After Four Decades, Emanu-El Rabbi To Retire


Rabbi David Posner’s life has been marked by consistency and steadfastness.

He says he chose the rabbinate as a career at the age of 10, met his wife (and knew she was the one) when he was 12, and has been at the same job since 1973.

That post — rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, the largest Jewish house of worship in the world and flagship of the Reform movement — will come to a close after four decades at the end of May 2013, marking a “bittersweet” milestone, according to Marcia Waxman, president of the historic Reform temple on Fifth Avenue.

She told The Jewish Week that Rabbi Posner, who recently notified the board of his intention to retire, has been a beloved, devoted and faithful leader, serving generations of families, and will be deeply missed.

The congregation is launching a search committee, seeking a successor from outside the Temple Emanu-El clergy for the first time since it hired Rabbi Julius Mark in 1948. He was succeeded by Rabbi Ronald Sobel, who led the congregation until Rabbi Posner was named senior rabbi in 2002.

During an interview in his eighth-floor office the other day, a trim and outgoing Rabbi Posner, 64, became tearful at times in reflecting on a career marked by a love of scholarship — his specialty is comparative Semitic linguistics and Arabic — and tireless devotion to his flock. He said he spends about 10 hours a day in his office, seven days a week.

What convinced him to retire, he reflected, was the recent birth of his first grandchildren, boys now a year old and five months, and his desire to spend time with them.

“Moses served for 40 years,” he said, so it seemed like a reasonable time to step down.

“I took care of the pintele Yid,” the rabbi added, wiping away a tear and using the Yiddish expression for the tiny spark in every Jewish soul.

“I’ve seen two generations come and go here, marrying the living, officiating for the deceased, and teaching children and adults.”

He estimates that he has performed some 2,000 weddings, at times as many as four a day, but noted the marked decrease in recent years, reflective of the trend to marry later in life — 30 weddings a year now compared to the peak of 110 in the 1980s.

Curiously, as a leading rabbi in a movement that emphasizes religious choice, Rabbi Posner asserts that “the essence of life is not experiential but obligatory,” noting that “I work seven days a week to stoke the fires of obligation, explaining that we weren’t put on this world to have a good time.”

He says he tells congregants not to tell him they “enjoyed the service,” explaining that Torah is “not something revealed to us for our listening pleasure.” But the rabbi acknowledges that it is a constant challenge to inspire congregants to live a life of spirituality and religiosity in an increasingly material world.

For a man in such a prestigious pulpit, Rabbi Posner is relatively little known outside of Emanu-El and the Reform community. He eschews the spotlight and the media, and allows that he has operated in a bubble of sorts, rarely attending conferences and spared of some of the duties that have become common for rabbinic colleagues, from counseling to business management of synagogue affairs.

His advice for his eventual successor? “Be at your post seven days a week — take care of the Jews 24/7. You are a theological pediatrician.”

Clearly Rabbi Posner appreciates the history and prestige of Emanu-El, which was founded in 1845, and some of whose members go back generations within the temple.

He described himself as “a person of vast experience in a limited, wonderful context” and said his role “has not changed an iota” over the years.

Rabbi Posner did note that when he joined Emanu-El in 1973, there was some degree of discomfort and disenchantment with organized religion in the wake of Vietnam, the assassination of three national leaders and Watergate. “The climate today is very different.”

He said the congregation’s members, who number close to 3,000 family units, “might not be punctiliously observant,” but they have great appreciation for Shabbat and High Holy Day observance, as well as for lifecycle ceremonies.

A dedicated scholar, the rabbi takes pride in the in-depth courses he has taught in classical Hebrew, Arabic and comparative Semitic languages. His sermons, he said, have harvested “eternal themes” like theology and philosophy, and avoid current events.

He and his wife, Sylvia, longtime assistant to the president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, often host interfaith clergy for Friday night dinner at their home.

A major passion for the rabbi, practically and academically, is music. He holds a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, and said he plans to spend more time at the piano once he becomes rabbi emeritus.

“There are 32 Beethoven sonatas,” he said, “and I only have five under my belt.”

At the end of the interview, Rabbi Posner led his visitor to the room adjoining his office, which featured a Steinway piano, the generous gift of a congregant. He then offered up his own gift: sitting down and playing Brahms Intermezzo Op. 117 #2, his eyes closed, lost in the moment.