The Board of Governors, Boards of Overseers, faculty, administration, and alumni of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion mourn the passing of Rabbi David M. Posner ’73, our beloved alumnus, former member of the Board of Governors, and Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, on October 19, 2018.
Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., HUC-JIR Interim President, stated, "The death of Rabbi David Posner leaves a gaping hole in the heart of the Jewish people and our community. 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. All of us who loved him and the thousands of souls whose lives he touched extend our deepest condolences to his beloved and devoted wife Sylvia, their children, and the entire family. Y'hi zichro baruch."
With profound knowledge, intelligence, grace, and an unwavering commitment to the Jewish future, Rabbi Posner served with distinction as a Governor from 2005 to 2015. He took special joy in supporting the studies of the emerging generations of the Reform Movement’s leaders. He personally hosted Shabbat dinners for the incoming Year-In-Israel students in Jerusalem each year, welcomed students at Congregation Emanu-El during their orientation in New York, and inspired the many students and young alumni he mentored. He helped strengthen his beloved alma mater through significant gifts and secured a major grant for rebuilding the Klau Library that was made in his honor. Throughout his life, he recounted his great affection and gratitude for HUC-JIR and its faculty, especially his mentor Dr. Isaac Jerusalmi, z”l. His deep devotion to HUC-JIR was shared by his adored wife, Sylvia, who devoted her career to serving for 43 years as the Assistant to the President of this institution.
Rabbi Posner received the Doctor of Divinity degree, honoris causa, from HUC-JIR in 1998, on the 25th anniversary of his ordination. In 2014 he was honored by HUC-JIR’s highest award, the Dr. Bernard Heller Prize in Arts, Letters, Humanities, and Religion, at Graduation Ceremonies in New York, for his exemplary acts of conscience, informed by a profound understanding of Judaism’s teachings, that modeled the essential role of rabbi as teacher and leader for the Reform Movement and the larger world.
Born in 1947, Rabbi Posner first focused on the rabbinate as a ten-year-old growing up in Brooklyn. He was inspired by his childhood rabbi, Rabbi Max Schenk, z”l, who introduced him to Rabbi Julius Mark, z”l, of Congregation Emanu-El. Mentored by these illustrious Reform rabbis, he was encouraged by his loving parents Doris and Ralph to attend HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. From 1965 to 1973, supported by the Congregation Emanu-El Scholarship, Rabbi Posner completed the combined program of rabbinical studies at HUC-JIR and undergraduate studies at the University of Cincinnati (UC). In 1969 he received his bachelor’s in political science from UC, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. At HUC-JIR he specialized in the study of Semitic languages, including Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, Ugaritic, and Hebrew, and he received the Ralph Lazarus Prize for ranking first in his class. Upon ordination in 1973, he was asked to join Emanu-El by the eminent Rabbi Nathan Perilman, z”l.
For the entirety of his 40-year career, Rabbi Posner served as the beloved spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El with an extraordinary, constant devotion to his congregants, whom he shepherded throughout the generations. He would say, “I tried passionately to let the Temple use me, and I tried equally and as passionately never to use the Temple.” His rabbinate was inspired by the biblical instruction and ethical imperative that all humankind is created in God’s image. A friend to New York’s Governor Eliot Spitzer and Mayors Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg, he nurtured relationships across all faiths, including close friendships with New York City’s Archbishops and Cardinals O’Connor, Egan, and Dolan. He ensured that individuals of diverse ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds received vital assistance at times of need or crisis.
As a young rabbi, he was a founding member of the board of the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, for which he was honored. He invigorated Congregation Emanu-El’s educational outreach through teaching adult courses in Arabic, Hebrew grammar and syntax, comparative Semitics, Hebrew Bible, Mishnaic Hebrew, and Biblical Aramaic. He led the historic $25 million campaign for the complete physical restoration and renovation of Congregation Emanu-El’s 75-year-old Sanctuary and Beth-El Chapel, dedicated in 1929, which were rededicated in a memorable convocation on December 14, 2006.
An accomplished pianist, Rabbi Posner earned his doctorate in piano pedagogy from Columbia University in 1988. His doctoral thesis, “Reviving a Lost Art — Piano Music of Russian-Jewish Origin” centered on the modern Jewish art music composed in St. Petersburg, the cultural heart of Tsarist Russia, during the first decade of the 20th century. He explored the piano music of a group of young composers who forged a Jewish national style, drawn from ethnographic studies of Jewish communities throughout the Russian Pale of Settlement. Their music melded Chasidic melodies, Yiddish folksongs and Jewish synagogue chants with the avant-garde styles of Russian composers of that era, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Scriabin. A member of “The Bohemians,” the oldest international music society, Rabbi Posner played for audiences widely and was a board member of the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation.
Rabbi Posner was a passionate advocate for the State of Israel and world Jewry, as well as the future of Reform rabbinical leadership worldwide. In 2008, the World Union for Progressive Judaism presented Rabbi Posner with its International Humanitarian Award in recognition of his role as an inspiring example of international Jewish leadership, service, and dedication to Israel and the Jewish People.
He modeled the highest standards of Jewish leadership to which our students and alumni aspire. He expressed his life’s work in these words: “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.”
Rabbi Posner was blessed to enjoy life with his beloved wife and childhood sweetheart, Sylvia, their adored children Rachel and Raphael and their spouses Lionel and Courtney, and their cherished grandchildren, Chase, Simon, Felix, and Eli.
May his memory be a source of inspiration and blessing to us all.
The Funeral will take place:
Monday, October 22 at 12:30 pm
Fifth Avenue at 65th Street, New York City
Interment will follow at:
Mount Moriah Cemetery
Fairview, New Jersey
Shiva will be observed:
Monday, October 22, 6:00 – 9:00 pm
Tuesday, October 23, 6:00 – 9:00 pm
Congregation Emanu-El’s Isaac Mayer Wise Hall
One East 65th Street, New York City
Charitable donations in Rabbi Posner’s memory may be made to:
360 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10017