‘The Consummate Congregational Rabbi’


About 15 years ago Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, approached Rabbi David Posner at an event at Temple Emanu-El, the landmark Reform congregation on Fifth Avenue.

Rabbi Potasnik wasn’t then well acquainted with Rabbi Posner, who had become the temple’s senior spiritual leader only a few years earlier.

Rabbi Potasnik mentioned that he was a child of Holocaust survivors, and Rabbi Posner “started talking to me in Yiddish.”

Rabbi Posner figured, correctly, that Rabbi Potasnik would know the mamaloshen.

“It was a beautiful Yiddish,” Rabbi Potasnik said. “I didn’t expect it.”

Rabbi Potasnik called that memory of Rabbi Posner, who died on Oct. 19 at 70 of complications of Alzheimer’s disease, “a heimish moment with a heimish rabbi.”

The rabbi, who continued to occasionally lead worship services for a few years after retiring in 2012, scaled back his activity at the temple in recent years.

More than 2,000 people attended the rabbi’s funeral Monday in his synagogue’s crowded sanctuary on the Upper East Side.

Rabbi Posner, who had joined the rabbinical staff of Temple Emanu-El upon graduating from Hebrew Union College in 1973 and served as the congregation’s senior emeritus rabbi after his retirement, was remembered this week as a man who retained a human touch while working in one of the most prestigious pulpits in the country, who remained a pastor to his flock despite the many public demands that are part of leading a major congregation, a down-to-earth man who always dressed formally, an accessible individual who would spend hours preparing a scholarly sermon, a public figure who shunned the spotlight that a temple of its size would shine on its rabbinic leadership.

“He was warm, he was outgoing, but mostly he reached out to the community,” said Harris Diamond, Temple Emanu-El’s president. “He was there for both the Jewish and the non-Jewish families.”

“I am a theological pediatrician,” Rabbi Posner said in a 2012 New York Times interview. “I take care of God’s children.”

The Times profile said that Rabbi Posner “eschews the spotlight and the media, and allows that he has operated in a bubble of sorts, rarely attending conferences.”

On Sunday mornings, ostensibly his day off, the rabbi would often “see what is happening” in the temple’s religious school, according to The Times. He called himself “the friendly older statesman who walks around the building and says hello to everybody. And if people do want to see me, I will see them.”

With some 2,300 members, Temple Emanu-El is the biggest Reform congregation in the country.

Rabbi Joshua Davidson, Rabbi Posner’s successor, said the rabbi would make sure to personally help prepare children with disabilities for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

“He was an incredibly loving, warm and gentle soul with an extraordinary personal warmth and commitment to the common humanity that we all share,” said Rabbi Davidson, who has known Rabbi Posner for about 25 years. “David was a very powerful presence in the lives of the members of this synagogue.”

Rabbi Davidson said Rabbi Posner was an avid supporter of the annual Warsaw Ghetto commemoration ceremony held at the synagogue. “He felt very deeply the pain of the Shoah.”

Rabbi Potasnik called Rabbi Posner “the consummate congregational rabbi.”

“The most important light for him was the light that existed between him and his congregation. He didn’t look for public attention. He was there to minister,” Rabbi Potasnik said.

Rabbi Potasnik said Rabbi Posner would accompany congregants with cancer to chemotherapy treatments, and would visit congregants whose family member had died after shiva had ended.

“He always strove for excellence,” Rabbi Potasnik said. “He was dedicated to his flock, but he was also dedicated to his family.”

A trained pianist, Rabbi Posner earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University while serving at Temple Emanu-El. His 1988 doctoral thesis was on “Reviving a Lost Art – Piano Music of Russian-Jewish Origin.”

He retired at a relatively young age, he said, to spend more time with his family – and with his piano. His favorite composers were Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin.

Rabbi Posner was married for a half century to Sylvia Posner, his childhood sweetheart. Survivors, in addition to his wife, include two children, Rachel and Raphael; a brother, Herbert; a sister, Miriam; and four grandchildren: Chase, Simon, Felix and Eli.

“Syl and I shared the same mission. Fundamentally, we knew that we had to take care of the Jewish people, singularly and collectively, in a post-Holocaust age. Jewish survival was our cause, it was our mission, it was our passion,” the rabbi was quoted as saying in an HUC obituary.

He also helped take care of the Jewish community’s buildings. Rabbi Posner led the $25 million restoration and renovation campaign of his synagogue’s 75-year-old sanctuary and Beth-El Chapel in 2006.

“The death of Rabbi David Posner leaves a gaping hole in the heart of the Jewish people and our community,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, interim president of Hebrew Union College, in a statement. “His brilliance, his love of scholarship and the arts, his sensitivity and care for others, his love for the State of Israel, his leadership of Congregation Emanu-El, in the Reform movement, and at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and his contributions to Klal Yisrael were unsurpassed.”

Born in Atlantic City, Rabbi Posner grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he developed a lifelong interest in the piano. Inspired by his childhood rabbis, he decided at 10 that he wanted a career in the rabbinate

Rabbi Posner studied at HUC in Cincinnati from 1965 to 1973, majoring in Semitic languages, supported by a scholarship from Temple Emanu-El. He also earned a degree in political science from the University of Cincinnati.

Over the years he befriended politicians and leaders of other faiths, including the late Cardinal John O’Connor, the late Cardinal Edward Egan, and New York City’s current Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who was a mourner at the rabbi’s funeral this week.

Rabbi Posner and Sylvia often hosted interfaith Friday night Shabbat dinners in their home for members of the clergy, and they hosted annual Shabbat dinners for incoming Year-in-Israel students in Jerusalem.

A lifelong teacher, he taught adult education courses for many years at his synagogue. His specialty was teaching Hebrew and Arabic grammar.

He was a frequent volunteer at Manhattan’s Ronald McDonald House and a founding member of the board of the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter.

Work at his synagogue kept him busy, he would say. “I never have lunch. When I came here from Cincinnati in 1973, I learned that the rabbis of Temple Emanu-El do not have lunch. We are so accustomed to doing funerals in the middle of the day that lunch might just as well be forgotten.”

That practice guided his advice for other pulpit rabbis: “Be at your post seven days a week — take care of the Jews 24/7.”