Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Located about 35 miles south of Nashville, Murfreesboro has been home to a small Jewish community for over 150 years. Thanks to the research of Andrea Stewart Lindsay, we know a great deal about the Jewish families who lived in the seat of Rutherford County in the second half of the 19th century. Their experience presents an interesting case study of how German Jews settled in the South, and how family ties shaped their economic destiny. Murfreesboro’s institutional Jewish community was rather short lived, and was eventually enveloped within that of Tennessee’s nearby capital city.
Incorporated in 1817, Murfreesboro was named the capital of Tennessee a year later since it was more centrally located than the original capital of Knoxville. By 1826, the capital was moved once again to Nashville. In its early years, Murfreesboro’s economy was based on farming, with corn, cotton, and tobacco becoming the most important crops. In the mid-19th century, Murfreesboro developed into the market center for Rutherford County, attracting a number of enterprising Jewish immigrants from the German states of Bavaria and Wurttemberg.
By the 1850s, Jews, often linked by family ties, began to settle in Murfreesboro. Brothers Moses and Samuel Landsberger lived in Murfreesboro by 1858. Bavarian immigrants, they opened a store together with another Bavarian Jew, Emanuel Rosenfeld, who soon sold his stake in the business to the brothers. Their younger brother Sampson later joined them in Murfreesboro, working as a clerk in the store. Another brother, Asher, also owned a store in town.
Emanuel and Isaac Rosenfeld were two other Bavarian-born brothers who owned stores in Murfreesboro. By 1870, Isaac had $5000 in personal wealth, which came in handy supporting his large household, which included his wife Babette and eight children. He also had three boarders, all of whom were Jewish immigrants from Bavaria. Two of them, Simon and Aaron Katz, worked as clerks in Isaac Rosenfeld’s successful dry goods store. Showing the mingling of family and economic ties, Simon Katz married Rosenfeld’s oldest daughter, Rosy, and owned his own dry goods store by 1880.
Emanuel Rosenfeld became perhaps the most successful and prominent Jew in Murfreesboro. In 1870, he owned over $20,000 in real estate and another $20,000 in personal property; he also employed four domestic servants. Rosenfeld was actively involved in civic affairs, and served on the Murfreesboro city council. Three of his children remained in Murfreesboro in the early 20th century, owning clothing stores. His nephew, Morris Rosenfeld, came to Murfreesboro from Germany in 1867 to work in his uncle’s store. Morris married the daughter of another local Jewish merchant.
Although these immigrants owned competing stores, they often helped Jewish newcomers in Murfreesboro. Henry Hirsch came to the United States from Wurttemberg in 1858. By 1860, he was peddling in the countryside around Murfreesboro. Unable to secure credit from traditional sources, he received his merchandise on credit from local Jewish merchant A. Loeb. Hirsch used his wagon, harness, and horse as collateral for his debts. Hirsch later achieved success as a wholesale trader. His son Moses opened a store on the main downtown square in Murfreesboro in 1884 before later moving to Nashville.
Many of these early Jews in Murfreesboro did not stay in town very long. I.P. Stein owned the Philadelphia Cash Store by 1856, but had left town by 1860. Henry Levy had owned a store in Murfreesboro before moving to New York City in 1880. The brothers Moses and Louis Rosenthal had a store in Murfreesboro in 1870; by 1888, both lived in Chicago. This high level of mobility was common amongst southern Jews during the late 19th century, as they moved from town to town in search of greater economic opportunities. Since Nashville was so close, many Murfreesboro Jews ended up there. Charles Richeimer, who owned a store in Murfreesboro with A. Loeb in 1860, was in business in Nashville by 1867.
Abraham Tobias, an immigrant from Poland, lived in Murfreesboro by 1877, owning a store with his younger brother Thomas, who had originally settled in Nashville in 1865. Thomas Tobias moved to Murfreesboro in 1870 and opened “The Nashville Store” on the downtown square when he was only 19 years old. They later changed the name to A. Tobias and Bro., giving top billing to the elder brother. After Abraham died, their other brother Solomon joined the business, which became the largest dry goods store in the county. By 1900, Thomas lived in Nashville, and ten years later, there was no one with the last name of Tobias living in Murfreesboro.
With such a high rate of population turnover, it was difficult for the Murfreesboro Jews to organize lasting Jewish institutions. In 1866, they formed a congregation named Kahal Kadosh Bene Israel (Holy Community of the Children of Israel). Sam Landsberger was president and Emanuel Rosenfeld was vice-president of the fledgling group. They rented a room and outfitted it as a temporary synagogue. Rosenfeld, a successful merchant, donated a Torah to the congregation, ordering it from Germany. In 1870, Rabbi Judah Wechsler of Nashville visited the small Murfreesboro congregation and sent a report of his trip to the American Israelite newspaper. Wechsler wrote that the small congregation had about ten families and was relatively harmonious although its members were “anxious to have children educated in Judaism.”
Bene Israel never had a rabbi of its own nor a permanent synagogue. It’s unclear exactly when the congregation disbanded, but it no longer existed by 1907. The reasons for its demise seem pretty clear: a small and unstable membership coupled with its proximity to Nashville, which offered multiple congregations with synagogues and full-time rabbis. By 1875, some Murfreesboro Jews were renting pews in Nashville synagogues. Jewish children would travel north to Nashville for religious school and confirmation classes. M. Goldstein, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary who owned a store in Murfreesboro, was a member of the Hungarian Orthodox congregation in Nashville.
The Jewish population of Murfreesboro remained small and became a southern outpost of the Nashville Jewish community. In 1937, only thirty Jews lived in town, most of whom were involved in retail trade. William Goldstein, who had come to the U.S. from Russia in 1880, opened a clothing store on Murfreesboro’s downtown square in 1900, which remained in business until 1982. The Goldstein family were prominent citizens in Murfreesboro for most of the 20th century.
Murfreesboro has grown tremendously over the past few decades as Nashville’s suburban rings have stretched southward to Rutherford County. In 1990, the city had 45,000 residents; in 2007, it had over 81,000. Much of its current Jewish population is affiliated with Middle Tennessee State University. Despite the city’s growth, it has remained a Jewish outpost of Nashville, with most Murfreesboro Jews belonging to one of the four large congregations located in the capital city. Lon Nuell was an art professor at MTSU for 37 years, arriving in 1971. Nuell was active in both the Jewish and larger community. During his years on the Murfreesboro school board, Nuell introduced arts education into all the city’s public elementary schools. He was a leader of the small Jewish student population at MTSU, serving as faculty advisor for its Hillel chapter. Nuell won an award from the American Civil Liberties Union for his efforts to get the Ten Commandments removed from the Rutherford County Courthouse.
Because of MTSU, Murfreesboro’s Jewish community has been able to make the transition from retail merchants to professionals and academics. As the Nashville metropolis grows, Murfreesboro’s Jewish population will likely increase, though its proximity to Nashville will likely prevent the emergence of a distinct and independent Jewish community.