Study finds “slow and steady” growth of Middle Tennessee Jewish community over past decade

Posted on: January 31st, 2016 by tgregory

Communal engagement and connection to Israel are high

By Charles Bernsen

The results of a new demographic survey show that Nashville and Middle Tennessee have a “slowly but steadily growing” Jewish population that is older and more intermarried than the national average but highly engaged in Jewish communal life and strongly connected to Israel. 

In all, the survey commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee found that there are about 8,000 Jews – 6,500 adults and 1,500 children – living in about 4,700 Jewish households in the metro area that includes Davidson, Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Robertson, Cheatham and Sumner counties.

Counting non-Jewish family members, including 2,200 adults and 800 children, the total number of individuals living in these Jewish households is about 11,000. 

The study, the first of Jewish Nashville since 2002, was conducted online and by telephone over a three-month period last year by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, which is part of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. The findings are based on a detailed questionnaire completed by a representative sample of 725 Jewish households, plus a supplemental sample of 290 households that makes it possible to better analyze various subgroups within the community. Overall, the results are accurate to about plus or minus 7 percent. 

The Federation has scheduled a series of meetings this month to present and discuss the results with representatives of various Jewish institutions and organization as well as an informational meeting from 7-9 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at the Gordon Jewish Community Center that is open to the entire community. In addition, The Observer will be publishing an ongoing series – Jewish Nashville: By the Numbers – examining the results in more detail.

“The Federation undertook this study in an effort to analyze the growth of our Jewish community over the past decade and to provide us with empirical and anecdotal data to assist us in future planning efforts,” said Federation Executive Director Mark S. Freedman. “We are confident that the results of this study will be an invaluable resource in continuing to assess our communal needs and strengthen our local Jewish institutions and organizations.” 

One of the most sensitive issues in any survey of a Jewish population is defining who is Jewish. Following the criteria used by the Pew Research Center in its 2013 survey of American Jewry, the Brandeis demographers identified two broad categories of Jews: those who identified themselves as Jewish by religion and those who identified themselves as Jewish by culture, ethnicity or ancestry. Unlike the Pew survey, however, the Nashville study includes adult respondents, typically the children of intermarried couples, who said they were both Jewish and something else. 

“The question of who is a Jew has been debated as long as there have been Jews,” said Matt Boxer, a Brandeis sociology professor and one of the study’s authors.

In finding a balance between using halachic standards that would be too exclusive and counting anyone who claims to be Jewish, Boxer said the study relied on a “sociological definition” that would capture those who both identify 

themselves as Jewish and are generally acknowledged as Jewish in the Nashville community. A Jewish household was defined as one in which at least one adult who usually lives in the household identifies him- or herself as Jewish. 

Some of the key results identified in the survey’s executive summary are: 

• The Middle Tennessee Jewish population has increased by more than 60 percent since 1982, at least 14 percent since the last demographic survey in 2002 and an estimated 7 percent since 2010. 

• The median age of the entire Middle Tennessee Jewish population is 48; the adult median age is 57, somewhat older than the national median adult age of 50 reported in the 2013 Pew study. 

• As might be expected, a significant majority of the Middle Tennessee Jewish population  – 74 percent – lives in Davidson County. Another 16 percent lives in Williamson County and the remaining 10 percent in the other counties. However, 49 percent of the households in Williamson County include children compared to only 24 percent in Davidson County. 

• About 60 percent of Jewish households include a married couple, with 56 percent of those marriages being between a Jew and a non-Jew. That intermarriage rate is significantly above the national rate of 44 percent found in the Pew survey. 

• About 86 percent of Middle Tennessee Jewish adults have a college degree and more than half – 54 percent – have advanced degrees. The high number of advance degrees could be connected to another finding: 31 percent of all Jewish households include at least one Vanderbilt University student, alumnus or employee. 

• Over 90 percent of Nashville area Jewish adults identify as Jewish by religion compared to 78 percent in the national Pew survey. However, synagogue membership in the Nashville area (42 percent) is statistically the same as the national average (39 percent). 

• More than 80 percent of Jewish households in Middle Tennessee report having some involvement in Jewish communal life. That’s a high percentage, although Boxer said it’s not unusual for a relatively small Jewish community like Nashville, where those who want a Jewish life must actively seek it out. 

• About 42 percent of Middle Tennessee Jewish adults said they are “very much connected” to Israel while the percentage nationally is about 32 percent. 

The study was overseen by Federation Planning Director Harriet Schiftan, who was working with an advisory panel that included Federation President Carol Hyatt, Secretary Irwin Venick, board member Lori Fishel and volunteers Amy Smith, Randy Gross and Shaul Kelner, assistant professor of sociology and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. 

“This study gives us an opportunity to redouble our efforts where it matters most, rethink efforts that are not impactful, reach out to more Jews and revise our goals to address unmet needs,” Schiftan said. “It will be very exciting as our entire community integrates all this feedback.” 

For his part, Boxer said one of the most interesting results of the study was the role played by Nashville synagogues in Jewish life: Depending on the synagogue, anywhere from 27 percent to 64 percent of those who attend its programs are not members, and 24 percent of those who attend all synagogue programs are not members of any synagogue. 

“It indicates that the synagogues are true centers of Jewish life in Nashville,” Boxer said. •