It was a Friday night in mid-August, and about a dozen Jews, most under 30, congregated around a coffee table in Nashville. Almost all had moved to the city in the past three years.
We opened up instrument cases and passed around egg shakers. Someone started strumming guitar.
“Lecha dodi, lekrat kala…”
When I was in middle school, I went to Jewish summer camp for two years, and there’s one part I’m still nostalgic about: how on Friday nights, the entire camp would dress in our best clothes and gather to sing for Shabbat. I loved that, and I felt something at the time that is probably best described as “spiritual.”
More than a decade later, in the living room of this apartment, I felt that again. We sang, we harmonized, we jammed. Without a rabbi in sight, we had an electric Shabbat service — right in the heart of the Bible Belt.
As a city, Nashville is having a moment. It’s rapidly growing and, given the number of construction sites, sometimes feels like it’s bursting at the seams. Many newcomers are millennials: young professionals working for the city’s vibrant health care industry, grad students enrolling at Vanderbilt, musicians hoping to make it big. And many are flocking from cities like Chicago or Houston — cities with larger Jewish populations.
That means, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, the Jewish community has been changing to accommodate the growth of young newcomers.
Despite its 160-year-old community, Nashville is not known as a hub of Judaism. It has about 11,000 people. (For context, Boston is a slightly less populated city but has 22 times more Jews.)
But the smaller size of the community can pay benefits, says Brandeis University researcher Matthew Boxer who led an extensive study on Jewish life in Nashville in 2015. He found that nearly half of Jewish households are “moderately or highly engaged,” and about one in five are engaged in nearly every aspect of Jewish life.
“That’s pretty fantastic,” he said. “You should really never compare any community to New York … but New York would be thrilled if they had numbers like that.”
Boxer, who grew up in the small Jewish community (one much smaller than Nashville’s) in Niagara Falls, New York, posits a theory about the high level of engagement among Jews here.
“There were always the same 10 people who were showing up for services on a Saturday morning,” he said. “And it wasn’t that they were particularly religious. It was if any one of them didn’t show up, there wouldn’t be a minyan.”
Small communities spur a greater sense of personal responsibility, Boxer suggested. Those who are involved in Jewish life get really involved.
“You tend to invest in it more, and that reinforces your sense of Jewish identity in a way that doesn’t really happen in a bigger community,” he said.
The tight-knit community also has its downsides. In the Brandeis study, Boxer’s team found that “newcomers and less engaged individuals can find it difficult to integrate, make connections, and become involved in institutions.”
But this isn’t for lack of trying, the study suggests: “Young adults, although less likely to be engaged than other members, express an overwhelming desire to become more involved in local Jewish life.”
I felt this desire when I moved to Nashville three years ago.
I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, where Jews were a small minority. Still, the community was incredibly diverse: My friends were Catholic and Lutheran and Muslim and atheists.
There were enough Jews at school that Christian kids knew understood what a Bar Mitzvah was and wanted to be invited to one. Few people knew how to pronounce “Yom Kippur,” but the school district still closed for it every year. The times I did feel aware of my religion, I felt celebrated, not isolated.
That changed when I moved to Nashville a year after graduating college. Here, religious Christianity seemed ubiquitous. The number of churches in the city staggered me. Politicians from surrounding counties ran on platforms highlighting their faith. Even my relatively secular coworkers talked about church with a frequency unlike my Christian friends in other parts of the country.
I was used to feeling like a minority. But for the first time, I felt like an outsider.
So did Ellie Flier, a 26-year-old Los Angeles native who moved to Nashville four years ago to pursue a songwriting career.
“People that I met had never met a Jew before,” she said. “They didn’t understand why I didn’t celebrate Christmas. There were churches everywhere.”
Our shared observation is not coincidence: Tennessee is considered the third-most Christian state in the country, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study. (Nashville is more diverse than the state overall, but I’m convinced the church thing is real.)
So as a reaction, Flier started seeking out fellow Jews, going to events through NowGen, the Jewish Federation’s young adult arm.
“I would never go to anything like that in Los Angeles because there were so many Jews,” she said. “But because there weren’t [in Nashville], I became more involved.”
She now serves as co-chair of NowGen, a fill-in cantor at a synagogue, a member of the synagogue’s young adult group and part of a Jewish Federation advisory committee. She is, in the Brandeis study’s words, “highly engaged.”
I, too, found myself seeking out Jews soon after I moved to Nashville. Like Flier, I met most of my first friends through NowGen. (Full disclosure: I’m currently on the board.) I kept an eye out for Jewish names and faces even in my secular life. By the end of my first year here, I had more Jewish friends than I’d made in any other city.
But this is not typical, found the Brandeis study. About a third of young adults report they have no Jewish friends, even though more than half have participated in a Jewish program in the past six months.
Geography contributes to this separation. The city’s Jewish institutions — JCC, synagogues, Chabad, Hillel, even most of NowGen’s events — are clustered on the west side of town. For years, that’s where Jews clustered too.
“Once upon a time, if you were Jewish, you would live in the three ZIP codes that surround the JCC,” explained Rabbi Laurie Rice at Congregation Micah, one of the city’s two Reform synagogues. “Now they live all over.”
Last year, I heard about an inclusive Jewish group in East Nashville, a rapidly gentrifying part of the city where many young adults are moving. The group sounded almost like a secret society. To join, I was told, I would have to go to a bakery that the organizers owned and ask about their next event.
I stopped by the bakery one morning before Rosh Hashanah and saw a sign advising customers the store would be closed the following Monday. “It’s nice to see a Nashville business closed for the holidays,” I told the owner as I ordered an egg biscuit sandwich. She picked up on my signal. “You’re Jewish?” she said. “You should join us for break-the-fast.”
Her name is Ellen Einstein, and she moved to East Nashville in 1993, back when it wasn’t remotely Jewish. “There were literally three or four of us,” she recalled. “That was it.”
After Einstein and her husband opened a bakery (one of the few places at the time that sold challah on Fridays), they discovered more Jews were moving in. She decided to gather them.
Starting about five years, if someone looked Jewish or had a Jewish name on their credit card, “I would ask them if they were interested in joining our little community, and most of them would say yes,” Einstein said.
The group started with 15 or 20 people but now boasts 125 “members,” including many millenials (Einstein is 56 — she cites “Jewish mom’s instincts”). Among the group is Emma Burkey, who moved to Nashville about nine years ago. She tried out a few synagogues, but nothing felt right, and for years she knew almost no one Jewish. Then she discovered the Einsteins’ group.
“It’s definitely not going to be your most religious crowd, but I think that’s what nice about it. It’s just literally an outlet for people to have a community,” Burkey said.
And, she said, it’s convenient — she doesn’t have to go across town, and she lives in the same neighborhood as the people she meets.
The rest of the Jewish community is starting to realize East Nashville’s potential. Rabbis from Reform and Orthodox synagogues — on the west side of town — are trying to start a more formal group on the east side.
But sometimes, it’s nice to have options outside institutions, said Ellie Flier, the aspiring songwriter and part-time cantor. Despite being involved in almost every Jewish institution available in Nashville, she and a couple of friends decided last year to start putting on a monthly musical Shabbat service — the one I went to last August. They wanted it to be casual, at people’s houses.
“In synagogues, you’re kind of removed from everything. There’s a bimah (the platform where clergy read Torah), there’s a cantor,” she said. “Here, … we’re all doing this together, creating the experience together.”
“It’s one of the most meaningful Jewish experiences I’ve had,” I told her.
She laughed. “Yeah, same.”
I asked the Jewish Federation’s executive director, Mark Freedman, if he had any qualms about the independent pop-up institutions.
“Look, it’s unrealistic to think, the world is these days and the way our society is, that you can have your hand in every pie,” he said.
The Federation has been trying to engage more segments of Jewish life in Nashville. It recently started a “new initiatives” fund to enable institutions to experiment with programming. In addition to providing seed money for the new East Nashville group, it also funded a trip to Israel for interfaith couples.
“Our goal is to be able to help support Jewish life in Nashville in all its forms,” he said. “If there’s a role that we can play, we’re happy to play it. If there’s a group out there that says, ‘You know what? We’re not big membership, institutional-type people. Leave us alone,’ that’s fine too.”
Freedman feels a “sacred obligation” to help Nashville newcomers find the best possible Jewish experience — even if one the Federation has nothing to do with. “Give them the choices, give them the alternatives, and hopefully draw them in with something that strikes a chord in their Jewish soul.”
Emily Siner is a reporter and editor at Nashville Public Radio. In her free time, she is learning to fiddle.
This story "Red State Nashville, Where I Found My Jewish Soul" was written by Emily Siner.