Rabbi Emeritus Zalman Posner
Rabbi Zalman I. Posner, the profound and prolific translator and author of popular Chassidic works who served as a larger-than-life rabbi in Nashville, Tenn., for 53 years, passed away on April 23 at the age of 87. He was a pioneer of Jewish outreach on a national and international scale.
The eldest of six children, Zalman Posner was born in British Mandate Palestine in 1927. His parents, Sholom and Chaya, had recently fled the oppression of the Soviet Union and made their home in Rishon Letzion, where Sholom eked out a living as a shochet (ritual slaughterer).
At the urging of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, the Posners immigrated to the United States, where Sholom took up a position as a shochet in Linden, N.J. When the Rebbe visited America in 1930, Chaya Posner brought Zalman and his younger brother Leibel to the Rebbe in New York for a blessing that they grow to be Torah-observant. The Rebbe placed his head in his hands, looked up at her and said that her sons would remain unscathed by the secular zeitgeist blowing through the American Jewish community.
When Zalman got a little older, Sholom and a local rabbi put together a parochial school for their children and a few others. It would eventually become a day school with an enrollment of hundreds. It was a harbinger of the schools that both Sholom and his son Zalman would yet found in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Nashville, Tenn., respectively.
In 1948, together with fellow student Mendel Baumgarten, Zalman Posner was dispatched to Europe to serve the needs of Holocaust survivors and refugees from Stalinist oppression living in displaced-persons camps in France, Austria, Germany and Holland.
In 1949, he was told by the sixth Rebbe about a rabbinic post at Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville, Tenn, and was instructed by the Rebbe to apply for the position. Shortly thereafter, he married Risya Kazarnovsky, the daughter of a prominent Chabad activist—Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Kazarnovsky of Brooklyn.
The two of them made their home in Tennessee’s capital, where the bearded rabbi and his young wife were greeted by people who never expected them to stay more than a few months.
As a scholar, author and congregational rabbi, Rabbi Posner had a profound impact on generations of Jews.
But stay they did. Almost immediately, they began inviting Vanderbilt University students to their home—creating a model that would become the basis for future Chabad on Campus centers all across the world.
In 1954, the Posners founded Akiva day school with only five first- and second-grade pupils. At the time, Nashville’s Jewish community was by far the smallest in America to boast a Jewish day school, and the couple had a hard time convincing donors to support their new endeavor. Sixty years—and many hundreds of students—later, their vision proved auspicious.
Rabbi Posner’s literary output was copious. In addition to regular articles, he translated many important Chassidic texts, including two sections of the Tanya, the primary guide to spiritual life written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. Posner would often have long meetings with the Rebbe regarding the translations he was working on. The Rebbe once recommended him for a certain translation job, remarking that Posner “knows Chassidic thought.”
In the 1980s, he and his wife traveled to the Soviet Union, where he performed clandestine weddings and taught Torah there.Yet even as he traveled, Posner remained devoted to his community in Nashville, where he served as community rabbi for more than half-a-century, and principal and Judaic-studies teacher deep into his retirement years.