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

“In 20 years, you build really deep relationships,” says Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Congregation Sherith Israel. “That’s the reward.”

Rabbi Saul Strosberg and Rabba Daniella Pressner in front of Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Saul Strosberg and Rabba Daniella Pressner in front of Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Courtesy.

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.”)

Rabbi Saul Strosberg, Nashville
Rabbi Saul Strosberg with his wife, Rabba Daniella Pressner, and two of his four children in Nashville, Tenn. Credit: Courtesy.

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.

Multitude of milestones

Congregation Sherith Israel traces its origins to 1870. In 1887, a group of Hungarian Jewish immigrants sought a charter from the city as the Hungarian Benevolent Society of Nashville; in 1904, some members of the society broke away to form Sherith Israel, according to the synagogue website. “When its charter was issued on July 26, 1905, Sherith Israel was the city’s only Orthodox congregation,” it states.

This year, the shul celebrates its 120th anniversary—ad me’ah v’esrim, the longevity of human life, per Genesis 6:3. Strosberg, who became the congregation’s rabbi in August 2005, is slated to celebrate two decades at Sherith Israel next year, which according to Pirkei Avot is the age that an individual is ready to earn a living.

“What I realize is that 20 years for me also means 20 years for Daniella,” Strosberg tells JNS. “As hard as I work for this community, she works even harder with the schools, and it’s a true partnership.”

It can be difficult in a Jewish community that is “so remote” to hire faculty and staff, according to Strosberg. “We also have these amazing people who walk through the door every day. You never know what’s coming. You never know the opportunity.”

Rabbi Saul Strosberg, Nashville
Rabbi Saul Strosberg with his son at a Jewish communal event. Credit: Courtesy.

“In 20 years, you build really deep relationships,” he says. “That’s the reward.”

The biggest differences at the shul since he arrived are that today, there are “tons of babies and kids,” and the atmosphere is “very heimishe,” he says, using the Yiddish word for “homey” or “comfortable.” Strosberg also notes that the food is much better. Gone are the pretzel and gefilte-fish kiddushes, and now there are substantial lunches after services.

“Sherith Israel was a congregation of immigrants in its early days. “Now it’s a shul of Americans, although we do have immigrants from Iran and from the former Soviet Union. But they are still immigrants because they’re immigrating from different states to Tennessee,” he tells JNS.

“The immigration story hasn’t ended,” he says.

Strosberg is a transplant from Schenectady in Upstate New York, just 15 minutes from the state capital of Albany, where he grew up going to a traditional synagogue that was “the center of our lives in many ways.”

“I just always felt home in synagogue,” he says. “Love Jewish tradition and love people.”

After graduating from Yeshiva University in Manhattan with a business degree, he went to the rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, the Bronx—often referred to as part of “open Orthodoxy”—for ordination. He was part of the second rabbinical class at the seminary, which opened in 1999, and became a rabbi in 2005. (Strosberg tells JNS that he had no qualms about attending a school in its infancy since Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well-known rabbi and activist, was one of the school’s spiritual leaders.)

He tells JNS that working with the community is somewhat of a family business. Strosberg’s father is a doctor, his mother is a social worker, and his siblings work in Jewish education.

Rabbi Saul Strosberg, Nashville
Rabbi Saul Strosberg helps a young student wave the lulav and etrog during Sukkot. Credit: Courtesy.

At Chovevei, the mission was to serve Jewish people where they are, including inspiring newly-minted rabbis to leave New York and other large metropolitan Jewish areas and to try to make a difference in smaller communities.

“That really spoke to me,” Strosberg says. He told JNS that he turned down job offers in bigger Jewish communities. “I saw that this is really where there’s good work to be done,” he adds.

When he and Pressner moved to Nashville in July 2005, she had graduated from Barnard College with majors in religion and dance, as well as participated in the Drisha Institute scholars program the year the two married.

“She agreed to go on this journey to see if we can make a difference in Nashville,” he says.

The two came “at just the right time,” Strosberg figures. Nashville is a growing city, and he credits the shul’s growth to that expansion and liveliness.

“Nashville was totally not on our radar. We were thinking maybe New England or some of the more obvious places,” he says. “The furthest I’d been around this part of the country—I used to play music and be an adviser for Midwest NCSY.”

“Omaha, Neb. Places like that,” he says. He played keyboard and trumpet for wedding bands when he lived in New York. He still plays “but not as much as I used to.”

‘Southern hospitality’

“The Southern warmth and hospitality is so profound,” Strosberg tells JNS. “You feel it, and that’s part of the synagogue mission—to be warm.”

What exactly does that mean beyond being a cliché?

“You walk to shul with a kippah and the mailman, the neighbor and everyone says ‘Shabbat shalom,’ even if they’re not Jewish,” he says.

Some congregations have formal greeters, who introduce themselves to visitors. At Sherith Israel, “it’s every single person in shul who walks up to them and says, ‘What’s your name? We’re glad you’re here,’” Strosberg says. “It’s inherent. The idea of welcoming people.”

“It’s not welcoming them because they look wealthy or because we hope they join the shul,” he adds.

When one runs into other Jews in grocery stores in larger communities on Friday afternoons and the people say, “Come for Shabbos,” that means that they don’t have time to talk to you now, according to Strosberg. “Maybe there will be a future Shabbat where we can get together.”

“In Nashville, you stop somebody in the grocery store, you could be stuck there for half an hour because you want to talk to them and you’re having a good time,” he says.

Rabbi Saul Strosberg, Nashville
Rabbi Saul Strosberg. Credit: Courtesy.

Tourists and businesspeople come to the shul since it is the only Orthodox one in the city. Strosberg gives out the code for the shul and his cell phone number. If a visitor during the week has an obligation to lead services because he is saying Kaddish, he is free to do so in his own nusach, or “custom,” Strosberg says. (Typically, shuls are strictly Ashkenazi or Sephardi in this regard.)

“The openness is le’chatchilah, not b’dieved,” he adds, using the rabbinic terms for what is preferable and sufficient in a pinch, respectively.

“It’s not begrudging,” he says. “We passed the threshold of being desperate for more people. We’re just desperate to be welcoming. We’re desperate to fulfill our mission.”

For Strosberg, the mission is also somewhat of a renaissance rabbinic man. He oversees the community’s eruv—a rabbinic mechanism that allows for carrying items on Shabbat in certain instances—and he provides kosher certification for Nashville eateries. In fact, the food for the American Jewish Press Association annual meeting in Nashville in early June was under his certification.

Music therapy

Since Oct. 7, there has been more security at the synagogue, according to Strosberg, who has seen “people coming have come out of the woodwork” wanting to become more a part of the community.

He had been trying to think what the music city could do for Israel in the aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel on Oct. 7 when he visited a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., where a program hosted Israeli soldiers and provided them with therapy.

Strosberg liked the idea and tailored it to Nashville. The new program “Promise Sessions” brings up-and-coming Israeli musicians who served in the Israel Defense Forces to Nashville to record albums.

Patricia (“Patty”) Heaton, who played Debra Barone in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was one of many actors who moved to Nashville from Los Angeles. The actress, who is not Jewish, contacted Strosberg after Oct. 7 to ask what she could do to help.

She partnered on the program and connected Strosberg with a producer at the top recording venue Blackbird Studio, which according to its website is “the first choice of many accomplished artists,” including Taylor Swift, John Mayer, Dolly Parton, Beck, Rush, Sheryl Crow, Miley Cyrus, Pearl Jam, Neil Young and others.

The first group of three soldiers has already recorded their music. The rabbi says, “one of the songs, we feel like it’s going to become one of the anthems of Oct. 7.”

The Israeli musicians give performances in Nashville and receive trauma counseling, according to Strosberg. Promise Sessions also “bring light and life to the lyrics and poetry of soldiers who didn’t survive,” he says.

The program brings together people from the shul, the Jewish Federation and the art community: “It was just magic,” he says.

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