Nashville has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the U.S., but it didn’t have a community space to call their own until just over a century ago. What has become the Gordon Jewish Community Center has experienced 114 years of vibrant members, determined leaders, health-conscious programming, exciting events, and stories that have transcended lifetimes. Through all of this history, the mission of Nashville’s J has remained consistent:
The Gordon Jewish Community Center strives to provide programs and services based on Jewish values and steeped in Jewish traditions. Members from all areas of Nashville and its surrounding communities can come together here to connect, exchange ideas, build community and grow together.
There’s something about this place.
Through its four locations, its several names, and its century of committed members, the Gordon Jewish Community Center proudly sits nine miles from its original location. It is a testament incarnate to the spirit of the Jewish community of Nashville, Tennessee – to its stability, its persistence, its capability, its resourcefulness, and ultimately to its potential of another hundred years and more.
Jean Roseman, from her book From Y to J, The Hundred Year History of Nashville’s Jewish Community Center
December 31, 1902:
Twenty young men gathered at the Gay Street Synagogue to create the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Nashville.
A few weeks later, on February 12, 1903 at 11:20 in the morning, the group's new leaders made the YMHA a legal incorporation. The stated purpose for the association in its charter:
"for the maintenance of a literary and gymnasium club, for the advancement of its members in literature, sciences and art, and in athletic sports..."
On November 30, 1903, the new YMHA was able to hold a public reception in its new accommodations:
223 ½ Cherry Street (now 4th Avenue)
This area of town had an "unsavory" reputation, and the organization looked diligently for a permanent place to call home.
The YMHA Charter, February 12, 1903:
A Place to Call Home
With an impressive ceremony on March 25, 1907, members laid the cornerstone for a YMHA location on Union Street. The first meeting in the new building took place that October.
With a building to call home, the YMHA could offer its members many new amenities for just one dollar per month. A membership pamphlet distributed in 1908 noted:
Our Bar Mitzvah
With the launching of this paper we enter our Bar Mitzvah year. We have cast off the swaddling clothes of infancy and childhood and are donning the garb of youth. Twelve years of childhood have passed and we have proven our right to exist. We began life in a modest and humble manner, and, as the years rolled by, gathered our strength with each passing day. Our institution is no longer an experiment. It is a living reality, full of vital force to those who have come within the reach of its influences and have availed themselves of its beneficence.
The YMHA News became a staple to Nashville's Jewish community. Its first issue, published in the YMHA's "Bar Mitzvah year", provided readers with articles on the Jewish community, cartoons, and even updated members on the war effort, often with entertaining angles.
The women of Nashville's Jewish community played a crucial role in the success of the YMHA. A Ladies Auxilary quickly became the Young Women's Hebrew Association, and by 1924, the center changed its name to the YM-YWHA. The YWHA served to engage and entertain the young Jewish ladies of Nashville as well as to support the YMHA. Over the years, they also supported the war efforts and helped raise issues related to what it meant to be a woman in the world.
The YWHA thrived until 1948, when the YM-YWHA officially became the Jewish Community Center of Nashville.
This plaque commemorating the YWHA presidents is located outside of the GJCC library.
Dances at the Y
Dances were very popular at the YMHA, appealing to members young and old, singles or couples, and planned for a wide variety of occasions. The events even inspired this poem from Frances H. Finklestein:
Nowhere's to Go:
Once, upon a midnight dreary,
As I hoofed it, blue and weary,
Downtown, on Union Street, below
A popular clubhouse, the YMHA, you know,
Toward my face fluttered a bird,
Which then seemed rather absurd,
Conveying a message in the note
Which some kind club member wrote.
As my footsteps backward I turned,
At the YMHA dance I soon learned
That everyone was quite sociable and gay.
I certainly did enjoy it at the YMHA.
Athletics played a key role in the inception of the YMHA, and the organization went on to produce many successful athletes. The first Jewish basketball team in Nashville, pictured below, entered the city league in 1920 and became one of the Y's most notable teams. They quickly rose to be among the top four team in the city, winning the city championship in 1921, and later challenging Vanderbilt and teams in Kentucky and Alabama.
The original 'PEPS,' as the team became known, were Max Eisenstadt, Harry Diamond, "Professor Gordon," Phil Cohen, Izzy Silver, Leo Goldner, and (seated) Sam Caplan, Jack Diamond, and Abe Levine.
The team remained a fixture of the YMHA through much of the 20th century, even spurring the PEPPETTES, an equally successful women's team, to come about in the 1950s.
Summer Camp through the Decades
Summers in the South have a reputation, but Nashville's Jewish community has had a way for its children to cool off and enjoy the summer since the 1930s.
The first day camp program through the YMHA came in the form of Madelyn Klayman Markson meeting kids at a very specific, well-known tree in Centennial Park. They spent most of their time in the park, with activities ranging from swimming at the public pool, arts and crafts, hikes, singing, cookouts, and some overnight camping. Camps continued in this fashion for years, sometimes at different parks. Camp names and locations changed through the years, but staff consistently worked toward providing the best camp experiences possible.
Camps proliferated in the 1970s, and with the new location off of Highway 70, the JCC of Nashville's summer camp program exploded. Targeted for different age groups were Camps Shalom, Maccabee, Yaldot, K'toni, and Tiyul. The 80s brought specialty camps for sports, drama and performing arts, and outdoor adventure.
An enormous gift from the Cal Turner Family Foundation gave camps at the J the name we are now familiar with - Camp Davis, after Turner's longtime secretary Mildred Davis.
50 Years and the Beloved West End
As the YM-YWHA approached its 50th Anniversary, it saw some huge changes coming its way. The growing Jewish community had also outgrown its home on Union Street, and a move became unavoidable. The Union Street facility was sold in 1947, and the center moved to a temporary facility in 1948. That same year, the center decided to change its name to the more inclusive Jewish Community Center of Nashville. Finally, after five years of location-hopping, a cornerstone was laid in late 1951, with the new JCC of Nashville opening just in time for its 50th Anniversary in 1952 at 3500 West End Avenue.
The West End facility became a beloved center of Nashville's Jewish community, and the memories of our members tell its story best:
The JCC was where I met other kids from all over Nashville. I grew up there. I went to day camp, I took ballet lessons, I swam, I loved the rec room and racquetball. There was also a huge trampoline. That's where I broke my arm.
We moved to Nashville in the summer of 1952. The JCC was a big, new building. It was close by. It had wonderful facilities, especially if you were a kid. It was a gathering place for my friends, and everybody in the Jewish community. It didn't matter what school or what synagogue you went to. Everybody got together at the Center. As the kids would say now, we hung out after school there. We played basketball, we had swimming, parties, ping-pong, pool, and bowling. Having a bowling alley was pretty neat.
Every Friday, the students at Akiva School walked the block or so to the JCC to take swimming lessons in the indoor pool. The refreshing feeling after swimming, the echoing sounds of children splashing and talking in an indoor pool, and the snack afterward at the bakery across the street (Zager's I believe) were the prelude to Sabbos and the weekend!
My earliest recollection was swimming in an indoor pool with a lot of boys with no bathing suits on in very cold water. I went to West End Junior High School, and we would walk to school and have to pass all those Bible people who tried to convert us. We would go in the Center, then the street to Moscovitz Drug Store and Schwartz's Delicatessen.
The JCC had a huge impact on me as a kid. Growing up in Nashville as the son of German immigrants, I needed a place in Nashville where I was accepted as a regular person. While anti-Semitism was not something I would call severe, I couldn't belong to some clubs. If it were not for the Center, I would never have had a place to go and be with other Jewish kids. I went there on Sunday and stayed all day. It was like a second home to me. It was a very important part of my life. The Center was home; it was where I met my friends and shot pool and played basketball and worked out in the gym and learned to box - Paul Aaron taught me how to box. I cannot imagine having as nice a childhood as I did without the Jewish Community Center.
Early Childhood Program
The name and location changes of 1948 were only minor changes compared to the larger social changes in the United States following World War II. After the war, women were joining the workforce in significant numbers, and the first major initiative to incorporate an early childhood program came around this time. In the fall of 1948, the Center was offering care from 9am to noon, five days a week.
By the completion of the West End facility, a program with trained personnel taught the community's three- and four-year-olds arts and crafts, music, games, and storytelling.
The program hasn't stopped growing since its inception. The new building on Percy Warner allowed for more growth and began offering evening seminars to parents on anything from readiness for kindergarten to sibling rivalry
Bombing of 1958
The culprit behind the bombing was never discovered, but the Nashville community knew the attack was charged by the changes aimed toward equality in our nation. The JCC has always been a welcoming community, and the center happily supported the waves of the Civil Rights movement. On the 50th Anniversary of the bombing, it was noted:
50 years ago, on March 16, 1958, the Nashville Jewish Community Center was bombed by unnamed attackers. During that time period, the JCC proudly hosted meetings for several inter-racial organizations, dedicated to integrating Nashville's school systems and the general community. Though no one ever came forward, it was well known that the cowards behind this faceless attack were not just attacking the Jewish community, but all those in favor of progress, racial equality, and integration.
50 years later, many of the goals of those early progressive thinkers have been met; and yet, there is still much work to be done towards creating a completely tolerant and integrated society.
New Outdoor Facility off Highway 70
The 1970s brought complications to the JCC's West End location; the location didn't allow for expansion, and it was right in the way of the new Interstate connector, I-440. With these challenges, combined with the facility's ever-growing use, serious planning for a new facility began in 1976.
The Center already occupied 52 acres on Percy Warner Boulevard, acquired in 1966 and used for sports and outdoor activities since 1969. By 1980, the decision was made to move the Center entirely to this location. Just two years later, in December of 1982, construction began.
By the 1990s, the Center's membership was once again outgrowing its facilities. Plans for expansion and renovation were announced in 1998, which would improve fitness facilities, expand the preschool and library, create an auditorium, and add multipurpose space.
From Y to J Published
When I retired from teaching in 1997, I wanted to read a history of the Jewish community of Nashville. There was no such history. Fedora Frank had done two excellent books on the early history but they essentially stopped with 1901. Since the Young Men’s Hebrew Association began at the end of 1902 and became the epicenter of Nashville Jewish life, I began researching the history of the Jewish community through the lens of the YMHA and eventually the JCC. The result was From Y to J, The Hundred Year History of Nashville’s Jewish Community Center.
Jean Roseman, author of From Y to J, The Hundred Year History of Nashville’s Jewish Community Center
A majority of the information for this digital timeline came from Roseman's work - the Center is incredibly grateful for her contribution to documenting our community.