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Zelizer, Nathan

ZELIZER, NATHAN

ZELIZER, NATHAN (1907–2001) U.S. Conservative rabbi. Zelizer was born in Poland and immigrated to the United States in 1921. He earned a B.S. from New York University in 1929 and an M.A. from Columbia University in 1930; in 1931, he was ordained at the *Jewish Theological Seminary. He became rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, where he was to spend his entire career (1932–73, emeritus until his death) – or so it seemed at the time of his retirement. Arriving at a synagogue whose membership had been decimated by the Depression, he breathed new life into the congregation: under his leadership, it eventually grew from under 50 to 1,100 families. He took a sabbatical from his congregation in order to volunteer as a military chaplain, serving in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy.

Returning to Tifereth Israel after the war, Zelizer developed Jewish educational programs and became involved in civic affairs. Starting in 1947, Zelizer served as a chaplain for the Jewish mental and penal wards of the state of Ohio as well as for the Veterans Administration Hospital in Chillicothe, Ohio. He developed a close relationship with Governor Frank Lauche, asking him to reduce prison sentences for those he believed could be rehabilitated; inmates freed with his help continued to write him over the next 40 years in appreciation for what he had done. During the 1950s, Zelizer served on the Columbus Rent Advisory Board and founded the first Senior Citizens Center in Ohio, where the elderly were able to spend time engaged in constructive activities. He also hosted a local radio and television show where he interacted with leaders of different religious groups about common challenges and projects; he was invited to speak at African-American and Catholic churches, earning the respect of non-Jewish clergy.

Perhaps Zelizer's greatest contribution to American Jewry came in the 1960s, when he persuaded one of the most prominent Jewish citizens in Ohio, Samuel M. *Melton, a director of Bethlehem Steel, to fund the Melton Research Center (later, Melton School of Education) at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. A pilot program of the innovative new school was established at Tifereth Israel, which became a model educational center for Conservative synagogues. Some 35 individuals credited Zelizer with their career decisions to enter the rabbinate – including his own son, Gerald, who rose to become president of the *Rabbinical Assembly. As a result of his accomplishments, the city of Columbus selected Zelizer as one of its 10 leading citizens, and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce paid him to travel across the state and engage audiences in discussions of important civic issues.

Upon his retirement from Tifereth Israel, Zelizer moved to Boca Raton, Florida, where he was asked to serve as the part-time rabbi of Congregation B'nai Torah. Once again, he built up a sizable institution from practically nothing. When the congregation became too large for a part-time rabbi, he moved on to help found Temple Beth Zion in Royal Palm, Florida. When he left this congregation, he would spend weekends driving to Melbourne, Florida, where he served as the rabbi for Jewish participants in the nasa Space Shuttle project. Because of these activities, one rabbi called Zelizer the "Johnny Appleseed" of the American Jewish community.

In 1985, Zelizer joined forces with another small congregation that formed in Boca Raton to start a Conservative synagogue called Beth Ami. He played an instrumental role in building the Jewish community of Boca Raton, starting a community day school and founding the South County Rabbinical Association. In 1992, he finally decided to retire a "second time," at 87 years of age. On that occasion, the mayor proclaimed Nathan Zelizer Day in the city of Boca Raton.

[Bezalel Gordon (2nd ed.)]

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