Sherith Israel's first Rabbi, Herman Salzman
Congregation Sherith Israel had its beginnings in the mid-19th century. In 1887, a group of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, who had been holding religious services for 17 years and maintained their own cemetery, requested a charter from the Chancery Court in Nashville “for the benefit of people of Hungarian nativity in Tennessee, to care for the sick, support and provide maintenance and protection of orphan, widow, afflicted and destitute.” The group was chartered as the Ungarischer Unterstetzung Verein of Nashville, or the Hungarian Benevolent Society of Nashville.
In 1904, some members of the UUVN broke away to form Congregation Sherith Israel. When its charter was issued on July 26, 1905, Sherith Israel was the city’s only Orthodox congregation. Mr. H. Saltzman was the first rabbi of the congregation and served (unpaid) until his death in 1928; Mr. Emanuel Weiss was the first president. Initially located in a house next to the Ryman Auditorium. In 1920, the original building was razed, and the Fifth Avenue Shul was built. As we do today, the Torah was read from the middle of the Shul.
In 1938, Sherith Israel named Rabbi Abraham Chill as the first paid rabbi; he served until he went into the military in 1941. Over the period 1942 to 1949, the Shul had three rabbis.
1949 was a momentous year for Sherith Israel. It was then that the congregation followed the westward movement of Nashville’s Jewish population, leaving downtown for its present location on West End Avenue. A new sanctuary was constructed adjoining an old three-story mansion.
Sherith Israel's first building, located at 118 5th Avenue N in downtown Nashville, was the next door neighbor of the Ryman Auditorium
Sherith Israel's sanctuary is notable for its openness and its twelve magnificent 15-foot tall stained glass windows on the north and south walls. They were designed by Arie Lynn (z”l), an Israeli architect. The thematic windows depict the Jewish holidays, Shabbat, ritual objects, the Holocaust, the twelve tribes of Israel, the State of Israel and Jerusalem. Every window is “signed” by the architect, who cleverly concealed his name in the design of each one.
Also in 1949, Rabbi Zalman Posner (z"l) joined Sherith Israel as its rabbi in 1949. He was to serve for as the Shul's rabbi for 53 years. In addition to leading Sherith Israel, Rabbi Posner founded Akiva School (now on the Gordon Jewish Community Center campus) in 1954.
For thirteen years, the old mansion housed the synagogue’s kitchen, a small chapel, and rabbi’s office. Former bedrooms on the second floor were converted into classrooms. The bathrooms sported marble floors and coal-burning fireplaces. In 1962, the old mansion was torn down and the Congregation built the portion of the building housing the offices, chapel, Liff Auditorium and the Akiva School.
Cantor George Lieberman joined Sherith Israel as Cantor in 1996. In addition to reading the Torah and leading services on Shabbat and holidays, Cantor Lieberman has been a tireless educator of both our youth and adults, teaching Hebrew, how to read Haftorahs, and leading classes.
Rabbi Posner became Rabbi Emeritus in 2002 and passed away in 2014. Rabbi Michael Merdinger served as Rabbi from 2002 until 2005.
Rabbi Posner and Congregants burning the mortgage. L-R, William Schlanger, Rabbi Zalman Posner, Harry Stern, Ben Walter, Gene Heller
2005, its centennial, was another notable year for Congregation Sherith Israel. Rabbi Saul Strosberg, a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, joined Sherith Israel as its spiritual leader in 2005. Rabbi Saul and his wife Daniella Pressner, principal of Akiva School, have attracted many new young families to the synagogue. 2005 also saw Sherith Israel elect its first woman president. Also in 2005, the Shul commenced the rejuvenation of the physical plant, including the construction of new steps for the Bowling Avenue entrance and renovations of the Liff Auditorium, the complex housing the chapel and offices, the main sanctuary, and the West End Avenue main entrance. Our assistant rabbi, Aaron Finkelstein, came to us from New York with his wife, Julie Sugar, in 2014.
As has been the case for over half a century, all are welcome at Sherith Israel. Our congregation is an eclectic mix of people from a variety of religious backgrounds. Some are “strictly Orthodox,” while others are from Conservative or even Reform backgrounds. Others are in the midst of spiritual journeys where Judaism may be their final port. Whatever their situation, many people during the last 110 years have found a happy home at Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville.