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Rabbi Nathalie Lastreger teaching in Marseilles.

In parashat Lech Lecha, Abraham is told to leave his home and journey to the land of Israel. In Project Lech Lecha, a joint initiative between the World Zionist Organization, Masorti Olami, and MERCAZ Olami, schlichim from Israel are journeying to the Diaspora. The goal is to form stronger, more committed bonds between Diaspora kehillot and Israel.

One schlicha, Rabbi Nathalie Lastreger, visited France (her birthplace) to make such a connection. This was only one of the Lastreger’s life journeys. She made aliyah from Paris, with her family, when she was nine. She grew up in a very traditional Orthodox family. She married an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and never imagined where her life trajectory would take her. “I was a rebbetzin,” Lastreger said; “and I returned to France as a rabba [woman rabbi}.”

Lastreger’s life journey led her away from a religious life she found unfulfilling to Masorti Judaism, studying to become a rabbi at the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem and joining Women of the Wall’s (WoW) struggle to be able to pray wearing tallit and tefillin and read from a sefer Torah in the women’s section of the Kotel.

Lastreger spent three days in Marseilles, from Thursday through Shabbat and one day in Aix en Provence; a much smaller community. The Marseilles community is comprised mostly of Sephardi Jews who left French Orthodoxy. As French Jewry moved more and more to the right and to stringent interpretations of Halacha, people began looking for something else and found it in Masorti Judaism. The Masorti Kehilla, Judaïca – Communauté Massorti, tends to be more traditional in outlook, uses a Sephardic Orthodox siddur and is not officially egalitarian.  This was the first time the community had any first-hand contact with a woman rabbi from Israel and the experience was especially poignant because it was the first time that a woman led services in the synagogue.

“I gave them a taste of Jewish life in Israel as well as another picture of Israel, one that they are not exposed to from the news, about Masorti kehillot and egalitarianism,” Lastreger said. “I was able to make them understand that Diaspora Jews have a role in what goes on in Israel. If they take their belief in religious pluralism seriously, and are vocal about it, then the government of Israel will have to take this into account.”

Lastreger was interviewed on the radio before she led services Thursday evening and she was surprised at the turn-out and the support for her that came from people who were not members of the Masorti synagogue. “People were very surprised by my professionalism and knowledge, they didn’t expect that,” she said. “Many people came on Thursday and returned for Shabbat. And people told me that they have never seen the synagogue this full except for the high holidays.”

The president of the congregation fully supported Lastreger’s role at the synagogue saying that since the Jewish community refuses to recognize them anyway, (the synagogue does not receive any funding and is listed as a cultural center and not as a synagogue) why not push the envelope and bring a woman rabbi in to lead services.

Lastreger spoke about her personal life and her Jewish journey. She was in France when the terror attack on the Har Nof synagogue in Jerusalem occurred so she delved into the current political situation and the relations between Jews and Arabs, Jews and Jews and why it was important to connect Am Yisrael in the Diaspora to Am Yisrael in Israel in order to be able to make a difference in the battle for religious pluralism in Israel.

Her visit to Or Chalom in Aix en Provence was on Rosh Hodesh, the holiday commemorating the beginning of the new Hebrew month and traditionally considered a women’s holiday. Lastreger davened tefilat Rosh Hodesh with a Torah reading to connect the community to the struggles for religious pluralism and women’s rights on the buses, in the streets, the stores and at the Kotel in Israel.

“I explained how women were arrested for wearing tallit at the Kotel and I brought the Women of the Wall tallit and used it for the women who had aliyot to the Torah,” Lastreger said; “and the women were really excited about it. They were moved by the story and they understood that Women of the Wall made a difference for women all over Israel and how it relates to them as women who are part of the Masorti movement. How it is their legacy to promote change.  I told them to look at me and see who I was 30 years ago and who I am now.”

Lastreger’s message (and Masorti Judaism’s) is that Judaism is about more than just continuing the traditions that were handed down to you from your families as a child, that it is possible to renew and refresh customs and reinterpret halacha so that it is relevant to life today.