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Friday 22 February 2008

Poland's first female rabbi hopes to 'bring Jewish life'

Poland's first female rabbi hopes to 'bring Jewish life'

'We really believe that women should be fully present and fully equal on
every conceivable level of Jewish leadership and scholarship,' head of
Poland's Reform Jewish community says of Tanya Segal's ordainment
Associated Press

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 Jewish 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 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 on
a recent Friday night 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."
The Nazis killed six million Jews — half of them Polish — and bequeathed
a legacy of fear, one reinforced by postwar violence and communist-led
persecution. Lublin's prewar population of 100,000 was about 40% 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.
"We really believe that women should be fully present and fully equal on
every conceivable level of Jewish leadership and scholarship, and we
want to send this message loud and clear to the world," said Rabbi Burt
Schuman, the head of Poland's Progressive, or Reform, Jewish community.
Segal joined him in December as the second rabbi at their congregation
in Warsaw, Beit Warszawa, after her ordination in November at the Hebrew
Union College in Jerusalem.
"She is a role model for a whole new generation of Polish Jewish women,"
Schuman added.
'Art prepares and trains the human soul'
Despite being a historic first, Segal does not dwell on her sex 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 — 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, an actress and singer in Moscow's Jewish Chamber Musical Theater
before immigrating to Israel, was a natural with the crowd at the 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 of pleasure she corrected those who were clapping out of time.
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, describing a predicament shared by many Poles with
Jewish roots — feeling both Catholic and Jewish.
She recently went to Israel to "see my fatherland and meet other Jewish
people" — but told classmates that she was on a pilgrimage to the Holy
Land's Christian sites to keep her Jewish identity hidden.
For her, an evening with Segal is a way to connect to that Jewish
heritage, particularly since the rabbi's feminine presence makes her
seem so "easy to connect with."
"At first I thought a woman rabbi was a little strange," Nuckowska said.
"But it's good."
Segal is not discouraged by those who come seeking cultural contact
rather than a true religious experience, the case of many here.
Her own religious convictions also came only after her immigration to
Israel, though that grew from a strong Jewish identity nourished by the
theater and the experience of facing anti-Semitic taunts on playgrounds
as a child. Art, she is convinced, "prepares and trains the human soul
so that it can receive holiness."
"I don't think they can have a religious experience so soon," she said.
"It takes years to really learn to pray. It's a process. They come to
celebrate Shabbat, and whatever place they are in today is really OK."


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