Jared Levy,14, Josh Levy,12, and Sheree R. Curry, 47, journalist and marketing communications Strategist. Maple Grove, Minnesota.
By: Suzanne RustPhotography by: Sara Rubinstein
Generally, we are born into a religion, but sometimes our faith arrives through thoughtful reflection. This was the case with Sheree R. Curry. Her family exposed her to various Christian practices, approaching them all with an open mind. But it was a comparative religion class in high school that introduced her to Judaism. She began studying with a rabbi at 17, converted at 18 and hasn’t looked back. Sheree now attends Adath Jeshurun Congregation, a large Conservative synagogue in Minnetonka, MN. Divorced from a Jewish man, the busy single mom is raising her two sons in her chosen faith and finding time to work with , an online community she created for others to share their experiences.
Describe your family in three words.
Loving, funny, healthy and supportive—okay, that’s four words!
What religion did you practice growing up, and what was the appeal of Judaism?
I grew up exposed to various Christian religions through family, friends and schooling. My mother felt it was important that my sister and I explore religion and each choose one for ourselves. I took a comparative religion class as a teenager; we spent part of the year learning about what constitutes religions and how they are formed. We had to create our own individual religious doctrine for this course. Then we learned in-depth about various religions. I noticed more similarities in Judaism to the religion that I had created for myself at the start of the class. As a result, I began focusing on Judaism. At the age of 17 I began studying with a rabbi, and I ultimately converted to Judaism when I was 18.
How did your friends and family react to your choice?
Since I come from a very healthy and supportive family with a mix of religions, ethnicities and even nationalities, we are very comfortable in our differences. We are all steeped in faith and spirituality, thus my family remained quite supportive, but obviously curious. I was the first Jew in our family, so everyone had a lot of questions about customs, practices and differences. It was a learning experience for everyone. But because the process of becoming Jewish is not something that just happens overnight, it was gradual for everyone. I didn’t just spring it on them one day.
Have you always been made to feel comfortable in the Jewish community?
Well, I don’t think anyone has tried to make me feel uncomfortable in the Jewish community! But as with any convert, black or white or other ethnicity, one does tire of the question “How did you become Jewish?” I’ve been Jewish for more than 25 years now, so it gets a bit old. As does the assumption that because I am African American I must’ve converted, or converted to be with some guy. About 15 years ago I started an online community for Jews of color to share stories and experiences. Within the group you’ll find many African Americans who were born to a Jewish parent. We’ve shared stories of attending Jewish events and some others assuming we’re not Jewish and asking us to leave—it has happened.
Overall, I think most of us feel comfortable. But whether they are biracial Jews of color or identify as simply black Jews, I think one of the biggest concerns with feeling uncomfortable comes from the extended family of a white Jewish mate, and this can impact marriage and dating relationships. It’s one thing to befriend a black Jew at your synagogue; it can be totally different when your single, dating adult child says, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
I have found that the black-white combination within the Jewish community, for Jews who strongly culturally identify as Jewish, is still rare compared to a Jew who dates a white Christian, for example. A lot of these relationships, and even some of my own, have been impacted by the negative pressure the white Jewish mate may initially receive from their own extended family. The sentiment is often that they feel caught in the middle. That was something my own ex-husband said. At one point before we married my mate told me that his parents even said they’d rather see him marry a non-Jewish Asian than a black Jew. Imagine the kind of pressure that puts on a young couple starting out. I’d say overall during the marriage everyone tried to get along, but eventually our marriage ended in divorce.
What does Passover mean to you and how do you celebrate? Do you have any personal traditions?
For my oldest son’s first Passover, when he was just a few months old, I created a family Haggadah that we still use today. The Haggadah is the booklet we use to tell the story of the slaves’ freedom from Pharaoh, but in our booklet we also tell the story of the freedom of American slaves. Although this is a holiday that lends itself well to the merging of our family’s two histories of being black and Jewish, this should not be limited to just the households of black Jews. All of us should remember and celebrate the freedom and right to freedom of all people.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Judaism?
The biggest misconception about Judaism is that it is a race of people. It is not. It is a religion and a culture. A lot of the culture stems from the regions of the world where certain Jews are concentrated. Most people are more familiar with Ashkenazi Jewish culture, consisting primarily of Eastern European traditions. But there are Sephardi Jews, with more Spanish culture, and Yemenite Jews, who stemmed from the Mideast and African regions. A lot of the culture of each of these sets of Jews will be more similar to the culture of those around them who are not even Jewish. Hummus is not a Jewish food. It is a Middle Eastern dish. Knishes are not exactly a Jewish food. They are basically pierogis, all stemming from cultures in Eastern Europe. Sure, different sects of people may put their own twists on a recipe, but that does not make us Jews a race of people. If people started thinking of Judaism more as a religion instead of as a race of people, they would be less shocked that there are Jews native to India who look just like other Indians. And Jews native to Ethiopia who look just like other Ethiopians. And there are black American Jews too.
But the world is becoming more and more aware that Judaism is a religion, not a race, and one that comes in many different flavors and colors. More people know of a black or Asian or Hispanic Jew, even if it is just a celebrity, like Drake or Rashida Jones.
What do you love most about your boys?
My two boys are very inquisitive and loving, and they care about others and they really care about each other. I hear stories of people who are at odds with their teens and tweens, and I am blessed that my boys inherited a lot of my family’s mild temperament and solid values.
What are the biggest challenges of being a single parent?
My challenges may be different from those of a single mom whose kids’ father is not in the picture. We have shared custody, so the biggest challenge, in some ways, is the same as it would be in any two-parent household: making sure that both of us, as mom and dad, are on the same page when it comes to major decisions for our children and finding ways to compromise when we disagree. Another challenge is just knowing that it does take a village. Since we don’t have other immediate family living in town who can pitch in when the boys have to be at different events or activities at the same time in different parts of the metro area, I often turn to friends who can help carpool the kids to activities. Or in some cases the boys know that they’ll have to do a joint activity or pick ones in the same facility, in order to make coordinating schedules a lot easier on everyone.
What’s your spin on finding that perfect work-life balance?
I am very devoted to my kids and their activities. I was a Cub Scout den leader, for example (not a den mom, which is different). So sure, a lot of nonworking hours were spent still being a part of my children’s lives. But again, since I am a coparent with their dad and the boys spend part of the week living at his house, I try to plan more of my personal professional development activities or fun activities for the days that the boys are with their dad. It might mean occasionally missing out on something the boys are involved in, but I am still like many other moms: My kids come first.
What’s the best part of your day?
Coming home to my two boys at the end of a workday. Honestly. It’s nice when your kids are happy to see you come home or when you pick them up from school. Since they don’t spend every day and every night with me, we all treasure the time that we do have together and the moments we are not running from activity to activity.
As an African American Jewish woman, you must have some curious anecdotes. Any funny ones you’d care to share?
There have been several occasions when I’ve met someone and they’ve assumed that I am some other black Jewish woman they’ve met before. “No, that’s not me, but I do know her,” I say. And it’s often true that I know the person. That’s not so much a testament that all blacks know each other, as it probably is that Jews play what we call “Jewish geography.” The Jewish community is small and we often know each other or know someone who does. Now, given the limited size of the black and Jewish community, and that I am involved on a national level in several groups for Jews of color, it is not so surprising that I know other Jews who happen to be black.