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 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.
"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.
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."