Written on March 4, 2015 at 12:43 pm , by Suzanne Rust
By: Suzanne Rust
Photography 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 BlackandJewish.com, 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.
Written on October 4, 2012 at 1:12 pm , by Maria Masters
Julie Bowen is best known for her comedic turn on the hit ABC show Modern Family, but this fall, she’s also taking center stage for a serious reason: Recently, the two-time Emmy-winning actress has been speaking up about anaphylaxis, a life-threatening type of allergic reaction. After Bowen discovered that her 5-year-old son had the condition, she partnered with Mylan Specialty L.P. to raise awareness through the Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis initiative. We recently caught up with actress to ask her what every parent should know about these allergic reactions.
How did you first find out that your son has anaphylaxis?
We didn’t know that our son had life-threatening allergies until he experienced anaphylaxis after having peanut butter—it wasn’t the first time he had peanut butter—and was simultaneously stung by a bee. Within moments his face swelled in a way that you couldn’t mistake that something bad was happening. We rushed him to the hospital where he was treated. Because of this, we had him tested and learned that he is allergic to both peanuts and bee stings! It was absolutely really scary. But in a way it was a good thing—we were there and able to respond. We now have a plan in place to help him avoid his allergens and we make sure those around him are prepared to respond if he does experience anaphylaxis again.
What did his symptoms look like? Did you know what was happening?
In our case, I was at work and my husband emailed me a picture of our son—clearly something was wrong. My son’s face had swelled dramatically. We took him to the hospital, where he was treated with epinephrine. Thankfully, he’s okay, but I have to tell you it was a real wake-up call that we needed to learn more about life-threatening allergies and anaphylaxis.
What is he allergic to?
We had him tested and know that he has life-threatening allergies to peanuts, walnuts and bee stings. We are careful to avoid exposure to these things, but you have to always be prepared because anaphylaxis can happen anywhere and at any time.
How much did you know about anaphylaxis before your son was diagnosed?
Not enough! You know, you think okay, I went to college and I’m educated—but I didn’t really know about anaphylaxis. I’m telling my story because I hope it helps other parents and people who take care of kids be aware of anaphylaxis and prepared to respond if they believe someone is experiencing anaphylaxis.
How do you control anaphylaxis?
If you know someone is at risk for life-threatening allergic reactions the most important thing is to help them avoid their allergic triggers. We’ve taught my son to be his own best advocate—he knows not to eat a new food without asking if there are nuts in it. We inform adults who may be responsible for him that he has life-threatening allergies. We also carry epinephrine auto-injectors with us at all times.
Do you ever worry that something will happen to him when he’s at school all day long?
That’s a great question and an issue I think about a lot. This is exactly why I joined Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis—because I think everyone, especially people in the school community, need to start talking about this issue. As my son gets older, I can’t be with him all the time, protecting him. So, I need to know that when I can’t be with him, the people watching over him at school or in our community know how to help him avoid his allergic triggers, understand what anaphylaxis is, what it looks like, and how to respond when it occurs. We all have a role to play in helping to create a safe environment for kids.
What do you want parents—and the public in general—to know about anaphylaxis?
I want everyone to go to www.Anaphylaxis101.com to learn more about life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) and to find out about campaign events happening all across the country. To help people get involved in making a change in anaphylaxis awareness and preparedness, there is a scholarship competition called the “Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis Challenge.” Students in grades 1-12 can visit the website and submit an essay and up to two images with an original idea about how to raise awareness of anaphylaxis in their school. Fifteen children will win $2,000 college scholarships. Enter before November 9!
Thanks for talking with us, and congrats on the Emmy!
Maria Masters is associate health editor at Family Circle.
Written on May 16, 2011 at 11:50 am , by Paula Chin
Just about every day, my 10-year-old daughter Nat and I and log onto the hawkcam at NYTimes.com to check on Violet and Bobby, a pair of red-tailed hawks and proud parents to a brand new hatchling in their nest overlooking Washington Square Park. Before baby emerged May 6, it was strangely soothing watching Violet sit on her eggs, so patient and Zen-like, her feathers ruffling in the spring breeze. And what drama! For a while it seemed the window of opportunity had closed and no eggs would hatch, then just one did. Now Violet has an injured leg, and avian experts had to decide whether intervention was needed (too risky, they decided, plus mom is doing okay). All of this more moving than any episode of Modern Family or Brothers & Sisters, and full of life lessons—in parenting, unconditional love, loss, and the weird stuff that ends up in urban nests—for me and my girl. Back at our place, we have two cats (Boo and Bo) and walk the neighbor’s dog just for fun; at Nat’s dad’s place in Pennsylvania, she has a black Lab (Nina), guinea pig (Peanut), Shetland pony (Meatball), and knows a neighbor’s hens by name, thanking them as she scoops up eggs to bring back to NYC. And I won’t even go into that delightful, ginormous, slobbery St. Bernard we met on the street yesterday. Ah, animals. Full-fledged or honorary, they’re definitely members of the family. As a parent, I wouldn’t have it any other way.