By Charles Bernsen
The Nashville area’s relatively small but stable Jewish community has a core of highly involved individuals, many from “deeply rooted” families who have lived in the area for decades, if not generations, according to a new demographic study.
But while 42 percent of the adult Jewish population has been here for 25 years or more, the seven-county Metro area also is home to a sizeable number of Jews who are relative newcomers: More than a quarter of Jewish adults in Nashville and Middle Tennessee – 26 percent – have been here 10 years or less. About 17 percent moved to the area since 2009.
The influx of newcomers is the primary reason the local Jewish population has shown slow but steady growth over the past decade, reaching a total of about 8,000 individuals living in about 4,700 households, according to the 2015 Nashville and Middle Tennessee Jewish Community Study. Those households also include about 3,000 non-Jews.
But while newcomers help the Jewish population grow, they also present a challenge: New arrivals tend to be less engaged in the Jewish community than those who have been here for many years and “can find it difficult to integrate, make connections, and become involved in institutions,” the study says.
The 2105 Nashville and Middle Tennessee Jewish Demographic Study, the first since 2002, was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. It was conducted online and by telephone over a three-month period last year by the Steinhardt Social Research Center, which is connected with Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
“It’s hard to say how Nashville compares to other communities of similar size in terms of newcomers simply because there aren’t many relatively small communities that do comprehensive studies,” said Matt Boxer, a Brandeis sociology professor and one of the Nashville study’s authors. “I would guess, though, that Nashville has more newcomers than would be typical because of Vanderbilt.”
In response to a concerted effort to recruit Jewish students over the past decade, the Jewish student population at Vanderbilt has quadrupled to more than 1,000. Although current students are not counted in the survey, the fact that almost 75 percent of young adult Jewish households have some connection to Vanderbilt indicates that a significant percentage of the school’s Jewish graduates are choosing to remain here, Boxer said.
“It’s not all about Vanderbilt, of course,” Boxer said. “The relative strength of the local economy and the kinds of professional services needed to sustain some of the other big local industries mean that there are good jobs available for highly qualified people. Such conditions are typically very important draws for Jewish communities.”
While newcomers help a community grow and remain vital, they also present some challenges, Boxer said.
“People describe the [Nashville] Jewish community as both very warm and welcoming and a somewhat difficult community in which to find one’s place as a newcomer,” he said “That’s not unique to Nashville – it’s common in all tightly knit communities.
“People who have been there for many years feel very comfortable. It may feel to them as though they know everyone in the community and have for many years. For a newcomer trying to break in to longstanding social circles, that can be very intimidating.”
To address that challenge, the Nashville Federation launched an effort last year to reach out to newcomers and help them become engaged. The Welcoming Ambassadors Program, an initiative conceived by Federation President Carol Hyatt, has recruited more than 30 volunteers who host regular gatherings for newcomers, meet individually with them and help them find a place in their new Jewish community.
Although almost 75 percent of the Jewish adults in Nashville and Middle Tennessee have lived here more than a decade, the study found that only 36 percent were born or raised here. What’s more, it appears that most of those who have moved to Nashville like it here: Only 13 percent of the Jewish households surveyed indicated they had any plans to leave. •
Jewish Nashville: A Demographic Snapshot
There are 4,700 Jewish households in the metro area that includes Davidson, Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Robertson, Cheatham and Sumner counties. They include 8,000 Jews – 6,500 adults and 1,500 children – as well as 3,000 non-Jews. The overall median age is 48 (57 for adults only). The population is highly educated and financially secure. The intermarriage rate of 56 percent is higher than the national rate of 44, though similar in that younger couples are more likely to intermarry than older one.
Jewish Nashville: A Geographic Snapshot
The overwhelming majority of adults Jews in Middle Tennessee live in Davidson County, although the percentage is higher for those age 18-34 and lower for those ages 35-54. This reflects the fact that households in Williamson County are twice as likely to have children as those in Davidson County. Within Davidson County, Jewish households are heavily concentrated along the West End-Harding-Highway 70 corridor stretching from downtown to Bellevue.
Jewish Nashville: By the Numbers is a continuing series exploring the results of the 2015 Nashville and Middle Tennessee Jewish Population Study. Previous stories in the series can be found at www.jewishobserver.org. Printed or digital copies of the study can be obtained by contacting Harriet Schiftan at Harriet@jewishnashville.org or (615) 354-1687.