In a season when nothing escapes Heaven’s eye or mercy, let the angels note the renaissance of the Jews in Memphis.
By all weights and measures, the community should be dead or dying, as are most other communities of similar size and isolation. When we speak of Memphis Jews we can almost introduce you to each by name, for so few there are. The Jewish population is estimated at 9,000, fewer Jews than live in the Catskills in winter; one-third fewer Jews than in Albany. When you factor in the national Jewish percentages for the secular, the assimilated and the uninterested, the active population dwindles precipitously. But unlike so many other small Southern communities, the Memphis Jews are refusing to die. Happy warriors, confident, expanding, building, they are almost daring you to visit and not be seduced.
An ad hoc group, 100 New Families, supported by the Memphis Jewish Federation, is offering $250 toward anyone’s airfare to come to “A Taste of Jewish Memphis,” Nov. 11-13, a Shabbos with “Southern home hospitality.” The weekend includes a tour of the city, meetings with employment and real estate professionals (private homes within the eruv, near shuls, can be had for $200,000); visits to the two Jewish day schools; and another $500 toward relocation expenses. The group is also offering a three-month membership at the JCC, and a year’s membership at the more than half-dozen synagogues, from Reform to Conservative to Modern Orthodox, Young Israel and Chabad.
This is the Tashlich time of year, and this community suggests you throw your regrets and doubts into the Bayou Gayoso, in Memphis, or while standing on Chuck Berry’s Mississippi Bridge. After all, the New Year is a terrific time to consider running away from home.
The renaissance is across the board. A number of Reform and Conservative Jews in town have made a commitment to sending their children to day school and the Orthodox have supported an eruv, two mikvahs and two kollels, the better to attract and keep young families. Necessity is the mother of diversity. At the Bornblum Jewish Community School, 33 percent of the students come from the Reform temple, 28 percent from the Conservative congregation and 38 percent from Orthodox shuls (2 percent are unaffiliated. The second day school, Margolin Hebrew Academy-Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, is an Orthodox school.) There is also economic diversity, with tuition at Bornblum under $10,000, and 10 percent reductions for a family’s second and subsequent children.
Oh, don’t forget, say the recruiters, in Memphis there’s no state or city income tax.
If 9,000 Jews doesn’t seem like much, that’s about as many Jews as were living in one Manhattan neighborhood, Washington Heights, in 2002. That population more than doubled in the years since, and Memphis Jews think they can do the same. In fact, the two Memphis day schools are already more day schools than in Washington Heights and as many as in Riverdale (with 45,000 Jews, and one mikvah).
The most recent attempt by a Southern Jewish community to lure new Jewish residents began in 2008 in Dothan, Ala., a city of 65,000, slightly more than 100 miles from Tallahassee. Dothan has one remaining synagogue (Reform) and a Jewish population that has been steadily declining, dropping in half from 205 Jews in 1980 to around 100 today. In 2008, the Dothan community established a Jewish “family relocation project,” offering $50,000 in various reimbursements to Jews who moved to Dothan and stayed (and participated in the Jewish community) for at least five years. As of 2015, 11 new families had moved to Dothan; seven remain.
Dothan, unlike Memphis, say the Tennessee Jews, required a much greater sacrifice, without the Memphis urban amenities, and with Dothan’s complete absence of Orthodox or Conservative synagogues, mikvahs and day schools. In Dothan, Jewish families were needed to build a community, almost from scratch, or simply keep it alive. Several Memphis Jews pointed out that their incentives are not being made out of desperation, as they already have nearly a dozen Jewish institutions and thousands of affiliated Jews. The Memphis incentives are being promoted as the next step in a renaissance, not a first step or a step too late.
Memphis is the largest city in Tennessee, more than 650,000 people whose stories have been told by the likes of W.C. Handy, Chuck Berry, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Sun Studios and the blues men of Beale Street. “If Beale Street Could Talk,” goes one of the songs, and the innocent better leave the room before Beale Street starts talking. Almost every Jew in Memphis, it seems, can tell the stories of how Elvis was the greatest “Shabbos goy” this river town ever knew. Long before he moved into Graceland, it seems there wasn’t a Jewish tenement that didn’t know his curled lip and very polite “Yes, ma’am,” if he’d be told, “Elvis, it’s a little dark in here, could you, you know,” and he knew.
Steve Stern, whose acclaimed novel, “The Pinch,” refers to the city’s legendary immigrant district, tells us, “I grew up in a Memphis [in the 1950s and ’60s], where there was almost no communication between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.” The first Jews, mostly German, were “itinerant peddlers,” settling in a river town ripe with possibilities. “At the time of the Civil War there were dry goods stores that turned into the first department stores. When I was growing up, you’d go down Main Street and see Gerber’s, Dreyfus, Goldsmith, Lowenstein’s, you’d think, ‘my God, the Jews own the town,’ when in fact the Jews were maybe 1 percent of the population.
“The next wave were the East European Jews, an entirely different species. Poor, but with a much more traditional culture. They tended to alight around North Main Street, the ‘Pinch’ area, a Yiddish enclave,” said Stern. “There were Jewish shops, with Jews living in the tenements above. It was a vibrant ghetto community for a generation. They lived for their children, who went off to colleges and very few returned.”
Stern remembers his Reform temple as “a congregation that was trying to be invisible and pretty much succeeding. We had very little in the way of traditional liturgy; no bar mitzvahs; just a smattering of Hebrew, rabbis dressed in ecclesiastical robes like a Protestant minister; choirs in a loft; pipe organs; very little that touched me.”
In the decades since, far from “trying to be invisible,” the community started fighting for its future. There arose a new generation that “knew not Pharaoh.” Instead of contracting, the community made commitments. Margolin, the first yeshiva in town, opened high schools for girls and boys in 1964 and 1966. The Lubavitcher rebbe sent an emissary to establish Chabad there in 1994.
Rachel Siegel, an occupational therapist, and her husband, Joel, a pediatrician, moved from the Upper West Side to Memphis in 2004. Joel, now 38, and Rachel, now 36, came and stayed, without regret. Members of the Hadar community in Manhattan, Joel is past president of the Margolin Hebrew Academy and on the board of the JCC. They are perfectly pleased with the “superb education” that their four children are getting at Margolin.
Speaking by telephone from Memphis, Joel recalled that after medical school, “I was looking for a residency opportunity; Rachel was looking for a master’s program in occupational therapy. We spent a Shabbat, to see the Jewish community, and we were very impressed. Twelve years later, we’re still here.”
Both of their programs required a three-year commitment. “So,” said Rachel, “we had three years to figure it out. A year and a half later, we had a child. The Jewish community was wonderful, family-friendly and affordable — and less stressful.” Joel explained that he now had just a two-minute commute. Rachel adds, “I can drop off my kids and get to work in 15 minutes.” And no alternate-side parking and rushing to move the car. “People here live a more relaxed lifestyle,” said Rachel. “The other week was the annual kosher barbecue fest that brings the whole community together.”
Several Memphis Jews noted that the modest population built a thriving Jewish infrastructure “that can accommodate many more. Word is starting to get out,” says Joel. “Memphis is a hidden gem.” Even at the NBA Grizzlies games, “we end up seeing everyone we know. There’s a small town feel.”
Steven and Rachel Schwartzberg moved to Memphis from Washington Heights in 2011. “We were ready to leave [New York],” they said. “We were done with the high costs of living and never having time or money to take advantage of all it had to offer.” When they were still in the Heights, “every Shabbos meal discussion among our friends and neighbors revolved around when people would move away and where they would go.”
Steven, who works in marketing for FedEx, said they “wanted to go to a place where our presence mattered,” and where their presence was affordable. “Rent on our four-bedroom, two-bathroom house in Memphis was $700 a month less than our non-luxury apartment in New York.”
When they moved to Memphis, they said, “People were clamoring to meet us! We didn’t eat Shabbos lunch at home for the first six months we lived here.”
“Pilgrims with families,” sings Paul Simon. “I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”
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