Blog  NFTY-OV Reflects on Southern Jewish Life

NFTY-OV Reflects on Southern Jewish Life

Zack Carini planned and implemented an amazing Saturday morning Shabbat experience where NFTY-OV teens and professionals share their joys and struggles on their journeys as Jews living in the south.


“Being raised in a small town like Bowling Green, KY where almost everyone at your school is Christian or Catholic, I have been able to treasure the moments I spend with NFTY. Being Jewish in the south is to me not like being Jewish in the north as most people say it is. Yes there are Christians and Catholics in the north but in most northern schools there is at least more than two Jewish kids. To me being Jewish in the south gives me a sense of uniqueness to my peers. The south has made me feel more dedicated to my Judaism because every Sunday I drive a little over an hour to come to Sunday school by choice and be a part of a Jewish community no matter how small.”

– Zack C

“I’ve grown up in Clarksville, TN, and besides my brother, I was always the only Jew at my school. I’ve been told many times, “Wow, I’ve never met a Jew before!” When I was younger, I was really insecure about my Judaism and identifying as Jewish. I did not like to tell people for fear of being judged. It was not until I became a part of the NFTY-OV community that I really began being proud of my religion. Despite the stereotypes, most people I meet are interested in learning more about my religion. If people ask me questions about my religion, I try to answer them to the best of my ability. I feel that because I am a minority, I have a responsibility to represent the Jewish people to the best of my ability, and to help people understand this beautiful religion.

– Emily R

“Being Jewish in the south means that my Judaism is a large part of who I am. Being surrounded by very few other Jews means that I have to make a much more conscious effort to be Jewish. It requires me to be prepared to put up with ignorance from those that are not Jewish. Yet, being Jewish in the south also means that I am extremely proud of the fact that I am Jewish, and that it is a large part of who I am. To me being Jewish in the south has made me a better Jew.”

– Steven C

“I go to USN, probably the most Jewish school ever, so I don’t have a “Judaism helped me find myself and my individuality” story. In fact, I’m not even that Jewish. I miss Sunday school sometimes and I’m often late for services. But my mom makes me go to Sunday school, and even though I’d much rather play video games, watch Netflix, or read at home, I kind of enjoy being at temple. When I do end up coming it’s rather fun. I get to see my friends that I only see there. It’s actually kind of great. But I’ll never come without putting up a fight or actually say to any one person that I like being here. My mom would never let me hear the end of it. So, uhh, I hate being Jewish because I never get to see my friends and I hate the community here and everybody here is so mean and well, it’s really not actually that bad.  Mom, just pretend you don’t hear this. I like coming to Micah and I’m glad I get to be a part of this community.”

– Madeleine A

“I come from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a town with a chavurah and a booming population. Every Sunday, I take the forty-five minute drive to make it to Sunday school and this NFTY Convention. I am the only Jew at my school where I am looked at as strange, and to others, interesting. I may not seem to be that southern, I am very secular and have a Brooklyn Mom and a Chicago Dad.”

– Zack A-B

“I was like the actual needle in a haystack growing up in Lewisburg, TN. My family was the only Jewish family within a 45 mile radius, and you would never know unless you asked the right questions. We didn’t have a mezuzah on the door, and only our close personal friends knew about our religious differences. My brother and I tried to blend into the crowd as much as possible until high school.

When we each hit high school, something changed. We didn’t want to pretend like we were the same, and NFTY played a huge role in each our lives. Even though our parents drove us an hour each way to religious school growing up, we now each wanted to voluntarily return to help at religious school. NFTY enriched our Jewish lives and taught us how to use our Jewish voices no matter where we were. I thank my parents for making sure Jewish values and teaching were a part of my life. I thank Congregation Micah for giving me a Jewish home. And, I thank NFTY for making me a Jewish adult.”

– Christina D (MiTY Advisor)

“Let’s just say being a Jew in the Bible Belt hasn’t always been easy. As the only Jewish person in my school, I’ve always stood out. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard “Wait.. You’re Jewish?!” When I was younger it always made me very uncomfortable. Kids can be mean, especially when it comes to things they don’t understand, and I was often the topic of conversation. It was very hard when people would ask me questions. I didn’t know what to say, and, as the only Jewish person most of these people had met, that was a lot of pressure put on me. However, as I got older and learned more I became more comfortable with being Jewish. Going to Israel and being a part of NFTY have made me grow more confident as a Jew. What made me once feel uncomfortable and different, now makes me feel proud and important.”

– Ashley W

“I have lived in Nashville, TN my entire life. I am the fourth generation of my family to live here, we have a huge, Jewish family. However, that being said, the biggest difference I see personally may be different than what other Southern Jews see. I go to a school in Nashville known for having Jews, so being a minority in school isn’t something I’ve had to deal with in High School. The biggest difference I’ve seen is in the culture. Before Nashville was called ‘Music City,’ it was called the city of churches! I live behind a huge church and within walking distance of 3 others. Close-knit Jewish communities like what we have here in NFTY-OV or with my camp, GUCI, are extremely different in culture and attitude than those here in the South. The amount of knowledge people have on Jewish customs or cultures is very different here, and the communities created may not be as supported by local culture as others are around the country.”

– Stephanie B

“Being a Jew In the south means being unique and having such an intricate, intertwined community around you, constantly supporting you. It also mean having incredible southern comfort food as well as amazing Jewish mother food.”

– Brittan G

Shabbat Shalom Y’all! I was born and raised in Atlanta, GA. Though Atlanta has a large Jewish population, it was not always that way. Until I got to high school, I was usually one of a few Jewish kids in school. It was always my mom who came into class to talk about Chanukah for that one lesson. High school was different because all of the Jewish Day School kids finally attended public school, though it was a different crowd of Jewish students who believed and practiced Judaism very differently than me. I became a Bar Mitzvah, continued through Confirmation and was a Madrich through Graduation. Being on my local TYG Board and being an active member of NFTY-SAR helped me get my Jewish fix in a safe and supportive setting. Attending UGA was an interesting journey. I was an RA and constantly fought Housing and the Diversity Department for planning the diversity programs on Jewish holidays such as Passover and Yom Kippur. They didn’t know the exact dates of the holidays. My response was our calendar has been around for a few thousand years – not knowing is choosing not to know. I met students from all over rural Georgia where I was the first Jew they met. At times, they were mesmerized. “Oh you’re a Jew? What’s it like being a Jew?” “Do you speak Jewish?” The list goes on. Most were intrigued and curious. Many questions were based on ignorance, but they were sincerely interested in knowing more about me and my religion and culture. It was my duty as a Jew to “be a light unto the nations”. I was known as “Jew boy” in the dorm and I embraced it, patiently answering questions and offering to take my non-Jewish friends to Hillel for an awesome Shabbat dinner or cultural program. In return, I went to the Catholic Center, Baptist Student Union, and Muslim Student Association. We created a really cool cultural exchange learning about each other and going beyond the stereotypes of religion. I am who I am today thanks to Jewish Camp, NFTY, and Hillel. I am thankful to these organizations for providing me with such a fulfilling personal and professional Jewish life.

– Andy H (Ohio Valley Regional Director of Youth Engagement)

“My synagogue is sandwiched right in between two churches and if that doesn’t represent what being Jewish in the Bible Belt is like, I don’t know what does. Usually when I meet people and they find out I’m Jewish I usually get a reaction along the lines of “You’re the only Jew I know!!” or “Do you know so-and-so? They’re Jewish too!!” Whenever we learned about Nazi Germany or Judaism in class, there were always the select few who turned and looked at me and I always felt so singled out by it. For me, being a religious minority has never really been an issue since Nashvillians are pretty open-minded, however I do run into the occasional anti-Semitic comment. For example, I recently had a teacher tell me that she “…keeps a mental count of the Jews she’s met since there aren’t many in the South” and I just stood there in shock about how a professional thought that was okay to say. Over the summer, I went to Israel and was talking to our tour guide one night about anti-Semitism in the U.S., specifically in schools, and it shocked her to hear about this, which in turn shocked us since my friends and I have, unfortunately, become used to this. Growing up, I never really embraced Judaism the way I do now. I didn’t wear a hamsa necklace, I skipped a few High Holy Day services just to avoid the explanations and missing school, and I stopped attending Sunday School for a few years. I was insecure of being a minority and being different. My freshman year, I joined NFTY and haven’t looked back since. NFTY taught me that it was okay to be Jewish and taught me ways to embrace my religion. I started going back to Sunday School, I started attending services again, and I’ve very proudly worn the same hamsa necklace every day for almost four years. I have the responsibility to teach others about my religion and help them understand what it’s like. I’m no longer hesitant to stand up for my beliefs and religion. NFTY-Ohio Valley is a special place and I’m so proud to be part of this amazing region and cause.”

– Isabel M