- Associated Press - Friday, December 22, 2017

LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) - Religious organizations are often quick to try to make a difference in their communities, but sometimes those with needs inside their walls get forgotten.

That’s something Irene Laster has always tried to keep from happening. That continued to be true this Hanukkah season.

“We concentrate on taking care of the families inside the synagogue,” Laster said. “We try to train the congregation to take care of the congregation first. We help in any way we can.”

Laster is the wife of Rabbi Yossi Laster at Etz Chayim Messianic Synagogue in South Lakeland. This Hanukkah season, Irene Laster headed up the effort to help a handful of families inside the congregation with things such as food, gifts and, in some cases, supplemental income.

“They treated us like family since we first walked in the door,” said Kristina Hunt, who has been attending since October 2016 with her husband and daughter. “Once, we had spent our last $20 and we left that day with gas and food.”

Laster said concentrating on families in need within the synagogue is something she’s done since coming to faith in 1978. From her own experience, Laster knew how difficult things could be.

“Before I became a born-again Christian, I was a single parent as well,” she said. “After I came to know the Lord, I started going to church and everyone was really loving. I was kind of looking for someone to be a big brother to my son, but no one ever came forward. I always tried to make it a priority of not just getting the word on Saturday or Sunday, but living it.”

Mitzi Krasnoff has been attending Etz Chayim for about two years. A mother and grandmother, Krasnoff was in an abusive marriage and addicted to drugs when she first started attending. Now, she lives in a better home and is considering going back to school.

Irene has made a difference for me by being a personal mentor,” Krasnoff said. “She’s been my spiritual mother. She totally became my family. She’s taken care of me emotionally and spiritually. Words can’t express what she means to this community above herself.”

When she first came to synagogue, Krasnoff said, Laster helped her with food, clothes and transportation. Kransnoff said Laster has not only changed her life, but the lives of three of her grandchildren, ages 5, 8 and 10.

“My life has improved so much,” she said. “That temple brought back my Jewish roots; it brought back respect to myself, it brought back my willingness to want to live. Irene has really been a pillar of support for me and my family. With my grandchildren, she’s really built them up and they love her.”

Hunt said last year was the first time she really celebrated Hanukkah the “right way” as far as the traditions are concerned. She said Laster and the congregation provided food for the family, gifts for the children and even a gift card and babysitter so she and her husband could go to dinner. This year, they helped with gifts.

“She’s a wonderful woman who puts God above all in her life,” Hunt said of Laster. “She’s hard on us sometimes, because she loves us. She wants us to go the right way and won’t lead us astray. She’s straightforward and I really like that about her.”

Laster said since being saved nearly 40 years ago, she’s seen the teachings of Jesus as a handbook.

“We’re either followers or we’re just listening to it for five or 10 minutes every week,” Laster said. “You don’t need someone to tell you that a child inside your congregation needs shoes - you can see it. That’s what Jesus or, as we call him, Yeshua - his Hebrew name - expects of us.”

Laster also teaches the women who attend Etz Chayim.

“She’s had a big impact on me,” Hunt said. “I can come to her in any way if I need motherly help or advice and she’ll show me the Scriptures. No matter what it is, she’ll always help. She doesn’t judge. It’s always positive and about God. If we sit back and watch, prayer does work and God does miracles.”

Laster has helped provide plenty of material needs over the last 10 years in Lakeland and in El Paso, Texas, before that, but said her biggest joy is watching those she’s helped grow spiritually. She said there have been times when people she helped along the way thanked her years later - but it’s not the recognition that motivates her.

“My calling from God is to train you and help you know who he is,” Laster said. “To say and to live as a Christian are two different things. I don’t look for the atta-boys. The most rewarding part for me is to see people grow in the Lord. Who could want more than that?”


Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com

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