Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Tullahoma, a small town in south central Tennessee that straddles the line between Coffee and Franklin counties, was originally founded in 1852 as a work camp along the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. After the privations of the Civil War, the town slowly grew due to its location along the rail lines. The town remained small and isolated until 1939, when a new U.S. highway linked it to Nashville and Chattanooga. World War II was the watershed event in Tullahoma’s history. In 1940, only 4,500 people lived in Tullahoma. Once the war began, Camp Forrest was founded just outside town, and became one of the largest army training bases in the country. At the end of the war, 75,000 people lived in Tullahoma. Camp Forrest was closed after the war, and the town lost much of its wartime population, although a number of people remained in the area. In 1951, Arnold Air Force Base was opened on the site.
The Jewish history of Tullahoma is both short and thanks to the preservation of its congregation's minutes, well-documented. It’s unclear when the first Jews settled in the area. A few Jewish merchants, like Abraham Segal, lived in nearby Manchester in 1920. Segal had emigrated from Russia in 1904, and owned a dry goods store in Manchester. His two nephews, Harry and David Kavitsky, came to the US in 1914, and lived with Abraham’s family in Manchester, working as salesmen in their uncle’s store. It’s likely that a small number of Jewish merchants lived in the region over the years.
Considering the impact of Camp Forrest and the Arnold Air Force Base on Tullahoma, it’s not surprising that after World War II enough Jews had settled in the area to organize a congregation. On a Friday night in November of 1957, 21 Jews from Tullahoma and Manchester met in the home of Sam Goldberg. After holding a Shabbat service, they organized a congregation, which they called Beth El (House of God). They held their next service in the local American Legion Hall. By 1962, they were meeting in a rented room in a local kindergarten, which became the weekly home of Beth El for the next 18 years.
Beth El was small and had limited resources. They never had a full-time rabbi. Sam Goldberg, who had moved to Tullahoma after World War II and owned a retail store, often served as lay leader of the congregation. In 1959, they decided to have each member take a turn leading services “to the best of his ability in Hebrew or English.” The congregation did not have a Torah scroll at the time, and purchased a large bible to use during services. Although they did not have a rabbi of their own, they would occasionally bring in rabbis from Nashville or Chattanooga to speak to the group on Jewish topics. In 1962, they organized a religious school, with four classes that met in the homes of the various teachers. But without a trained spiritual leader, the school soon languished, and Beth El’s members drove to Nashville or Chattanooga each week to take their kids to religious school. Most of Beth El’s members belonged to other congregations in these larger Tennessee cities, and would worship there on the high holidays.
In 1963, the group first discussed the possibility of acquiring a house of worship, although this would prove to be an insurmountable task for a congregation of 14 households. For the next several years, the question of whether to launch a fundraising campaign divided the congregation. In 1965, they started a building fund, but it remained far short of the amount needed to buy or construct a building. In 1973, when Israel was threatened by its neighbors during the Yom Kippur War, Beth El decided to donate the $1000 in its savings to the Israel Emergency Fund.
By then, it was clear that Beth El would remain a small congregation, and that there was no point in trying to acquire a house of worship. In 1978, they had seventeen members, who lived in Tullahoma, Sewanee, Manchester, Shelbyville, Winchester, and Flat Creek. Like other small town synagogues, Beth El was a regional congregation that served Jews in several towns in the area. In 1980, they started meeting in a building owned by the local Catholic diocese.
Although the Tullahoma Jewish community was small, it was very close-knit. The members of Beth El would regularly gather for social events, and the congregation board passed several resolutions honoring the achievements of members’ children or grandchildren. By 1984, the congregation held monthly Shabbat dinners before Friday night services. When families left the area, Beth El members would hold going away parties for them. These events became more and more common in the 1980s as the congregation’s small membership began to decline.
In September of 1988, there were only two families that belonged to Beth El, and the remaining members decided to dissolve the congregation. As the congregational minutes report, “there had been continual eroding of interest in the last couple of years and financially it could not be continued. Madelaine and Sam Goldberg cleared out the remnants of our property, the china, silver, and kitchen utensils.” These items were donated to the Jewish Family Service in Nashville to be given to newly arriving refugees from Russia. They also donated the $1100 in its bank account to Operation Exodus, which helped to resettle Soviet Jews in the US and Israel.
To some, this 31-year history of Congregation Beth El in Tullahoma, Tennessee might appear to be trivial. They never had a synagogue, a rabbi, or even a Torah. And yet, this small group of Jews in south central Tennessee managed to preserve their faith and traditions, while creating a more diverse and tolerant community. At their 25th anniversary celebration, Esther Turesky, a longtime board member, described the importance of Beth El: “We were soon invited to speak to many church groups on our faith and our customs…having a congregation not only provided a service to ourselves, but we won the respect and dignity of our entire community.”