Avi Poster died on January 26. His funeral was attended by hundreds of people from across Nashville whose lives he touched. He is survived by the love of his life, his wife, Joie.
It was an ordinary day in my office about 20 years ago when I answered a phone call from a man who had just retired as a middle school principal and moved to Nashville from Chicago. He wanted to know how he could become a member of the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Committee (CRC). That man was Avi Poster, who in his subsequent years in Nashville reframed the social justice scene in his adopted city.
But first, he brought life to a committee that addressed social justice issues by writing letters. Avi’s presence transformed the CRC into a social action group that made its presence known in Nashville’s ethnic, religious, immigrant, poverty, and disabilities communities. And he always let it be known that he was a Jew.
“If there were ever a Jew, whose inner core and Jewish spirit charged him to help lift up the broader community and broader world, it was Avi Poster,” said Rabbi Saul Strosberg. “It was daunting for me to see, and to know the amount and depth of organizations with which he was involved, but I believe, that is what he lived for, and he certainly left his mark.”
He was a connector for all his many “best” friends in the wide social justice circles he inhabited and created. Indeed, at the reception following his funeral, so many of us from throughout Nashville acknowledged that we would never have met each other if not for Avi.
When Rabbi Joshua Kullock moved to Nashville, “He offered to take me around town and to show me the many challenges and opportunities that Nashville was facing, which he did. A few days after the High Holidays he drove me all around, introduced me to different people, took me to all kinds of meetings from public education to poverty, and everything in between…He was greater than life and I hope that his memory will continue to inspire us all. I miss him.”
Those in the non-Jewish community who had never heard the word, mensch, came to realize that the definition fit Avi perfectly.
His close friend and ally in social justice work, Irwin Venick, noted that, “Avi was always looking ahead when faced with a problem or challenge. Although fully supportive of the CRC, when it became clear that certain advocacy efforts of the CRC could not proceed, he worked with others to create the Nashville Jewish Social Justice Roundtable … to advocate for other social justice concerns.”
“It is no exaggeration to say that I would have never become President of the Federation without Avi’s encouragement, support and constant reminders of how to stay focused on the greater good,” said Leslie Kirby. “He was passionate and doggedly determined to make the world a better place. He inspired me, truly, every single day.”
Even when he disagreed with someone’s opinion, he remained friends. Mark Friedman, former Jewish Federation Executive Director, commented, “When we disagreed, we did so as models in the spirit of Mahloket Matters and we always came away from debates respecting and understanding each other’s point of view. Avi was a true bridge builder, and he alone, really was the architect and foundation of a strong and vibrant CRC in Nashville.”
Tom Negri, retired General Manager of the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, spoke to Avi nearly every day “about a wide range of topics, from Israel to the Pope and the Vatican. While we agreed on almost everything, on the rare occasion that we didn’t, there was never an argument.”
“Avi would put his ‘Menschness’ into action,” Negri added. “If he found a wrong, he would attempt to correct it, no matter how long it took to rectify. That can be seen in his work on affordable housing, people with disabilities, immigrants, the Family of Abraham, Clergy for Tolerance, political matters concerning honest and integrity and on and on.”
Vanderbilt University Professor Shaul Kelner noted that, “Avi teaches us all just how much one person can make a serious difference in our community. Think of all the things that did happen, and that would not have happened had it not been for his unrelenting energy, passion, and leadership. Nashville is a darker place for his absence. It’s on us to bring the light.”
At a time when relations between the Nashville Jewish community and the Muslim community in Nashville were nearly non-existent, Avi worked to change that. He met Abdelghani Barre, the then-President of the Islamic Center of Nashville. “When Avi learned that we both cared so much about social justice, he invited me to come and speak at the CRC,” Barre said. “That trip has bridged the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities of Nashville.” One joyful result was the annual Christmas day “Juslim” lunch at a Chinese restaurant.
Avi introduced Barre to the concept of Tikkun Olam, “which has strengthened my own belief in doing more in repairing this broken world …. In his honor, I will carry the Tikkun Olam torch he passed on to me.”
Debby Gould, President of the League of Women Voters, pointed out that “Most of us have a few best friends. Avi seemed to have hundreds …. What I loved about Avi is that he always, always believed that if one gave those doubters (about a cause) the right information, the right opportunities to see for themselves the impact they could have, they would share his passion to help.”
“I had the opportunity to eat and converse with Avi many times at his favorite breakfast and lunch spots, first, the old Noshville in Midtown, and then Midtown Café,” David Plazas, the Opinion and Engagement Director for the USA TODAY Network newsrooms in Tennessee wrote. “He also regularly sent encouraging emails to me to keep writing editorials demanding accountability from elected officials. Finally, we bonded over our mutual roots in Chicago – the baseball, the food, the diversity. At his funeral, I wore my socks emblazoned with the Chicago flag in his honor.”
One special focus of Avi’s passion was Our Place Nashville, where he served as President of the Board. Its mission is to provide affordable housing to adults with developmental disabilities. “Avi rolled up his shirtsleeves and went to work: raising money, introducing us to people, drawing attention to our work, keeping us on task, encouraging us and inspiring us to do more because he would not be able to rest until those who wanted a place of their own, especially those with special needs, got the home and respect they deserve,” said Carole Naifeh, Our Place Co-Founder and Executive Director. “Avi Poster was our hero and our friend.”
Tom Negri encouraged everyone to carry on Avi’s legacy by declaring, from time to time, “an Avi Day, Week or Month. In this way, we can be inspired to continue his work here on Earth.”
For so many of us who knew him, we will still hear his voice saying, “I loooooove you!”