Female rabbi leads Polish Jewish rebirth

lublin, poland | Rabbi Tanya Segal wraps a fringed prayer shawl around her shoulders, perches a guitar on crossed legs and leads a group of Poles in songs celebrating the Sabbath.

In this city once known as Poland’s Jerusalem, where the rabbis of prewar Poland were men wearing black coats and hats, long beards and sidelocks, Segal cuts a distinctive figure.

A Russian-born Israeli with long, fiery red hair, she is the first full-time female rabbi in Poland. Her arrival in December 2007 in a land where Jewish life was all but wiped out in the Holocaust is a testament to the unabated revival of that life now — and a new diversity taking root amid the growth of the community.

Segal, a youthful and energetic 50-year-old, lives in Warsaw but travels frequently around Poland, guitar in tow, on a mission to bring Jewish traditions to corners of the country of 38 million where large Yiddish-speaking communities thrived for centuries until World War II.

“It’s really a challenge,” Segal said after leading a Shabbat service in a spacious room nestled above Grodzka Gate, an arched passageway that separated Lublin’s Christian and Jewish quarters.

“But I hope to satisfy their interest, to bring them this opportunity … to experience Jewish life.”

Lublin’s pre-World War II population of 100,000 was about 40 percent Jewish; today the Jewish community numbers 22, though many more than that are believed to have Jewish ancestry.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, Poles with Jewish roots have been gradually shaking off the old fears of anti-Semitism and finding the courage to attend Jewish events, visit Israel and sometimes return to the faith of their ancestors.

As they do, some are turning to a modern and liberal strand of Judaism and embracing new customs — such as the equal participation of women in liturgical life — that developed in North America and are being transplanted to a region historically dominated by the Orthodox movement.

Segal does not dwell on her gender and does not call herself a feminist. She almost seems surprised that people might marvel at the novelty of a female rabbi.

“For me, being a woman rabbi is just natural,” she says. “But when people see a woman rabbi, they learn about a key principle of our movement, which is equality. So it means I’ve done my job.”

Her key focus is on giving the Jewish life that remained after the Holocaust a chance to flourish again, a mission she embarked on even before her ordination during several months in Poland as a student rabbi.

“Jews are still here — they are looking for their identity, for their roots. If they are here, then I want to be here.”

Taking on the role has meant sacrifice — like uprooting herself from the home that she made in Israel after leaving Moscow in 1990 as a single mother with a 2-year-old son. Today that boy, Benyamin, is 19 and a soldier in the Israeli army.

Segal, who was an actress and singer in Moscow’s Jewish Chamber Musical Theater before immigrating to Israel, was a natural with the crowd at Lublin’s Brama Grodzka cultural center — a place led by non-Jews to promote the remembrance and revival of Jewish life.

At the start of each song she taught the Hebrew lyrics so the audience of about 35 Poles, not all with Jewish roots, could join in. With a small laugh she corrected those who were clapping out of rhythm.

Among the crowd was 18-year-old Ola Nuckowska, who attended with her maternal grandmother, a Jew who survived the war thanks to a Christian family that took her in as a baby. The grandmother, Wanda Chmielewska, 65, never even knew the name given to her at birth by her Jewish parents, who died in the Holocaust.

“I go to synagogue on Fridays and to church on Sundays,” said the teenage Nuckowska.