Synagogues play unusually important role in Jewish life here, study finds

Posted on: March 30th, 2016 by tgregory

By Charles Bernsen

In terms of their denominational identification, synagogue membership and observance, Jews in Nashville and Middle Tennessee are no more “religious” than the national average – and perhaps less, according to a new demographic study. 

But one thing is clear: Synagogues play an unusually important role in the communal life of Nashville area Jews. 

The study found that about 42 percent of the 4,700 Jewish households in Greater Nashville belong to a synagogue – roughly the same as U.S. Jews as a whole. Yet 82 percent of Jewish Nashville’s households reported that at least one family member attended one or more programs organized by a local synagogue in the previous year. 

Matthew Boxer (standing) and Matthew Brookner explain the demographic study of Jewish Nashville to local clergy and synagogue officials during one of eight meetings at the end of February. The two were part of the Brandeis University team that conducted the study.

“That’s an astounding percentage. In most Jewish communities you don’t have 82 percent of Jews saying they’ve attended a [Jewish] program or event anywhere,” said Brandeis University sociologist Matt Boxer, who led the team that conducted the study last year summer. “In most communities, the synagogues are the center of religious life and perhaps Jewish education. In this community the synagogues do everything.”

Just as remarkable, said Boxer, is that more than half of the households reporting attendance at one or more programs at each of the five synagogues were either members of another synagogue or not members of any synagogue. These results indicate an unusual degree of communal collaboration, said Boxer, who was in Nashville to discuss the results during a series of eight meetings over two days in late February. 

 “You are truly a community,” he said. “I can’t say that about most other Jewish communities. By that I mean, in many other places there is not nearly so much cooperation – or rather there are pockets of cooperation but not communitywide cooperation. That’s typical of large Jewish communities. But here, you are working together. You are a unified community.”

The 2015 Nashville and Middle Tennessee Population Study was conducted by telephone and email over a three-month period last year by the Steinhardt Social Research Center, which is affiliated with Brandeis’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. It was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee. 

The findings are based on responses by a representative sample of 725 Jewish households to a detailed questionnaire as well as responses from a supplemental sample of 290 households. With an overall sample representing more than 20 percent of all Jewish households, Boxer said the Brandeis team is quite confident in the results.  

The religiosity of a community is difficult to quantify because it is reflected in a number of characteristics that don’t always align neatly – belief, ritual practice, denominational affiliation and synagogue membership. 

There is not statistically significant difference between synagogue membership in Nashville (42 percent) and in the United States as a whole ( 39 percent, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center). 

In terms of affiliation, Nashville area Jews are more likely to identify as Reform (45 percent) and Conservative (24 percent) than in the United States as a whole while fewer Nashville Jews identify as Orthodox (6 percent) than in United States, which is typical of smaller Jewish communities, especially in the South. On the other hand, fewer Nashville Jews identify themselves as secular or “just Jewish” (24 percent) compared to United States as a whole, where 30 percent say they have no denominational affiliation.  

By two common measures, Nashville area Jews tend to be less ritually observant than U.S. Jews as a whole. Sixteen percent indicated they usually or always light Shabbat candles and 9 percent said they keep kosher, either at home or all the time. In the Pew survey, the figures were 23 percent and 22 percent respectively. 

On the other hand, 23 percent of Jews in the Nashville area attend religious services at least once a month, the same percentage as in the Pew survey. And Nashville Jews were more likely to attend a Passover seder (81 percent) or light Chanukah candles (84 percent) than U.S. Jews as a whole.

However, Boxer said that unlike keeping kosher and lighting Shabbat candles, the annual Passover and Chanukah rituals tend to more of an affirmation of Jewish identity than an expression of religiosity. 

“The fact that these activities are higher here than the national average fits the pattern of relatively small Jewish communities, where making such statements about identity is more important that actual religiosity,” he said. •