After 53 years, Nashville's grand ole rabbi retires

(The Jerusalem Post, 2002 )

By Ronda Robinson

NASHVILLE, Tennessee - When the then Lubavitcher rebbe, Yoseph Yitzhak Schneersohn, sent Rabbi Zalman Posner south in 1949 to do outreach to Jews, Nashville, Tennessee, was considered the hinterlands. It was one of the farthest outposts from Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The then 22-year-old hassid had only read about the country music capital in an O. Henry story.

“You could still see teens barefoot in the streets,” Posner recalls of Nashville, which was a big village then. “It wasn't poverty [but] country boys.”

Nashville then had 3,600 Jews - Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

“The future for Jewish people in the United States was not a very encouraging one,” Posner remembers. “As far as the Orthodox synagogue, it was not a happy time.”

When the board of Congregation Sherith Israel interviewed him, one elder took Posner aside and warned, “Don't take the job. The shul is a holding company for the cemetery. We have a mortgage we can't pay.”

The young rabbi's beard, of all things, became controversial when the board voted to hire Posner. Some of the European-born congregants, who possibly were concerned with “Americanization” and blending in, didn't favor him. But the younger members declared,
“If he believes in that, more power to him.”

The rest is history, which came to an end this week when Posner retired after 53 years as head of the city's Orthodox shul.

Posner counts the ability to help disaffected Jews reconnect with their heritage as one of his greatest accomplishments. In Nashville – “Music City USA” - he would find many unaffiliated composers, singers, doctors, and Vanderbilt University students and professors hungry for a Judaism that nourished them.

Former sociology professor Mike Miller, now president of Sherith Israel, says Posner and his wife, Risya, showed that “someone can be frum [religious] and still lead a full and satisfying life in the heart of Dixie.

“I would say without any qualification that he is the most brilliant person I've ever known. He also has a fantastic sense of humor.”

Posner delights visitors with tales of the olden days. Before his time, when the Orthodox shul sat next to the Grand Old Opry, farmers mistakenly wandered in on Friday nights and ate peanuts in the pews while waiting for the show to begin.

One of Posner's favorite memories is the Lubavitcher rebbe's arrival in America. The rebbe and Posner's father, Sholom, had been close in Lubavitch, Russia. In March 1940, Posner, a boy of 13, and hundreds of other hassidim greeted the rebbe as he arrived by boat in New York.

After the war, the rebbe sent Posner and another young yeshiva student to Displaced Persons camps in Europe.

“It's incredible how many of them knew who I was because I was Sholom's son,” the 75-year-old great- grandfather says.

Posner and his wife - whose father, a highly respected hassid, found the building at 770 Eastern Parkway that serves as Lubavitch headquarters - have helped untold numbers of Jews embrace their faith.

“We felt like our function would be teaching others what we have, a Torah home, raising and educating Jewish children,” he says.

The couple started an Akiva School in 1954, and Risye Posner opened a kindergarten in 1955.

Posner taught every class at the school, in addition to serving as rabbi of Sherith Israel, where he has held 2,500 Monday night Talmud classes over the last half- century.

The day school influenced graduates to start three others,in North Carolina, California, and Canada. “We consider them franchisees of ours,” quips Posner, who plans to remain in Nashville as rabbi emeritus.

Invitations to lecture have taken the couple all over the world, from England to the Soviet Union and South Africa to South America.

Frequently members of the audience come up to Posner after he talks and say that his book, Think Jewish, changed their lives.

Kesher Press is publishing a new edition of the book, which first came out in 1978.

In addition to writing books and articles, Posner has done much translating, including two parts of Tanya from Hebrew into English.

“These are monumental works, and translating is not just a matter of translating words,” says Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky of Brooklyn, who served as secretary to the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, son-in-law of Yoseph Yitzhak. “One had to be a scholar.”

Krinsky met Posner in the 1940s, when both were students. “I always admired him,” says Krinsky, who describes his colleague as full of vigor and knowledge. “Not many rabbis remain in one position that long. That speaks a world about a person.”