Orthodox synagogue in Nashville with ice cream, music ‘ministries’ hits the high notes at 120

May 30, 2024

by Menachem Wecker for Jewish News Syndicate

During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were keeping their distance in Nashville, Tenn., as they were throughout the country and globally, Rabbi Saul Strosberg came up with a way to keep his community engaged.

Strosberg, who leads Congregation Sherith Israel, put a freezer in the parking lot behind the Orthodox synagogue.

“It was always stocked with ice cream,” he tells JNS. “Anyone could always come to the shul anytime—day or night, any day of the week—and get ice cream out of the freezer to make and keep shul a central place for people. Kids, adults, Jews, non-Jews. It just became the place, and we’ve continued that.”

Members of the community sponsor the frozen treats, and some neighbors of the synagogue even stop by on their walks to get a snack. Strosberg estimated that the shul has handed out some 40,000 to 50,000 ice-cream “novelties,” whether bars or popsicles, over the past four years.

“My Christian colleagues call that our ‘ice-cream ministry,’” he tells JNS.

The frozen-food “ministry” is one of several ways that Strosberg, who grew up in Upstate New York, is serving up Judaism à la mode in the Athens of the South.

‘Great bones’

When Strosberg first came to Nashville nearly 20 years ago to interview for his current job, the then 100-year-old Orthodox synagogue drew 60 to 70 congregants on a typical Shabbat morning.

“The shul was really on the decline. It was mostly white hair. No kids. Poor finances,” he tells JNS in a recent video chat from his Nashville home. “But we felt like the bones were great, and the people who were there were very open to growing and breathing new life in it. Very tolerant. Very open-minded.”

He was offered the position, and he and his wife, Rabba Daniella Pressner, opted to accept. Their four children now attend Akiva School, the K-6 Jewish day school where Pressner is the principal. Strosberg founded a “very unusual” Jewish middle-school program for Jewish and non-Jewish students for which he serves as its head of school, and the Kehilla High School, where he teaches Talmud, debuted in 2022.

Some 30 students attend the middle school—where there are electives and students can take things like instead of Jewish law—and Strosberg hopes enrollment will be at 40 by the fall. The high school will have 18 students this fall.

“In the middle school, when the Jewish students have tefillah (‘prayer’), the non-Jewish kids have a program called Spiritual Start,” he explains. “When the Jewish kids have limudei kodesh (‘religious studies’), the non-Jewish kids have a program that we had created for us called A Soulful World, about world religions and morals.”

In 20 years, attendance at the shul has nearly doubled. Including adults and children, between 125 and 150 people now attend Shabbat services, and most opt to stay for the weekly lunch after services that Strosberg introduced. (The shul membership is about 200 “units.”)

Under Pressner’s leadership, Akiva, which is celebrating its 70th birthday this year, has grown from fewer than 60 students 20 years ago to 112 students this coming fall, according to Strosberg.

“We both have worked very, very hard to build a community that is unapologetically who we are, but also very broad,” he says.

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