Two days after 11 people were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Knoxville Jewish Alliance hosted an interfaith vigil at the Arnstein Jewish Community Center at Deane Hill Drive. KJA president Chip Rayman believes there were at least 600 people there, although he has since heard 800 or 1,000.
“It’s like a fish story,” he says with a smile. Then, more somberly, he expresses his gratitude for the “church community,” those of other faiths who came out to show support.
“There were Christians, Muslims and Jews. It was heartwarming,” Rayman says.
A rising tide of bigotry, with more than a dozen neo-Nazi groups based in East Tennessee, has brought an often-overwhelming spotlight to the area’s Jewish community, which numbers about 2,000 souls.
Security has been beefed up at the center, Rayman says, particularly because supremacists have been bold enough to come on to the property and leave anti-Semitic fliers on cars.
“But you have to continue with your life,” he says.
Rayman was a relatively recent addition to the KJA board when he was “honored” to be asked to serve as president. The alliance owns the Arnstein Community Center, and he acts as a de facto executive director for the center right now, the budget being too tight to fill that position. He is assisted by a staff of about nine, including an archivist and director of a college outreach program.
Born and raised in Nashville, Rayman attended Saturday morning services as a child with his mother, and Friday night services when he went to visit his father in Arkansas, but he says, “I was a terrible religious school student,” skipping classes to hang with friends in Percy Warner Park.
Rayman came to UT in 1964 and interrupted his business studies for a stint in the U.S. Navy. He dated his wife, Brenda, for five years before they married during his senior year.
“She let it be known she thought that dating five years was long enough,” Rayman said. The two celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. Rayman beams when he talks about her. “I could not do any of this without her.”
They have a son, Seth, a popular teacher at Hardin Valley Academy and one grandchild. The Raymans lived and worked in Phoenix for 20 years, but when Seth chose to attend UT, the whole family came.
During their busy years in Arizona, Rayman says he didn’t make his religious life a priority.
“I regret not raising my son in more of a Jewish life,” he says. He says it’s why he feels moved to volunteer now in any way that he can. “This being Jewish, it never lets you go.”
His current to-do list for the center includes better utilizing its 13 acres of land (about seven are used now) and staying on top of maintenance for the aging building. His biggest priority is creating community. Already the Arnstein Center is an integral part of Knoxville life. It runs a three-star certified preschool, which will add infant care in January. There are popular day camps and a community pool. Most people who use those services are not Jewish, Rayman says.
With the Muslin community, the alliance participates in Seeds of Abraham and brings Muslim children to the center’s day camp.
To know each other is to understand each other, he believes.
“We’ve been trying to educate people about hatred and racism for years. We’ve made progress, but we’ve got a long way to go.”