The overall U.S. Jewish population, now about 6.8 million, and the Jewish population in the South have grown, although much of that Southern growth has occurred in Florida and the Washington-Baltimore area.
Those are among the findings Ira Sheskin, the director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami and co-editor of the American Jewish Year Book, presented during his keynote address at the 39th annual Southern Jewish Historical Society conference, titled “Jews and the Urban South,” held in Nashville from Oct. 29 to Nov. 3.
During the conference on the Vanderbilt University campus and at the Gordon Jewish Community Center, the 150 attendees heard from researchers on topics including synagogue archive preservation (including the Breman’s Jeremy Katz), student refugees before World War II, Southern rabbis and Jewish women’s organizations during the civil rights era, Southern Jewish community leaders, and images of Jews in mid-19th-century New Orleans.
Gary Zola, the executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, spoke about “Lincoln and the Jews of the South.” In the year of the centennial of Leo Frank’s lynching in Marietta, the Forward’s Paul Berger discussed what likely was the first Jewish lynching victim in the South in a talk titled “Samuel A. Bierfield: Innocent Victim or Radical Republican in Reconstruction Franklin, Tennessee.”
Two women addressed the role of Jewish Atlanta women in social justice movements. Emily Katz of Duke University spoke about “Council Women and Social Welfare Work in 1960s Atlanta,” and Ellen Rafshoon of Georgia Gwinnett College discussed “Esther Taylor: Hadassah Lady Turned Birth Control Advocate.”
Attendees also toured the Julius Rosenwald School in Cairo and the Rosenwald Collection at Fisk University.
Sheskin said three recent scientific studies have established the size of the national Jewish population. The estimates show an increase of about 400,000 Jews from 2008 to 2015.
The Northeast continues to have the largest portion of the nation’s Jews at 44 percent, but that figure has diminished from 66 percent in 1955. Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the South has increased from 8 percent in 1955 to 12 percent in 1971 to 21 percent in 2015.
Most of the South’s Jews, however, live in two areas that are on the region’s periphery and often are seen as un-Southern elsewhere in the South: Florida (652,000 Jews) and the Washington-Baltimore area (265,000).
The four states with the highest percentage of Jewish residents are New York, 9 percent; New Jersey, 5.9 percent; Massachusetts, 4.1 percent; and Maryland, 4 percent. In addition, the District of Columbia is 4.3 percent Jewish.
Sheskin said that of 31 Jewish communities of 50,000 or more people, six are in the South: Broward County, South Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, Miami, Atlanta and Baltimore.
Five of the 20 states with the largest Jewish populations are in the South: Florida, 652,000; Maryland, 238,000; Texas, 159,000; Georgia, 128,000; and Virginia, 96,000.
Sheskin’s research also follows the trend of declining small-town communities. About 11 percent of the South’s Jews live in towns with 1,000 to 10,000 residents, down from 36 percent in 1960. His research shows that in the same 55-year period, the portion of the region’s Jews living in communities of 25,000 or more residents increased from 50 percent to 81 percent.
Jews in the South also seem to be maintaining their identity, at least as measured in various studies that posed questions regarding synagogue membership and participation in a Passover seder, Sheskin said.
The Southern Jewish Historical Society also elected locals Perry Brickman and Ron Bayor to its board, along with Michael Cohen of New Orleans, Bonnie Eisenman of Richmond, Sol Kimerling of Birmingham, Ala., Peggy Pearlstein of Rockville, Md., Jim Pfeifer of Little Rock, Ark., Jay Silverberg of Petaluma, Calif., Jarrod Tanny of Wilmington, N.C., and Teri Tillman of Natchez, Miss.
The society’s 2016 conference will be held Nov. 4 to 6 in Natchez.