By Steve Wyatt, MTAS
On April 20, 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed that May would be Jewish American Heritage Month. It was decided that each May, we should recognize and celebrate the achievements and contributions made by Jewish Americans in the United States.
As I started researching for this article, I wrestled with how the article should begin. I decided to begin by putting into context how many people identify as Jewish around the word and in Tennessee. Israel has an estimated Jewish population of around 6.5 million people. The Jewish population in the United States is contested with a range from 5.7 to 6.8 million people. The world-wide estimate for Jewish population is 14.5 million people. The total world population exceeds 7.63 billion people. In 2018, the estimated Jewish population in Tennessee was 166,505. Total population in Tennessee was estimated to be 6.8 million in 2019. So in the world, individuals who are Jewish represent 0.19 percent of the total population while in Tennessee the percentage is 2.45 percent.
Growing up in Jackson, Tenn., I only had three Jewish friends from elementary school through college. Unfortunately, they all left Tennessee and I am only in contact with one, who resides in South Florida. Because of these friendships, I attended Shabbat services, bar mitzvahs and funerals at B’nai Israel in Jackson; however, I did not really understand or grasp what I was experiencing at that time being of a different faith.
The websites listed below are very helpful in understanding Jewish contributions and growth within the United States. I was particularly interested in the website Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities-Tennessee.
Some of the data found on this site and on the other linked pages:
• The first Jewish settler was David Hart who lived in Memphis in 1838.
• Jewish immigrants from Germany founded most of the early congregations, but later immigrants from Eastern Europe established their own Orthodox congregations.
• The Baron Hirsch Congregation in Memphis at one time claimed to be the largest Orthodox congregation in the United States.
• On December 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order #11 that ordered all Jewish people to leave the Department of Tennessee within 24 hours or be arrested. The area stretched from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Ill., and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. President Lincoln rescinded the order a few days later.
• Abe Plough founded Plough Incorporated in Memphis, which later merged into Shering-Plough. This is a large pharmaceutical company.
• Adolph Ochs purchased a controlling interest in the Chattanooga Times Free Press. In 1896, he purchased the New York Times.
• Dinah Shore, a singer and actor in the 1940s and 50s, was born in Winchester, Tenn. She graduated from Vanderbilt and moved to New York to start her career.
• Jewish populations have centered in the four largest cities.
• Memphis is no longer the city with the largest Jewish population; Nashville has that honor.
• The Jewish population is growing in Tennessee with most of the growth in either Nashville or Memphis.
• Josephine Wainman Burson was the first Jewish person appointed to a state cabinet position in Tennessee. She served as commissioner of Employment Security under Governor Buford Ellington from 1967-71.
• In 2006, Memphian Steve Cohen was elected as the first Jewish congressman from Tennessee.
Sources and additional reading:
Memphis Jewish Community Center
Chabad of Nashville-Jewish Community Center
Knoxville Jewish Alliance
Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga
Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities-Tennessee
Jewish American Heritage Month-Historical Timeline
Jewish American Heritage Month