Chabad Expands Jewish Communities in Tennessee's Top Three Cities

Chabad Expands Jewish Communities in Tennessee's Top Three Cities

Children at Chabad of Knoxville Jewish Day School

by R. C. Berman - Memphis, TN

September 10, 2007

In honor of its Bar-Mitzvah year in Memphis, Chabad of this city home to some 15,000 Jews, purchased six lush acres and a sprawling building to house a Center for Jewish Life. 

A nine-acre former pear farm now belongs to Chabad of Nashville. Their Center for Jewish Life will stand alongside meditation gardens and spiritual hiking paths.

In a surprising move for a city with 3000 Jews, Chabad of Knoxville acquired property and a building for its flourishing Jewish day school.

The real estate deals come on the heels of other important developments suggesting that Tennessee is ready for its place in the spotlight. UJC selected Nashville as the site for its General Assembly, billed the world’s largest gathering of Jewish leaders. Six Fortune 500 companies – like FedEx and Autozone – are headquartered in the Volunteer State.

When Rabbi Levi and Rivky Klein look out over the acreage for Chabad of Memphis’s new home, they see space, space and room for horseback riding during community events.

“We intend to make the most of the great outdoors,” said Rabbi Klein.

Accustomed to borrowing space for events, Chabad will finally host its annual Rosh Hashannah dinner in its own social hall.

When Chabad of Memphis opened in 1994, it found a close-knit Jewish community of 10,000 already in place. Jews are not news in the state Al Gore calls home. Jewish settlers arrived decades before the Civil War. For Chabad fitting in means filling in where Memphis needs a boost. Rabbi Klein is the area’s only ritual circumciser. Chabad’s Bat Mitzvah Club and Jewish Learning Institute for adults draw participants from all segments of the community.

No longer the new kid on the block – especially since the Klein’s son, a native Tennessean, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah with 300 well wishers – the new property is “a coming of age for us here, too,” said Rabbi Klein. “Now people can see we have roots firmly planted in Memphis.”

When Rabbi Yitzchok and Esther Tiechtel of Chabad of Nashville talk roots, they think literally. Part of their vision for the new acreage includes hiking paths and secluded benches as spaces for meditation. As new-agey as it sounds, the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov spent much time on spiritual retreats in the forests of the Carpathian Mountains.

“It is easier to connect to G-d in a natural environment free from the distractions of mundane life,” said Rabbi Teichtel.

For those who don’t want to meditate among the trees, the Center for Jewish Life will offer Nashville’s first internet café with kosher snacks, classrooms, a light-filled synagogue and a “mik-spa,” Rabbi Tiechtel’s term for a mikvah with spa accoutrements.  There will also be space for the 90 people who flock to Chabad’s TGIS (Thank G-d It’s Shabbat) dinners twice a month.

If Chabad of Nashville defies stereotypes, the community day school run by Chabad of Knoxville shatters the mold. By 2008, Rabbi Yossi and Miriam Esther Wilhelm expect to complete the capital campaign that will give their growing student body a new home on three picturesque, forested acres.

The Stanford Eisenberg Knoxville Jewish Day School’s nucleus of parents grew out of Chabad’s Mommy and Me program. “People knew us and trusted us and were willing to entrust their kids education to us,” said Esther Miriam Wilhelm, head of school and co-director of Chabad of Knoxville.

Noah Mesa switched to KJDS this year, because “he had a great need to be surrounded by Jewish people,” said his mother, Shuli.

In Tennessee, “Which church do you belong to?” is often the question that comes after “What’s your name?”  Playing the token, misunderstood Jew didn’t appeal to Noah. Shuli hunted for alternatives. “I feel so fortunate there was a school for him. Noah is so much happier.”

The curriculum at KJDS is studded with above average features. Every day at KJDS opens in a Montessori environment. Hebrew classes are taught through Tal Am, a complete language immersion program. Kids don karate uniforms for PE class taught by a karate sensei. Music in Education, a hands-on musical theory class developed by Yamaha, and drama are offered.  Now boasting an enrollment of sixteen children, KJDS goes from kindergarten through grade three with plans to reach fifth grade in the coming years.

For Rachel Hale, sending Jacob, 5, to Knoxville Jewish Day School is a highlight of her day. “He is the best thing that’s happened to me so it is nice to see it goes both ways,” said Hale. A new transplant from Florida, the Hales chose a Jewish school for Jacob because “there are so few Jews in Tennessee, we wanted a place where Jacob could feel at home.

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