The Mensch Factor: How Knoxville's Jewish Community Quietly Helps

Have you felt the Tzedakah? Groups like Jewish Family Services and J-Serve may be the city's most unassuming benefactors

Most religions teach selflessness and service. But not all believers and religious practitioners routinely practice selflessness and service. For personal reasons that range from the philosophical to the spiritual to the mundane, Knoxville's Jewish community seems to be an exception. Here are just some of the people and programs that make Knoxville a better place to live.


"I figured when I retired I'd put together a little woodshop in the garage and make bookends and candlesticks," says Gene Rosenberg, who retired from Markman's Jewelers in 1996. "That never happened."

Soon after retiring, Rosenberg was recruited to become a part of Project Change, sponsored primarily by the Levi-Strauss Foundation. Project Change led him to becoming a member of the Knoxville Hate Crimes Working Force, which was co-sponsored by the FBI, and has since become the Tennessee Civil Rights Working Group.

Rosenberg is a modest man. Others involved in the working group developed a presentation that has become known simply as the "Traveling Trunk." The trunk contains objects that illustrate the history of prejudice, bigotry, and hate in the United States and internationally. Rosenberg became the official presenter of the program, he says, simply because he was retired and had the time.

"There's a Klan robe, a noose, a burnt cross, shackles," he says of the trunk's contents. "We talk about the Holocaust. We talk about gender preference. We talk about bullying. It starts off with definitions: What is prejudice? We talk about self-esteem. How can I like you if I don't like me? Each and every one of us is a me. We stress the importance of education, because we know that the more educated you are, the less likely you're going to be a hater. You're going to be more accepting of other people. You're just going to have a better life."

Rosenberg has presented the trunk to audiences of all ages. He's convinced that it does the most good with seventh graders, and groups not much larger than one middle-school class. In late October, Rosenberg traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the Award for Excellence for Exceptional Public Service from FBI Director Robert Mueller.

"It's not about me," says Rosenberg. "It's not about the award. It's about the trunk."

Knoxville attorney Arnold Cohen thinks it's about the trunk and Rosenberg—which have traveled together as far as Nevada.

"That trunk changes lives," says Cohen. "Gene has presented it to 17,000 people. If they'd had to pay someone as a presenter, that never could have happened."

Why does he do it? "You gotta do something," Rosenberg says.

Asked how a soft-spoken retiree and a trunk full of what could be theater props (though many items, like the Klan robe, are authentic) are helping to prevent hate crimes, Knoxville FBI spokesperson Stacie Bohanan says, "Gene helps us keep those ideas out there in the community. I've seen it work. If nothing else, it's capable of opening a closed mind."

When asked whether his commitment to the trunk has anything to do with his Jewish upbringing, Rosenberg says, "No."

"Someone like Gene Rosenberg, he could be called a tzadik, a righteous person," says Rabbi Beth Schwartz of Temple Beth El. "He would deny that. I know Gene. But he's doing it because it's the right thing to do. That's an aspect of holiness for us."

Schwartz's observation of Gene Rosenberg and his work comes after an explanation of the Jewish tenet Tzedakah.

"You need to understand Tzedakah," says Schwartz. "It's usually translated as ‘charity.' Charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which means ‘to care.' Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word tzedek, which means justice. There's a significant difference there, even though the difference might be subtle. Certainly we do justly because we care—and those who care, care about justice. But doing good works, acts of loving kindness, things in the interest of justice and fairness, you do it because it's right. Even if you don't feel like it to begin with, you'll learn to feel good about it because you're doing it because it's the right thing to do."


"It's considered a mitzvah to help others," says Laura Berry, a social worker and director of Jewish Family Services, which operates from the Arnstein Jewish Community Center on Deane Hill Road. "A mitzvah is both a good deed and a commandment. Which is a good way of looking at it. By doing a good deed, you get something out of it too. You're not just doing it because God told you to. You feel that you should do it, but it's rewarding too."

Berry counsels clients who are having trouble "navigating life" for whatever reasons—God knows there's no shortage of possibilities. She also directs programs that give attention and necessities to the Jewish community's senior citizens and those who reside in assisted living or nursing homes. It's Berry's and Knoxville's good fortune that there are large numbers of people who consider volunteering for her programs important, and maybe a mitzvah too.

"The volunteers like to give back to the community," Berry says. "Some of them have parents that are in long-term care and they learned about us from that. We're not awesome at marketing ourselves. We try to let people know that we're here. Obviously I can't say, ‘I helped this person and you know him.' But those I help can say that, and sometimes they do make referrals."

The name Jewish Family Services is pretty self-explanatory, except for when it's not. Berry says that aside from certain restricted programs, when a family calls and asks for her help, whether or not that family is Jewish is not a concern.

"I don't ask," she says. "I don't charge for most of the services that I do so I don't really need to know. It's a small enough community that we often do know. But sometimes you're surprised."

For some 5,000 years, it has often been the nature of Jewish communities to function as "communities within communities." They were ever the outsiders, and since services taken for granted by their goy neighbors were often not made available to them, the Jewish communities organized their own systems of credit and banking and emergency assistance. The threads of kindness and concern that spread through Knoxville from Heska Amuna Synagogue, Temple Beth El, the Arnstein Jewish Community Center, and countless other very specialized groups from among those congregations (Knoxville's Jewish community is estimated to be around 2,000 people, equivalent to some single churches) is said to be more the result of tradition or inertia than necessity. As with Berry's counseling, many of the services offered make no distinction with regard to religious background or preference.

"The other term that you need to know is Tikkun Olam," says Rabbi Schwartz. "Tikkun Olam means repair of the world. Some people might say, you want to leave the world a better place. But the Bible says, ‘Pursue justice.' Pursuing justice doesn't mean being low-key and passive, it means really being active, achieving justice and improving the world. In the traditions of many Jewish communities, including the Knoxville Jewish community, the good works that we do are works of Tzedakah, works to repair the world—and that's not just our community, that's the world. Many Jews believe that—however you want to phrase it—the world to come or the messianic age, it comes nearer through Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah.

"We have many different beliefs about Messiah. But included in that belief system is that if you're waiting for the Messiah, you don't know who the Messiah may be. So it behooves you to treat everyone you meet as if he or she could be the Messiah. Cynically, you might say you hedge your bets. But really, it could be anybody."

One constant among Knoxville's mensches is modesty. "It's not about me," as Gene Rosenberg says. Berry says that since she's bound by laws of confidentiality and can't share examples of her programs' best work, the tendency toward modesty among her volunteers can be bothersome.

"The volunteers and committee members, they don't brag about themselves and the work that they do," says Berry. "Because of that, people don't always know that we're here. But I think it's getting better; when someone's been served by Jewish Family Services and had a good experience, they are telling others. I don't expect everyone to. Not everyone is going to talk about the help that they got when they were in a time of need.

"I'm the social worker here and I'm under the HIPAA laws and I can't share that information as much as the community would like me to at times. They really want to hear about the good works. In a large community, you could give a general description of what was needed and what was given and people wouldn't necessarily know who you were talking about. Here it's a little bit different."


The communal and scriptural urge to do good works in Knoxville's Jewish community is lifelong and starts early. Deborah Olashensky, director of UT Hillel, the university's Jewish student group, explains B'Nai Tzedek, the concept of teen philanthropy and community service as it's taught and practiced here.

"This is the program where kids can put aside money of their own, and can give to organizations once a year," says Olashensky. "We also do a camp in the summer, an Israel exchange camp, where our kids go to Israel and stay with families there and do community service projects there and those kids come here and stay with us and do community service projects here.

"And there's also a teen youth group, we do one large-scale community service project in the spring called J-Serve. There's a national youth service day in April. That happens on a Saturday. But religious Jewish kids can't do that kind of work on a Saturday. So they've created J-Serve on that Sunday. So it's like a national weekend of service; some kids do a Saturday project and some kids do a Sunday project. This year we're doing it on a Sunday."

Olashensky's daughter, Bryna, is one of the organizers for J-Serve in Knoxville, scheduled for April. Bryna Olashensky is a 17-year-old senior at Bearden High School. She's also a champion rower, and is being courted by numerous collegiate crew programs around the country.

"When I was in the seventh grade I went to one of the inner-city schools and worked with a second-grader there on math and reading once a week," Bryna Olashensky says. "I've always enjoyed working with kids. I've also worked with the elderly some. It's just nice to be able to show the good things that teenagers are doing. Because so much of the news is about juvenile delinquents and kids selling drugs. It's nice to be a part of the group that's trying to change the stereotype."

2010 will mark the third year that Knoxville's young Jewish community has participated in J-Serve.

"The first year, we did a Dinner for Darfur, where we basically raised money for Darfur," Bryna says. "And we had speakers—one was a man who had lived in Darfur. The other was a woman who spoke about the issues in Darfur. Last year we did a program where we went to Inskip School and worked with the kids there. We just had kind of a fun, kind of circus-type thing. That was half of it. The other half was one of the families here has an aunt who is a congresswoman in Pennsylvania, so she came down and talked to us and some adults about health care and education."

In recent months, Knoxville J-Serve youth have been learning about the issues of hunger and homelessness. Still in its early stages, the plan for April is a work day at Beardsley Farms, the urban community farm that grows organic produce for distribution or donation among those who need it most.

"Obesity is a problem because healthy food is expensive," says 16-year-old West High junior Sam Talman, another J-Serve leader. "Ben [Epperson, program manager at Beardsley Farms], who is just the nicest guy, says it's no big deal for me to water this garden so that these people can have fresh and healthy food. That's kind of the way we see it; the rewards are so much greater than the loss of a day spent working in the gardens.

"It's more than just helping people. You're changing people's lives. It's very satisfying."

Talman says he does have natural skills that come in handy with the J-Serve projects.

"Leadership is one of my best qualities," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm able to lead, but I'm also able to be led. If you're able to lead a group discussion, you can get people to share all these ideas."


"One of the most significant acts of compassion and caring charity that you can do is to do something for someone who cannot repay you," says Rabbi Schwartz. "The hevre kedishe is a custom that goes back to before there were funeral homes. People had to prepare for funerals and burials themselves. What the hevre kedishe [which means holy society] does is on behalf of the family—immediate family are not permitted to do it for their own loved ones. The hevre kedishe will come in and do those preparations. It's a ritual washing, and dressing in a shroud, and seeing that the person is treated lovingly. They say psalms and appropriate prayers, doing the best that we can to honor and dignify this passage from this life out, and to be a comfort to the family. Because they know that their loved one is being taken care of by people who really care."

Although Knoxville's Jewish community dates from the mid-19th century, it has not been uncommon for others in Knoxville to see their Jewish neighbors differently. Wendy Besman, in her fine history of Knoxville Jewish culture, A Separate Circle, notes that exclusion was more common than outright anti-Semitism—that it wasn't until the mid-20th century that Knoxville Jews had equal access to careers in law, medicine, or teaching on campus. In that way, like many, Jewish life in Knoxville has mirrored Jewish life across America.

"We do have different customs," Schwartz says. "And we do have persons in our community who still view Jewish people as being kind of ‘other' or foreign. But the Jewish community in Knoxville goes back to the Civil War. We've been here a long time. We have deep, deep roots in Knoxville and we're part of Knoxville's culture. Most people in Knoxville are very pleased that we have this stable Jewish community here and are very respectful of the Jews of Knoxville. I wish I could say everyone, but that's not the case."

Schwartz says that on Jan. 22, Temple Beth El will dedicate a new stained-glass window. The window replaces one that was destroyed by vandals one year earlier.

"At the same time, we know that we don't need to be defensive and we know that there is not a strong history of anti-Semitism in Knoxville. People who are coming from elsewhere tend to have some assumptions about the South or about Appalachia. They don't know. Or they may come from communities where there has been anti-Semitism, and they're wary."

Schwartz attributes the general absence of anti-Semitism in Knoxville to a couple things, primarily Southern manners and the concerned and watchful eye of the city's extended law-enforcement community.

"It's a wonderful thing about Knoxville culture and Southern manners," she says. "You just don't do things like that.

"Our law-enforcement community—the KPD, the Sheriff's office, the FBI—work together to make sure that there are not religious hate crimes in Knoxville. The agencies have always worked together to respond to concerns, to be very pro-active, and very vigilant. There are plenty of communities where that doesn't happen. On Sept. 11, 2001, I was watching some of the terrible news reports at home. By the time I got here to Temple, the police department was here. There was a detective in the office and some undercover folks. They wanted us to know they were there, and they wanted us to see these undercover people because they didn't look like policemen. They said, ‘These are our people and they're watching out for you.' They were also working very hard with the Muslim community, who was not used to that kind of protective attention."


"The Jewish community is no different than any other community," says Gene Rosenberg. "Some people care about certain things and others don't give a damn."

And, apparently, some Jewish people approach the Torah with the same pick-and-choose philosophy that many of their neighbors apply to the gospel.

"I'm not a devout Jew," says young Sam Talman. "I rarely go to synagogue. But I feel that Tzedakah is a universal theme and I should do it anyway. You don't have to be a good Protestant, Jew—whatever religious group you may associate yourself with—to be a good person."