Tennessee: Nashville’s Jewish history

Nashville: Past and Present, written by freelance writer Betsy Thorpe, covers the city’s unique and interesting history. She shares her views of significant moments from communities past and present.

Thorpe posted an article on the Nashville Jewish community – numbering around 8,000 today – by local historian Annette Rankin, with a photo from the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The photo is of an 1869 confirmation class of the Vine Street Temple, which pictures (from left) Hannah SPITZ, Emma FELDMAN, Hattie SHYER, Rabbi J. WECHSLER, Bella SPITZ, Hattie SHYER (possibly a mistake in the original caption – two girls with the same name) and Sam WEST (or WEIL).


Nashville dates its beginning from 1780, and by the 1840s there were enough Jewish men to meet for services. In 1851, the group established a Hebrew Benevolent Burial Association, and purchased property for a cemetery. This property is part of The Temple Cemetery, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Rankin covers the history, permutations, and mergings of other congregations:

Ohabai Shalom (1851), the first in Nashville – celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2001 – and Ohava Emes (1860); the merging of Mogen David and Ohava Emes into Ohavai Shalom (1867); in 1876, the Vine Street Temple (The Temple) was one of the first members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform movement).

The Conservative congregation Adath Israel (West End Synagogue) was chartered in 1876 and its building constructed in 1902. The Hungarian Benevolent Society (early 1870s) met in a house next to Ryman Auditorium, while the Orthodox Sherith Israel’s building was constructed in 1920, also next to Ryman. In 1992, the new Reform Congregation Micah was founded; in 2001, Chabad (Beit Tefilah).

As is the case in most growing urban locations, synagogues moved to new sites as their populations moved to different neighborhoods. Rankin notes that Nashville’s congregations moved to new locations in the 1940s-1950s.

B’nai B’rith was founded in 1863. The YWHA (1902) celebrated its 100th year. In 1936, the Jewish Community Council was founded and would become the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.

Other communal instutions include The Akiva School (1954), Jewish Family Service celebrated 150 years in 2003; the Nashville section of the National Council of Jewish Women observed its 100th year in 2001; while Hadassah was founded in 1926.

Vanderbilt University’s Ben Schulman Center for Jewish Life opened in 2002.

If you are looking for ancestors in Nashville or environs, there seems to be many places to find clues in this community, whose Jewish roots go back to the 1840s.

Thank you, Annette Rankin and Betsy Thorpe.

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