On a recent chilly, spring Sunday, Rabbi Chai Posner, 39, seemed relaxed, yet exhilarated, sitting in his office at Beth Tfiloh Congregation and School, reflecting on his journey from a boy growing up in Brooklyn to senior rabbi leading one of the largest Modern Orthodox synagogues in the nation.
Posner was officially installed as Beth Tfiloh’s senior rabbi, and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s dean, on March 5, succeeding now Rabbi-in-Residence Mitchell Wohlberg, who led the congregation for more than 44 years of its 101-year history.
In the hallway outside Posner’s office, young families and children exited the sanctuary after a wedding, chatting and strolling through the airy atrium to the auditorium for a celebration. A typical day in the life of Beth Tfiloh, where there is a full parking lot outside and lots of jubilant activity inside.
That sense of joy and thoughtful engagement throughout the Beth Tfiloh community was one of the reasons Posner said he felt at home the moment he met Wohlberg, and when first walking onto the campus in 2010. Fresh out of rabbinical school, he was eager to start his odyssey as a rabbi — a path he felt destined to travel since boyhood.
The journey begins
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a Modern Orthodox family, Posner said a love of Judaism and all its traditions and history infused their household.
“That totally formed who I am. In some ways, I’ve been like a straight line,” Posner said. “Going to shul, my father was the gabbai, and standing next to him — that’s where my love of shul, of davening, of prayer, of singing came from. My father, my grandfather, we davened in shul together. I would read the Torah portion every week and loved to lead the davening and any opportunities like that growing up.
“I was a rabbi geek,” Posner said, and laughed. “I was still a cool guy, because I played ball, I had my friends. But I’d write divrei Torah and share it at the Shabbos table. Credit to my father and mother. Everything was done with thought. It wasn’t done because it’s ‘what we do.’ It was very thoughtful, purposeful and deep. There was a love of it, a beauty and appreciation. My parents set me on that path for sure. Absolutely.”
At Yeshiva of Flatbush Elementary School in Brooklyn and Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, Posner was influenced by the “young, cool” rabbis who connected with students and lived lives infused with their Judaism.
“When I saw their lives, everything centered around Jewish living,” he said. “They got out early on Friday so they could go home, get ready and help their wives get ready. Then, to see their families, and we’re all sitting there around the table. Everything was so holistic. I loved that. From that time, that’s what I wanted to do.”
But being a synagogue rabbi wasn’t his initial goal. “That didn’t really take effect until I was in rabbinical school,” Posner said.
Staying on the path
With his goal in view, Posner set off for yeshiva in Israel after high school, but faced unexpected challenges. Feeling out of sorts and unable to connect with the joy he’d always felt studying Torah and Judaism, he became depressed and returned home, but stayed on his path. He earned a bachelor’s in Judaic studies at Brooklyn College and went on to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school.
But as he began his studies, the old fear and self-doubt from his first encounter with yeshiva resurfaced.
“I wanted to be a rabbi, but I had difficulty going to rabbinical school,” he said. “I felt that God had given me particular gifts to be a rabbi, that that’s what it I was meant for. I didn’t want to give up on that without giving it everything I had.”
He persevered and was ordained in 2010. While in his last year, he began seeking associate rabbi positions, ultimately meeting with Wohlberg at a New York restaurant.
“I came in a suit and a tie. And he’s wearing jeans and a jeans shirt,” Posner said and smiled. “I think he just wanted to get a sense of me. It went very well.”
Both rabbis said the meeting felt auspicious in their immediate connection with each other. After that, things moved swiftly.
“In baseball, there was a movie about ‘The Natural,’” Wohlberg said. “He’s a natural. You could tell that right away. He knows his stuff; he doesn’t go to extremes. He’s level-headed and very smart.”
After a Skype session with the head of the search committee, Posner and his wife Rachel visited Beth Tfiloh. “And it all connected,” Posner said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Although he didn’t know much about Beth Tfiloh before arriving, he said the large synagogue, school and community somehow weren’t overwhelming.
“The word is surreal,” he said about first impressions. “I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. The shul I davened at was about the size of my office. I didn’t necessarily expect to go to a big place, or expect to go to an out-of-town place. But everything clicked in a way that my wife Rachel and I felt like this is where we’re supposed to be.”
Over the next 12 years, Posner “learned how to be a rabbi at Beth Tfiloh,” said Congregation President Gary Eidelman. From teaching Talmud and Jewish philosophy his first few years, to writing divrei Torah, from High Holiday services to musical kabbalat Shabbat services and even calling Chanukah bingo, Posner was busy, well, being a rabbi.
“I’ve been fortunate that every couple of years here, my job changed a little bit,” Posner said. “It kept it interesting. And I always try to look at challenging situations, thinking, what can I gain from that? What can I learn?”
Path to the future
Wohlberg timed his retirement in 2021 to coincide with Beth Tfiloh’s 100th anniversary. Founded in 1921 in Forest Park, the congregation grew with a new synagogue, school and summer camp. The early 1960s brought the move to the current location at 3300 Old Court Road in Pikesville, where ground was broken in 1964. The new school was completed in 1965 and the new sanctuary in 1967.
Wohlberg was installed in 1978, succeeding Rabbi David Novak, and founding rabbi, Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt.
In 2019, in searching for Wohlberg’s successor, the congregation’s unanimous vote was to elevate Posner to senior rabbi, only the fourth rabbi to lead Beth Tfiloh in its 100-year history.
“Very quickly, we came to the conclusion that the person we were looking for to lead us into our next 100 years was already in our midst at Beth Tfiloh,” Eidelman said. “He possesses all of the qualities we were looking for — smart, scholarly, personable, approachable, modern and traditional. Most importantly, Rabbi Posner embraces our legacy of making Beth Tfiloh the go-to synagogue where Jews of all levels of observance feel welcome and comfortable. You can already see his impact with attracting new young families to Beth Tfiloh, which is a critical part of our strategic plan. Baby strollers and scooters are filling our hallways.”
The transition was made official in January of 2022, with the installment ceremony and passing of the torch last month. Wohlberg will remain rabbi-in-residence through 2025.
Asked to describe Posner in one word, Eidelman chose “passionate.”
“Rabbi Posner is passionate about his congregants, from the youngest children to our oldest members,” he said. “He is passionate about teaching and learning. He is passionate about his relationship with staff and lay leadership. He is passionate about the future of Modern Orthodoxy at Beth Tfiloh and its impact on the Baltimore Jewish community and beyond.”
Zipora Schorr, director of education at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, sees that passion and professionalism as boding well for BT’s future.
“Besides being young, energetic and passionate, Rabbi Posner is one of the most genuine professionals I have met. He has a unique ability to relate to a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds — young and old, different levels of religiosity, different stages of life,” Schorr said. “He is engaging, personable and learned — a wonderful combination that uniquely positions him for Beth Tfiloh and speaks well for our future.”
Wohlberg, who has had a close, collegial relationship with Posner in those dozen years, chose the word “smart.”
“Truth of the matter is, there’s a more appropriate word, ‘seichel,’” Wohlberg said. “It has Hebrew roots, but it’s more commonly used in Yiddish thinking. It means a person who has common sense, who’s always appropriate, who has insight. Never makes a fool of himself, and always does the right thing at the right time.”
Wohlberg has no doubt that Posner will lead the congregation into a bright future.
“It’s a changing generation. And he has a better feel for the new generation than I do,” Wohlberg said. “The guiding line for me as a rabbi is from the Bible, ‘Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha,’ or ‘serve the Lord in joy.’ People should feel good about coming to shul. People should feel good about being Jewish.”
For Posner, that bright future will continue Beth Tfiloh’s sense of joy and engagement, while including three essential principles.
“Everything that we do here should be authentic, relevant and inspiring. Those are our three driving principles,” he said. “And there’s an overlay of joy in all of those pieces. Looking post-COVID, people are ready and wanting to come back together.
“People are flocking here,” he added. “They’re so happy to be together, to celebrate together. We really want to continue that.”