Aaron, Sherice, and Alanna Siegel at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. COURTESY OF SHERICE SIEGEL

How diversity and acceptance go hand-in-hand for these local families

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How diversity and acceptance go hand-in-hand for these local families

Aaron, Sherice, and Alanna Siegel at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. COURTESY OF SHERICE SIEGEL

It was barely a half-century ago that my Jewish neighbor struggled to find a rabbi – any rabbi – willing to perform a wedding involving a non-Jewish groom.
Today, families that would have raised eyebrows a few decades ago don’t even merit a second look in Jewish spaces. Yes, our community is still predominantly white. But it’s also Black, Spanish-speaking, and culturally diverse, drawing on traditions from around the globe.

Take me: I grew up with traditional Ashkenazi potato latkes at Hanukkah. But my daughter celebrates with fried pancakes made of spinach, leeks, and feta cheese – the flavorful heritage of her Bulgarian father.
The new diversity goes beyond race and culture to Jewish family structures that include same-sex couples and single parents that are increasingly part of the landscape.
A few generations ago, when interfaith couples agreed to raise a Jewish family, it was almost unquestioned that the non-Jewish spouse would convert. Today, some do and some don’t, and many of the most committed parents in the pews – chauffeuring to Hebrew school and singing along at the seder – are those non-Jewish spouses.
Here’s a look at five local families who – each in their own way – are emblematic of American Jewry’s new diversity.

Aaron and Sherice Siegel

When Aaron and Sherice Siegel moved to Swampscott and joined Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, it was Aaron, a white Jew, who was nervous about race.
“Swampscott isn’t terribly racially diverse,” explained Aaron, a bank manager, who worried his Black wife might feel uncomfortable. But he was relieved when Sherice was embraced – literally and figuratively – from day one by the congregation.

Early on, Sherice, an accountant, was touched by the way the community supported and affirmed a non-binary teen. “I saw how the temple made them feel at home and empowered,” she recalled. “I was sold.”

Having grown up in Weston, Sherice was accustomed to navigating predominantly white spaces. She’d gone to bar and bat mitzvahs as a teen and dated an Israeli Jewish man before Aaron. “So clearly I have a type,” she laughed.

Set up in their 20s by a high school friend, the pair instantly hit it off. About a year into dating, when Aaron told her how important Judaism was to his eventual family, she didn’t miss a beat: “I have no problem converting if this is important to you, because you’re important to me,” she recalled saying at the time.

Besides, there were aspects of religion that Sherice missed from her church-centered Baptist childhood. Having drifted away as a teen, she was ready to return to faith – and so was Aaron, whose family had deep roots in one of Connecticut’s oldest congregations.

The pair enjoyed studying for her conversion together. Now they’re raising a 7-year-old daughter, Alanna, and celebrating Jewish holidays with Sherice’s Southern specialties on the table.
The multiracial family considers Emanu-El a second home. “When we moved to the North Shore, we didn’t know anybody,” Sherice said. “The temple opened those doors for us. And they continue to open doors.”

Melissa Curley and her son, Yazmanny.

Melissa Curley

If you were to pick candidates for the title of “Least Likely to Become a Jewish Mom,” Melissa Curley might have one. She was baptized Catholic, with a Puerto Rican mother whose substance abuse problems landed Curley and her brother in a series of Boston-area foster homes.

When she was 12 and her brother 6, they were taken in by what turned out to be their final foster family – an Ashkenazi Jewish couple who, after what Curley called a “New Age” phase, were drawn by parenthood into a reappraisal of their tradition. When they asked Curley’s permission to raise her brother Jewish, she offered her blessing.

“I’d been in Brookline schools and had tons of Jewish friends, and I remember thinking how proud they were, how much of a community they had, how taken care of,” she reflected. “I wanted that for my little brother.”

As a teenager, Curley tagged along at Temple Kehillath Israel in Brookline, working as the Hebrew school secretary “and Shabbos goy,” she joked. “All the while, I was picking up knowledge and feeling a connection.”

In her early 20s, Curley told her foster mother she wanted to be a Jew, too. Together, they went to see Kehillath Israel’s rabbi, William Hamilton, “who asked, ‘Are you her mother?’ And she said, ‘I’m one of her mothers,’ ” Curley recalled. “He said, ‘Well then, you’re Jewish.’ ”

Now a social worker, Curley lives in Peabody and belongs to Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose. She’s married to a Puerto Rican Catholic, and their 13-year-old son – who just celebrated his bar mitzvah – attends the Epstein Hillel School.

“I don’t have as much knowledge as some of the other parents,” said Curley, “and every once in a while, I’ll feel a little intimidated about that.” But her community, she said, has been gracious – and for Jewish parenting tips, Curley still has her foster mother nearby.

Amanda Ritvo and her children at a temple event.

Amanda Ritvo and Miguel Concepción

Amanda Ritvo made a point of dating Jewish men. It was a value instilled by her own parents, “who were always very much, ‘You have to marry Jewish, you have to raise Jewish children,’ ” recalled Ritvo, now a family physician in Swampscott.

“And then interestingly, when they met Miguel, they were just like, ‘Oh, who cares about that.’ I was the holdout.”

Miguel Concepción, from a Puerto Rican Catholic family, charmed Ritvo when the two met as medical residents – and charmed her family as well. Eventually, he overcame Ritvo’s hesitation with his open-mindedness toward Judaism.

The pair attended Intro to Judaism classes together, were married at Boston’s Temple Israel, and participated in the Honeymoon in Israel program, where they met other interfaith couples. Now they belong to Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead as well as Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, and are looking into Jewish day school for their two small children.

A modern twist is that Concepción hasn’t converted. “I found that the more I pushed about something, the more reluctant he was,” reflected Ritvo. “So I kind of relaxed about it, and he was able to meet me halfway.”

There’s no Christmas tree at their Marblehead home, but they do host the extended Concepción family for a holiday gathering.

At a Temple Emanu-El moms’ night out, Ritvo was gratified to discover that some other spouses weren’t Jewish. Interracial Jewish families are still less common, though, “and I would love for my kids to see different races and cultures,” she said. “But it’s a welcoming atmosphere – and nice to be in a company of people with other backgrounds.”

Laura and Rebecca

When Laura and Rebecca were married back in 2006, their same-sex union – the temple’s first – “seemed a little bit more radical,” recalled Laura, a psychotherapist.

Two decades in and two children later, Laura and Rebecca (who asked to use only their first names) look pretty similar to their own parents:  “Married, pretty conventional suburban Jewish families,” as Laura described them. “We’re dealing with all the issues that would come up in any two-parent family – managing the kids, just trying to juggle everybody’s needs.”

Both women grew up in Jewishly committed East Coast families that Laura calls “liberal and philosophically accepting” of their daughters’ union. They were married by Laura’s parents’ rabbi and settled in Marblehead, where Laura has worked for numerous Jewish organizations and Rebecca is an attorney.

Their children – Noa, 15, and Eitan, 14 – both attended the Epstein Hillel School. And while their North Shore neighborhood isn’t overflowing with LGBTQ couples, the women feel their community – Jewish and gentile –doesn’t blink at a family with two moms.

“For a Jewish day school, Epstein Hillel is pretty diverse,” said Laura. “The truth is, people who know me are very accepting … and people who don’t know me assume that I’m straight.”

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