By Annette Ratkin
Tennessee is a S. central state of the United States. In the early 21st century, Memphis had about 8,500 Jews, Nashville, some 6,000, Knoxville 1,800, and Chattanooga 1,450. There were also congregations in Bristol, Brownsville, and Jackson. In 2020, the Jewish population in the state was 22,800.
The first known Jewish child was born in 1795. Jewish immigrants, many petty merchants or craftsmen from rural Germany, arrived in Tennessee from Central Europe between 1820 and 1848.
They moved to rural areas remote from Jewish life. In 1851, a small group of Jews, the Hebrew Benevolent Burial Society, bought a cemetery in Nashville. They petitioned for a charter as Kaal Kodosh Mogen David, it was granted in 1854. Their stated their purpose as “establishing in the city of Memphis a church for the worship of Almighty God according to the rites and creed of the Hebrew sect.”
The Civil War split Jewish families as it divided the United States. Tennessee Jews were included in Grant’s infamous Order No. 11 expelling all Jews from his military department, quickly rescinded by Lincoln. About 1861, the seven Jewish families of Knoxville received land for a cemetery. A Hebrew Benevolent Association was organized. In 1877, it became a synagogue but without a building or a full-time rabbi until 1922.
Chattanooga’s Civil War veterans inspired the Jewish community in 1866 to form Chabra Gamilas Chesed, later the Hebrew Benevolent Association, and established a cemetery. In 1882, the first Reform Temple was built. In 1866, the 18 Jews of Murfreesboro organized Kahl Kodesh Bene Sholom. In 1867, a Jewish burial ground was bought in Brownsville, and Congregation Adas Israel was founded. In 1885, a congregation, B’nai Israel, was organized in Jackson.
In 1867, Congregation Mogen David in Nashville merged with Congregation Ohava Emes, and this congregation became Ohavai Shalom and later, in 1876, the Vine Street Temple. Adopting Reform Practice in 1876, they became one of the first members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Congregation B’nai Israel in Memphis was founded in 1858. Their first rabbi, Jacob Peres, moonlighted as a grocer, and kept his store open on Saturday. He was fired, but sued the congregation, He lost his libel suit, but set legal precedent before the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which ruled that “a religious institution is sovereign…its policies and practices may not be challenged by legal action of a court of law.”
There were two yellow fever epidemics in Memphis during the 1870s. Jews from all over the United States contributed $60,000 for relief. The Jewish population of Memphis was reduced from 2,100 to 300 as Jews fled the epidemic or died. Rabbi Max Samfield courageously stayed. Jewish orphans were sent from Memphis to orphanages in Cleveland and New Orleans.
Maimonides Lodge of B’nai B’rith, was founded in Nashville in 1863. By 1878, there were six active lodges: Brownsville, Chattanooga, and Nashville, and three in Memphis.
The second wave of immigration to the state came between 1880 and 1924 from Eastern Europe. Orthodox and Yiddish-speaking, these new arrivals established a whole array of organizations, Zionist groups, newspapers, Yiddish theater, and Yiddish schools. German Jews established Settlement Houses to facilitate their Americanization. Some Jews arrived by choice; others were sent by philanthropists and agencies such as the Industrial Removal Society to diffuse Jewish immigrants throughout the country. In 1892, a new Orthodox congregation began in Memphis, the Baron Hirsch Benevolent Society; over time it became the largest Orthodox Jewish congregations in the country.
Rachel Landes noted that “in 1896, 19-year-old Adolph Ochs, the son of German Jewish refugees, bought a controlling share of the failing Chattanooga Times. After making the paper profitable, he went on to buy The New York Times in 1896.”
East European immigrants formed entirely new communities in the Tri-Cities area, which includes Kingsport, Bristol, and Johnson City. Bristol seemed to have two congregations, one Reform and one Orthodox. It was 1905 before land was purchased for a cemetery. The Oak Ridge community was founded in 1943 by scientists sent in to work on the Manhattan Project. to develop the atomic bomb. By 1944, the young Jewish scientists were hauling cinder blocks to do the actual construction themselves.
The Jewish population increased after World War II as Jewish men who had passed through Middle Tennessee from 1942 to 1944, when the Second Army trained there, married local Jewish women who had run a snack bar with Jewish food for the soldiers. After the war, Jews came to Tennessee as managers and professionals. Their social, political, and organizational skills changed many Jewish communal organizations from immigrant social-service organizations to organizations active in the political, social, and religious life of the state. Jewish communities in small Tennessee towns disappeared as older members died, and the younger generation left for college and careers in larger cities.
Tennessee Jews emulated their Southern brethren. Denied membership elsewhere they established their own clubs, which became a central part of Jewish life. Jews often meet in synagogues and in business, in country clubs and in philanthropic endeavors. In each, leadership overlaps. Living in the Bible belt where church membership was routine most communities have high rates of synagogue membership.
Although Jewish organizations did not officially support civil rights, many individuals did so and individual rabbis spoke out forcefully, not without significant peril. In 1958, the Nashville Jewish Community Center was dynamited.
In 1980, a Ku Klux Klan splinter group’s attempt to bomb The Temple in Nashville with Rabbi Falk inside was averted. A full-page ad which included 600 signatures of local leadership decried the attempt.
In 2006, Tennessee elected its first Jewish congressman – Stephen Cohen.
In 2021, the McMinn County School Board attracted international attention when it voted unanimously to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus from its curriculum. The graphic novel by Art Spiegelman tells the story of the Holocaust with Jews portrayed as mice and Nazis as cats. According to NPR, “The school board reportedly objected to eight curse words and nude imagery of a woman, used in the depiction of the author’s mother’s suicide.”
The decision was widely criticized and prompted a local bookseller and others to offer to distribute free copies of Maus to students in the county.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved, pp. 641-642.
Rachel Treisman, “Why a school board’s ban on ‘Maus’ may put the book in the hands of more readers,” NPR, (January 31, 2022).
Rachel X. Landes, “7 Facts About Jewish Tennessee,” Forward, (September 8, 2014).