Taylor leading a heritage program with her co-workers

I’m Not Jewish, But My Summer Internship Was

So… what’s it like working at a Jewish office when you’re not Jewish?

Taylor Ortner—dog enthusiast, native southerner, and aspiring historian—was the Heritage and Interpretation Intern at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) this summer. She researched, wrote, and edited content for the ISJL Immigration Traveling Trunk, an educational resource that teaches 4th- through 6th-grade students about 18th- through 20th-century Jewish immigration to the American South. Interested in history and heritage internships at the ISJL? Look out for our application in November! Interested in bringing the Immigration Traveling Trunk to your school or congregation? Email ISJL Director of Heritage and Interpretation Nora Katz.

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“You’re gonna work with the Hebrews?” My dad asked in his incredibly southern accent. “Those are God’s people, y’know,” he remarked before I could answer.

The answer was yes. I had been accepted as an intern for the Heritage and Interpretation Department of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

“We have Jews?” My mom piped up.

The answer was, again, yes.

“We” – the South – have Jews.

Being southern born and raised, outside of the major metropolitan cities like Atlanta or Houston, coming across the region’s Jewish presence is rare. My family and I would pass synagogues during drives through the rural South, but they had often been repurposed as Protestant places of worship. My grandparents, living outside of Eudora, Arkansas, would sometimes mention a store “run by a Jew,” but it seemed like a distant and unrelatable past. We sometimes attended Seder, but even then it was always Christianized. In short, my knowledge of Judaism and Jews was just that: short.

I have never thought of myself as an ignorant person. I have been overseas, I plan on going to graduate school, and I have lived among people from many different cultures. However, as I began my internship, I found myself Googling very basic and/or ridiculous things in secrecy at my office desk: “Will I desecrate a Jewish cemetery by visiting?” “Can Jews eat crawfish?” “Do Jews believe in ghosts?” One can imagine the difficulties I had with Google trying to describe what I now know is a shofar. If nothing else, I am a testament to the effectiveness of MyJewishLearning.com, because it kept me afloat throughout the summer.

Because I had met a Holocaust survivor (an inspiring woman who spoke to my 8th grade class), and focused on the Jewish presence in the Freedom Summer for my senior project in college (whispering “Yas queen” while reading the speeches of female Jewish Civil rights activists), I mistakenly thought I knew plenty about the Jewish experience. My first official day at the ISJL was a wake-up call. As I sat in the ISJL library surrounded by old religious texts, antique history books, and a popcorn machine, I became engulfed in a dimension of southern history that had been kept from me in my education.

As a future historian, and a southerner, I was offended that no one had stopped to inform me about just how influential and instrumental Jews were the South. I was fascinated to learn they had been here this whole time. I’m in awe at our differences, but even more so at how similar we are. I remember being nervous standing in front of the imposing temple in Natchez, Mississippi, but I was pleasantly put at ease by the leader of the congregation, a man who looked and sounded just like my very own Pawpaw. My mind was blown.

What was it like being the only gentile among the Jews at the ISJL? Well, I felt like it was culturally inappropriate for me to join in on some of the office antics, like coming up with “Jewish fashion puns.” It was slightly disappointing to me that the Rabbis I met did not dress like Tom Hardy on Peaky Blinders. However, I was delightfully surprised to see beer at after-hours office gatherings (something unheard of at any southern Baptist get-together).

All jokes aside, my internship was incredibly enriching. The marriage between progressive values and faith is something I seldom get to experience in the Deep South. Here, strict conservatism is often synonymous with Christianity. The friends I have gained through the ISJL and the conversations I have been privileged to take part in have opened me to reexamining my own personal faith, this time in a more positive and progressive light. I have gained so much more than an internship to add to my resume.

This summer, I have gained a perspective that most do not get to experience, learned a history that is seldom taught, and met a wonderful group of people committed to their community. I felt honored that I was able to share my enthusiasm for Jewish learning through the Immigration Traveling Trunk—with southern Jews and southern Gentiles alike. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

P.S. I eventually thought of a Jewish fashion pun – Kosher Couture!

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