest speaker, film or music.

“There’s tremendous energy,” she said. “That energy makes people proud to be connected to Temple Emanuel. It’s still a work in progress. Shabbat was created to let people take a deep breath. Our Synaplex Shabbat reminds us how important a connection to a synagogue can be. It can be a connection of joy.”

Elana Centor, STAR’s marketing consultant, had the task of convincing the audience that the language of marketing and branding is not just appropriate but necessary for the revitalization of synagogues. Acknowledging that many in the group might not have the most positive feelings about “marketing,” she urged them to think of it as a “process of exchanging something of value for something you need.”

Her confidence in the efficacy of her approach and the importance of emotional connections appeared to melt most resistance, even for those who weren’t quite ready to think of their congregation as a “brand.”

When a congregation signs on to Synaplex, she assured them, they’d have access to the experience and resources of those who have been working successfully with the program for several years.

As the afternoon wound down, many lingered for a summing up. Sandy Calin, president Temple Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills, reflected the enthusiastic consensus, saying, “We have a small congregation, about 250 families. We need both to grow and to revitalize ourselves. Synaplex provides an enormous variety of ways to participate.”

The Trailblazer’s Toolbox: Programs That Grab


Here’s a brief rundown of the national synagogue revitalization programs that have arisen since the early 1990s.

  • Billed as the first such initiative, the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) was created in 1992. It strives to popularize Jewish learning among congregants while encouraging synagogues to embrace fundamental and long-lasting change.

    Fifty-five synagogues have participated in ECE, which has a yearly budget that generally ranges from $500,000 to $750,000. Chief funders have included The Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Mandel Associated Foundations, the Covenant Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York. Contact Rob Weinberg at (847) 328-0032 or rweinberg@huc.edu.

  • Synagogue 2000, which began in 1995, developed a wide-ranging curriculum that more than 100 synagogues have used to rethink their overall approach and to deepen their congregants’ spiritual engagement.

    This influential program recently morphed into Synagogue 3000, whose mission is to train synagogue and academic leaders in order to better implement the goals of Synagogue 2000. Among those goals: Demonstrate that synagogues do not exist just to serve the needs of congregants, according to program co-founder Ron Wolfson at the University of Judaism, but rather to motivate them to “do tikkun olam, God’s work on earth.”

    Synagogue 2000, whose annual budget topped out at roughly $2 million, was funded by several major donors, including the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Whizin Foundation, the Rose Family Foundation and the UJA-Federation. Contact Ron Wolfson or Joshua Avedon at (310) 553-7930 or info411@synagogue3000.org.

  • Three years ago, in 2003, a Minneapolis-based initiative known as Star, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, created Synaplex, which helps synagogues supplement regular Shabbat services with diverse programming, including films, music, meditation, lectures and arts and crafts.

    Synagogue
    One of three Star programs, Synaplex is based on the principle that some of today’s Jews need a variety of entry points into Jewish involvement, and that those portals — artistic, academic, activist and ritual — are equally valid vehicles for engaging Jewishly. More than 100 congregations have signed on.
    Synaplex has an annual budget of around $1 million, and its main funders include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life

    Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. In addition, the UJA-Federation of New York helps underwrite Synaplex at three participating synagogues.

    Contact Rabbi Hayim Herring at (952) 746-8181 or hherring@starsynagogue.org.

College Students Find High Holidays’ Place in Higher Learning


The High Holidays are here. With them comes a new school year, whereupon many recent graduates of Jewish high schools will face the challenges for the first time that can accompany being an observant Jew in an academic environment that runs on the Christian calendar.

Gone are the days when observant Jewish students suffered for their absences from class or exams on the High Holidays or Passover. The California Education Code fully protects students’ rights to observe religious holidays free of academic penalty.

But the fact remains that academic life at nonsectarian universities may not have become much easier for young Jews who want to observe, because there are still indirect effects of such absences.

At top schools, such as USC and UCLA, observant Jewish students are finding that the penalty to be paid is all in the details.

Some students say that although professors are understanding about Yom Kippur, and despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls on the weekend this year, time they spend in shul could set them back because of assignments that are due the day after the holidays or even on Yom Kippur itself.

“I am worried because I am an architecture major, and there are deadlines, and it’s fast paced so I just have to be ahead of game constantly,” said Yoav Weiss, who just entered his freshman year at USC.

Although most universities have support staff available to aid students dealing with religious issues — at Hillel, the Office of Religious Life or University Chaplain’s office — most can only help deal with the major scheduling conflicts, like those that involve rescheduling an exam that falls on a holiday.
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC, admitted that she couldn’t come to the aid of students over the myriad little conflicts that affect them.

For example, some professors offer four midterms and throw out each student’s lowest exam score in the calculation of the students’ final grades — but if they inadvertently choose to give an exam on a Jewish holiday, thereby making that exam the student’s lowest, the student likely has no recourse. In circumstances like this, the Office of Religious Life can do little to help, according to Laemmle.

“Sometimes Jews have to work a little harder, and that’s OK,” said Laemmle, who said she tries not to show Jewish students any favor in her role at the school.
Observing Shabbat weekly may be the greatest challenge of all, however, at universities where honors programs or intensive, fast-track programs demand extra time on Fridays and weekends. Some students said they have encountered professors who cannot comprehend why they cannot stay late on a Friday night, or e-mail them on Saturday.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director at UCLA Hillel, was skeptical of the notion that there is a “problem” for young Jews who want to observe Shabbat or holidays at universities. He thinks students should look at the positive aspects of the modern university, which allows them to miss class so that they can affirm their Judaism.

“You’re dealing with a system that attempts to create the best possible climate for someone who wants to be Jewish and who wants to observe,” he said. “So, I’m trying to understand why someone would want to make out of that an issue. On the contrary, one would want to enterprise. Look at the opportunity you have.”
Seidler-Feller emphasized that the university is the place where students learn to prioritize their commitments with confidence.

“You go out into the world, and you know that you’re in a law job, and it’s tough … and then they say they want you to work on such and such a day, and you have to have the inner strength and self-confidence and integrity,” he added. “So when do you start learning this? At a university, where the downside is minimal.”

Not surprisingly, observant Jewish students who have already experienced the fork in the road that a nonsectarian education can present tend to be more relaxed about dealing with it in college.

David Goldenberg, a recent graduate of La Jolla High School, just began school at UCLA. He’s already made up his mind about when he’ll miss class and when he won’t and put on a relaxed front.

“It’s only a few days a year,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Wandering Jew – Music to My Ears


“In syngagyng a sangasongue … ” — James Joyce, “Finnegans Wake.”

Singing in synagogue is something I wish I were better at doing or at least less embarrassed about doing full-throated. At the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, the congregation doesn’t have that problem. They have David Coury.

A voice expert known for coaching singers and nonsingers, and working with deaf and autistic students and contestants for TV shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “American Idol,” Coury is unique and considered “revolutionary.”

When I heard about his “So You Always Wanted to Sing!” seminar, I knew it was time to put my mouth where my … or my money where my … whatever. Who isn’t a wannabe chazan from way back?

The Sunday afternoon workshop was held at the Howard Fine Acting Studios on Las Palmas Avenue, off a stretch of Sunset Boulevard east of Highland Avenue near Buckbuster (“Less Than $1 Many Items Sell For”) and the Hollywood Center Motel (“Electrical Heat”), which looks like an abandoned set from “L.A. Confidential.”

A few dozen singees sat nervously in the studio theater. Lee Miller, television director and president of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, introduced Coury. The syagogue bills itself as “L.A.’s original entertainment congregation.”

“Isn’t there another shul like this in New York or Branson?” I asked.

Miller shook his head.

“We’re it,” he said. Coury chanted “Kol Nidre” last fall with Synagogue for the Performing Arts’ cantor, Judy Fox, and, Miller said, “a lotta jaws dropped.”

I was skeptical at first, hearing how Coury’s accompanist on piano had just got the day off from studio work “with Natalie Cole.” Coury had that hipster headset and two bottles of Sparkletts at the ready, high energy that got me wondering: How will I know if he’s the real laryngo-glottal guru? This is Hollywood, after all. If you can fake it here you can fake it anywhere, right?

“How brave you are,” Coury butters up the attendees — each paid $75, which goes to Synagogue for the Performing Arts. The teacher is trim and dark in black sweatshirt, khaki slacks, sneakers.

“It’s a long road from the shower to the stage,” he says, rolling up his sleeves and diving right in. “I like to just get to things,” he tells us. “There’s no revving up.”

A fellow named Sky is the first actor ready for his voice-up.

Our music man’s method? It’s all about the mask.

“That’s where you sing from,” Coury says, gripping his face as we model him. But wait. What? No up from the diaphragm and below bellowing?

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” explains Coury. “A cave has resonance and an ant hole depth. You’ve got to use your mouth.”

Alternately praised and nudged, each vocalist eventually expresses more than he or she thought they ever could. Whatever their issue, Coury calms them into laughter or steers them back to the mask. Soon they’re singing “Moon River” like Mandy Patinkin or “People” like Barbra Streisand, bounding off stage to high-fives or applause.

OK, not like Streisand, obviously. But it is amazing to observe. Coury has no tricks or even a warm-up technique.

He can explain “pre-frontal rostrum medial cortex” like a speech therapist, but something else is at work, too. When Serena forgets her lyric and goes off into just sounds, Coury is laudatory toward her. “She has reached Yummyville,” he says, “where it feels good, and there are no nerves anymore.”

“Willingness and desire are everything,” he teaches. “So the challenge is just the nerves. Put yourself in my hands and meet me halfway.”

And darned if it doesn’t happen right before our ears.

A good listener with a wicked laugh, Coury stops one singer as soon as she starts.

“Favorite food, Denise?” he asks.

“Clam Chowder,” she replies, smiling.

“See how we light up when we talk about food?” he says with a laugh. “Singing and speaking are very oral. Singing equals speaking equals singing … the voice should be musical, symphonic.”

Powerful medicine.

“You can’t fake a blush,” he says to a woman named Stephanie. “You’ve had a transformation.”

Already full of fabulous pipes, Stephanie wants a “a fuller belt.”

In moments, Coury releases her “Tiger Song” from “Les Miz” out into the wilds of Sunset Boulevard somewhere. Teary-eyed, she thanks him.

And I know it may sound silly, but he’s got us all belting words like “I” and “you” over and over. No kidding. Love should be sung as “lahhv,” you know, and pronounced as in “va va voom.” The expert lets us in on the ins and outs of “eees” and “ooos” and how “eh” is a vowel, but they don’t teach you that.”

Well, that’s one way to praise Yahweh. But how does he get us to do it?

“You must risk three things,” Coury says. “Sounding weird, looking bad and being disliked.”

Um, do we have to? Why?

“Because the world worships the original. Take these tools and risk it.”

The tools are learned through little inspirationals, like the one he gives a lusty singer named Shelley, who gets up and growls, “Rock me, baby, like my back ain’t got no bone.”

Coury wants more.

“Be like a dog to a steak,” he tells the loungey bombshell. “Bite into it. Not with your voice, with your mouth.”

And for guys like Phil, afraid he can only drone a tone deaf “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Coury teaches: “There’s no such thing as fearless. There’s being afraid and doing it anyway — that’s being extraordinary.”

So after hiding out fearfully as long as possible, I climb on stage. After a taste of Perry Como (“Just in Time,” a song I want to sing at my wedding), I’m convinced I’m no crooner.

But with the coach’s encouragement, I go for something even higher, recalled from the car radio while driving Sunset Boulevard to get here. It’s a ballad from a lame top-40 band, Foreigner. “I’ve been waaaaiting for a girl like you, to come into my liiife….”

I tell him I had my tonsils out when I was 10, but Coury takes no lip.

“Listening to yourself is not going to allow the magic,” he says. “Looking directionally at me will bring it. Use the human in the room. You’ll find your humanity immediately at play.”

Suddenly something comes out that I’ve never felt, not even while alone with the windows up and stereo blaring. I’m exhilarated. Euphoric.

He shakes my hand and I bounce off stage, hearing his final instructions to all of us:

“Dare to be heard. In this world of communication, you have to speak out to be heard. You can literally touch somebody with your voice. Who knows who’s there? And that’s magic.

“Do! Sing! Big! Not big voice, big mouth. It’s not the singing; it’s the learning. Your voice is greater than any song you’ve ever sung, if you’re working on your voice. So keep your yapper open.”

Sound advice. What else did I learn?

Singers should keep their eyes open and it’s quite all right to lick your lips. Pronouncing is what gives life. And when you run out of breath? Breathe. Listen for me next Friday night and Shabbat shalom, Los Angeles.

Synagogue for the Performing Arts has another seminar, “Journey Into Self-Discovery,” taught by Howard Fine, Feb. 17-19. For more information call (310) 472-3500 or go to www. SFTPA.com.

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller for “Weekend America,” heard on public radio stations every Saturday, including KPCC-FM 89.3 in Los Angeles.

 

Smaller Classes for Smaller Kids


"I want to create a place of wonder," said Lindy Lane-Epstein, who spent the summer attempting to animate her vision for a scaled-down preschool and kindergarten for members of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom.

She started with painting in primary colors and moved on to culling well-loved toys for the best specimens.

With enrollment capped at under 50 children aged 2 to 6 and a state-mandated teacher-student ratio of 1 to 6, Lane-Epstein predicts both students and instructors will enjoy a far different experience when classes start Sept. 8.

She was hired as the preschool’s new director in June to revamp the synagogue’s program with a more pronounced Jewish curriculum. "I like the idea of a more intimate program," Lane-Epstein said.

While her most recent job was an assistant math teacher at a Jewish day school, Lane-Epstein also worked as a Judaica educator, teacher and assistant director of the Jewish Community Center’s preschool in Costa Mesa, which then enrolled 140 students.

That and more were enrolled in Beth Sholom’s preschool up until last spring. Yet after more than 30 years, operating deficits forced the synagogue to let go its full-time preschool staff and close its award-winning children’s learning center (CLC), a community day-care facility used by as many as 160 children, including infants.

"When we really looked at it, it was worse than we thought," said Sylvan Swartz, the congregation’s president. Costs for health insurance and worker’s compensation had increased so dramatically in recent years, he said, that the congregation was contemplating program cuts elsewhere to make up the deficit.

"Did it make sense to reduce the quality and quantity of temple programs when our CLC, comprised of 75 to 80 percent non-Jewish families, was a major source of our cash drain?" Swartz explained in a synagogue bulletin.

"It didn’t make sense," he said in an interview. "When we stepped back, it was obvious. We were cutting the wrong program."

The wrenching financial decision was made easier when synagogue leaders settled on starting fresh with a more Jewish orientation for its 650 families. Nonmembers could enroll their children, but at higher fees.

"We decided as a synagogue that it made more sense to start over and keep it more manageable," Swartz said.

Praised as one of the county’s best child-care operations, Swartz said, "Like any small business in America, it’s difficult to compete with large operations."

Neither did the synagogue management want to tackle finding a solution.

"We’re not there as a day-care center," Swartz said. "Our commitment is to lifelong learning."

The full-time staff of the larger preschool was uninterested in the part-time hours at the revamped operation, he said.

For Lane-Epstein, 44, starting fresh is a rare opportunity to make concrete her many creative ideas, particularly in Judaica where preschool curriculum is not standardized. To teach kindergarten, she hired Felicia Fields Bennett, a former Morasha Jewish Day School teacher. The class is likely to be no more than 12 children, well under state requirements.

"I’ll have my style," Lane-Epstein said, which will include creating a Jewish environment with Israel posters, Hebrew writing and Jewish-themed puzzles. She is equally enthusiastic about enriching the preschool’s Jewish content with the effervescent presence of Rabbi Heidi Cohen, whose daughter, 5-year-old Dahvi, is enrolled.

As is her practice during Beth Sholom’s summer camp, Cohen will make weekly Shabbat visits to the preschool.

Back to the Desert


Modern Jews must possess an ancient collective memory to stay out of the desert. I only had enough vacation days saved up for the Memorial Day weekend, not enough for 40 years of wandering.

But Arie Katz, founder of Orange County’s Community Scholar Program, which sponsored this second annual retreat, promised that we would be on schedule. And I have learned to never doubt Arie. So we loaded up the car and headed for the desert.

Arriving at La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort, we unpacked into our beautiful luxury room overlooking one of the five swimming pools. This four-diamond resort is located in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in the contiguous United States. It covers more than 600,000 acres of rugged, pristine and diverse terrain with spectacular canyons, sand dunes and desert mountains. And now this panoramic but forbidding place was the temporary home of 40-plus Orange County Jewish families. I thought to myself, “How can anyone learn anything in this heat?”

I was wrong.

Rivy Kletenik, our weekend scholar-in-residence, writes and teaches on topics of Jewish interest throughout the world. Taking a cue from the western tableaux, her lively weekend discussions centered on the theme of “Wild Stories of The Talmud & Midrash: the Thin Precipice Between Life and Death.”

A graduate of Pittsburgh’s Hillel Academy, Jerusalem College for Women, Hebrew University and Touro College, Rivy was also recently selected by the Covenant Foundation to receive the Covenant award for outstanding Jewish educators.

Rivy’s lectures were the icing on the cake of an extensive schedule complete with religious services, lectures, gourmet meals and separate activities for younger children. Before we began each morning, Josh Lake, our tribe’s in-house naturalist, offered a sunrise desert walk to help us better appreciate our surroundings. (Confession: I never woke up in time to join the hike. Maybe next year.)

Shabbat was a beautiful sight: 120 Orange County Jews in the desert, from a dozen different congregations, shvitzing and celebrating Shabbat together as a unified community. Congregation B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Elie Spitz led Shabbat services, as well as master songleader Dale Schatz to focused our ruach (spirit).

Our 4-year-old daughter, Adina, loved it. She quickly made friends with all of the other children and fell in love with the weekend’s teen counselors. Her two favorites, sisters Jaclyn and Elena Bendroff, played with Adina during Shabbat free time and babysat her each night.

The weekend was spectacular, not only from an intellectual standpoint, but as a Jewish parent and communal professional. It was refreshing to see so many generations of Jewish families — some with children, some without — learning together, singing together and laughing together.

At the end of the weekend, everyone agreed to meet back in the desert again next year. And, just as Arie promised, the retreat ended as scheduled.

I’ve already put in for my vacation during Memorial Day weekend next year. Wanna join us?

To receive information about the CSP or sign up for next year’s annual desert retreat, visit

Journey to Judaism


"I want to be the first Jewish country singer," Mare Winningham says. "Actually, Kinky Friedman was the first. But I want to be the next."

It’s the kind of easy banter the actress-singer proffers between nightclub sets of her country-tinged folk music. But the setting on this Thursday afternoon is the chapel at the University of Judaism (UJ), where Winningham sits at an upright piano after completing her three-hour Hebrew class. In her pure, open voice, she launches into her "Convert Jig," a country-ish ditty she wrote to honor her "Introduction to Judaism"teacher before her conversion last year.

"He has organized the notes for life and given me the tools to turn my tiny insignificance into something big," she croons, as her eyes crinkle into a smile. "I will be a Jew like all of you … and never eat a pig."

If the levity is unexpected, the actress thinks she is, too.

"Look, my last name is Winningham, and that in itself is funny," she says. "I joke sometimes that I’ll open ‘Winningham’s Kosher Bakery’ and throw everyone for a loop."

Indeed, the 45-year-old actress is better known for the decidedly American (read: non-Jewish) roles she’s portrayed in 70 films and TV movies than, say, for the challah she bakes on Friday afternoons.

She won a 1980 Emmy for playing a farmer’s daughter in "Amber Waves"; received a 1996 Oscar nomination for her role as a country music star in "Georgia"; and starred as Kevin Costner’s common-law wife in "Wyatt Earp." Winningham will also appear as a Catholic single mom in the upcoming CBS series, "Clubhouse," and a stalwart prairie resident in the Hallmark TV movie, "The Magic of Ordinary Days." (She’s perhaps best known as the virginal Wendy from the Brat Pack flick, "St. Elmo’s Fire.")

As she leaves the piano to munch some kosher almonds, she says she’s happy to be back at the UJ after the four-week "Magic" shoot near Calgary, Canada.

"We were in the middle of nowhere, so I knew I was going to miss Shavuot," she says, ruefully.

Shavuot, which celebrates converts, is Winningham’s favorite holiday, because it’s the first she observed after converting in March 2003. For that Shavuot, she stayed up all night studying at Temple Beth Am; in Calgary, she improvised by studying Jewish books such as "The Midrash Says," a five-volume set she’s vowed to complete this year. Also in her suitcase was her trusty Shabbat travel kit, which includes candlesticks, a prayer book, a Havdalah candle and spice box.

"I’ve been known to light Shabbat candles in a Honeywagon trailer," she says of her experience on various sets.

Her observance has been "a real conversation starter," especially among fellow Jews. Larry Miller, her co-star from CBS’ short-lived "Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," recalls his surprise upon learning that Winningham rushed home to bake challah one Friday afternoon.

"It was like having Grace Kelly say, ‘By the way, what time is Mincha?’" he says, referring to afternoon prayers.

Winningham wouldn’t forget the time.

"She takes her Jewish studies very seriously," Beth Am’s Rabbi Perry Netter told The Journal. "It’s part of her incredible desire to be part of the Jewish world, not for any other motive than she feels so deeply and passionately Jewish."

The actress traces her spiritual journey to her Catholic childhood in Granada Hills. Her great-uncle, "Father Dave" Maloney, was bishop of Wichita, Kan.; her devout mother, Marilyn, sent Mare and her four siblings to catechism at the cathedral across the street.

"My mom influenced me greatly with her beautiful devotion to her faith," Winningham says. But that came later. By age 14, Mare says, she had developed problems with religion in general and "the idea of someone dying for your sins."

A 12th-grade comparative religion course fueled her budding agnosticism; after graduating from Chatsworth High — where an agent discovered her in a production of "The Sound of Music" — Winningham began "a resolutely secular existence."

In 1982, she married her now ex-husband in a non-denominational ceremony; she raised their five children (today ages 15-22) in a household where holidays were celebrated in an irreligious, if flamboyant fashion.

"I cooked for days," she says about Christmases past.

It wasn’t until her children were nearly grown that Winningham found herself reading works by Jung, Joseph Campbell and others in an attempt to sort out nagging religious and psychological questions. In summer 2001, she visited a "creation of the world" exhibit at a science museum and made an announcement to herself: "I don’t think I believe in God."

"But that night, I had the most remarkable dream, which told me, ‘If you’re going to reject something, at least find out what it is you are rejecting,’" she says. When a friend told her about the UJ’s Introduction to Judaism class, Winningham thought, "OK, I’ll begin by studying the Jews, since they started the one-God thing."

While she intended to approach the class from a historical, intellectual perspective, the epiphanies began the day she stepped into Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s UJ class in November 2001.

"There I was, struggling with God, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Israel means struggle with God,’" she says.

"When Mare started, she seemed to be checking Judaism out," Weinberg recalls. "But before long, she enthusiastically embraced the values of Judaism and Jewish family life."

The actress says she began celebrating Shabbat and fell in love with an observance that included "ritualizing, literally, the breaking of bread…. Shabbat fed me literally and figuratively, and I found myself finding my way to God through this very earthly endeavor of feeding my family."

Although her children are not Jewish, they helped her rate brisket recipes, participated in Torah discussions and invited their Jewish friends to her Shabbat table.

Winningham’s attraction to Judaism deepened as she read the Bible: "Everything one needs to know about behavior here on earth is manifest in these stories," she says. "Anything one could find confusing or morally challenging is answerable. When the most important thing about a religion is how you behave here, and not about what happens after you die — these are the things I believe my soul was longing for and rejecting in other religions."

By December 2001, she was regularly attending Netter’s Bait Tefillah minyan at Temple Beth Am.

"Mare drank everything in," Netter recalls. "There was a certain intensity in the way that she concentrated, both on the siddur and on the Torah discussion that would take place."

After Winningham observed her first Yom Kippur that year, she knew she had to convert.

"There was something about petitioning God, as a community, for forgiveness," she says. "I knew then that Judaism was something I couldn’t live without."

On March 3, 2003, an entourage of friends and relatives accompanied Winningham to the official ceremony at the UJ.

"Sitting in on her beit din [rabbinical court] was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had of conversion," Netter said. "It was apparent to me and to the other rabbis that this was a woman who was born a Jewish soul, in terms of the depth of her feelings and the rawness of her emotion."

Cori Drasin, a former Beth Am vice president, says she was especially touched by the ritual immersion part of the ceremony.

"I stood behind the curtain as Mare chanted the blessing in the mikvah, and the walls just resonated with her beautiful voice," Drasin says.

A friend placed a Star of David around Winningham’s neck (she’s still wearing it) and "I cried a lot," she says. She was moved not only to become Jewish, but because her family has been so supportive.

"When I told my mother I was going to become Jewish, she said, ‘You know Mary, they were the first,’" Winningham recalls.

The actress’ children have also been accepting, which, Winningham says, "is lucky, considering that it must be weird for your mom to embrace a new religion when you’re a young adult."

The performer also feels lucky to have been embraced by the Beth Am community, where she recently chanted from the Torah for the first time.

"Everyone in the minyan rejoiced," Netter says. "It was as if one of our children had become bat mitzvah."

Winningham isn’t content to stop there. A self-prescribed "cheerleader for the Torah," she intends to read the entire Bible in its original language, which is why she’s taking that Thursday Hebrew class at the UJ.

"I don’t care if it takes decades, I’ll finish it eventually, I really will," she says. "I may be 80 when I finish, but that would be a beautiful thing."

Winningham sounds more like a scholar than the world’s second Jewish country singer when she adds, "Judaism for me is like a mystery novel. I just can’t stop reading; that’s what it’s like for me."

Winningham will perform in concert July 24, 10:30 p.m. and Aug 21, 10:30 p.m. at Genghis Cohen restaurant, 740 N Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. For information, call (323) 653-0640.

"A Convert Jig"

(Mare Winningham wrote this to honor her "Introduction to Judaism" teacher, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, and she performed it during a tribute to him at the University of Judaism.)

Guard your tongue, love your neighbor

Help someone to help themselves

It’s required — it’s not a favor

That is what my teacher tells us

Don’t be late — you’ll miss the prayer aerobics

Ancient melodies you need to know

How to sing the holy songs — to add your voice where it belongs

And how and when to lift up on your toes

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I’ve come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you

and dance a convert jig

Take the time to learn the Hebrew

Memorize your holidays

Keep kashrut — and study on the Torah

You’ll reap rewards forever and always

Cut your flowers, set your table

Light your candles and say your prayer

Then you’ll know how you are able

To feel you’re Jewish, anywhere

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I’ve come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you — your tree has grown a twig

I will be a Jew like all of you — and never eat a pig

I will be a Jew like all of you — and dance a convert jig!