As a student rabbi, Alysa Stanton — who next month becomes the first ever African-American woman rabbi — was assigned to intern in a congregation in Dothan, Ala.
But no sooner did she arrive than the president of the congregation called the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati to complain.
“He said, ‘Are you kidding,?’” recalled Rabbi Ken Kanter, director of HUC’s rabbinical program.
Stanton said she was told that a “black person ministering to a white congregation in the Deep South was unheard of.”
However, Rabbi Kanter said, the congregation “very quickly recognized they had a rabbi who happened to be a woman and who happened to be African-American. She quickly became their rabbi ... and at the end of the year they wanted her to stay because she was so well loved.”
Stanton said the challenge had been to “put aside mutual stereotypes and prejudices and get to know each other on our own merits. We did it and [developed] phenomenal relationships. I will always hold a special place for them in my heart.”
That experience gave her the confidence to consider another congregation in the South when it came time to apply for her first full-time position, which she will assume after her ordination June 6. The synagogue is Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C., about 70 miles east of Raleigh in the eastern part of the state.
Stanton and a half-dozen other candidates from both the Reform and Conservative movements were interviewed by phone by the congregation’s 10-member search committee, according to Michael Barondes, the congregation’s president. Stanton and a Conservative rabbi were then invited for a visit.
“She led an adult education class and met with the youth group and made a tremendous impression on the congregation,” Barondes said of Stanton. “She has musical skills and a singing talent that was impressive. And she has interpersonal skills and the ability to engage people — adults and children. She was also able to articulate the desire to help us come up with a plan to unite the diverse Jewish community in a one-synagogue town.”
About 70 percent of the 56-family congregation is Reform and the rest Conservative. The congregation is affiliated with both movements.
“The fact that she is a convert was not a factor [in her selection],” Barondes said. “She was not the only Jew-by-choice who applied for the position. ... And the fact she is African-American played no part. During her three-day visit, she was able to impress so many people that the congregation overwhelmingly supported her candidacy.”
Stanton, 45, grew up in a Pentecostal Christian home in Cleveland, Ohio. At the age of 6, her family moved to a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
It was there that her Uncle Ed, a devout Catholic who also occasionally attended the local synagogue, explained to her what the mezuzahs meant on the neighbors’ doorposts. When she was 10 and already on her own spiritual quest, he gave her a Hebrew grammar book.
“My mother is a woman of faith,” Stanton said. “She taught us that we need to have a spiritual base and she gave us the freedom to chose what that is. For me, Judaism was where I found a home.”
At the age of 11, Stanton moved with her family to Lakewood, Colo., and by the time she was in her early 20s, she said she had decided to convert to Judaism.
“I sought out a rabbi and each week I traveled 144 miles to meet with him in Denver for intensive, one-to-one study,” she said, adding that after a year she converted, appearing before a bet din [Jewish court] and going to the mikveh.
“Initially when I converted my family was shocked,” Stanton said, adding that her mother (her father is deceased) and sister and two brothers have been “very supportive — my rock during this long journey.”
For about the last 15 years, her rabbi in Denver has been Steven Foster of Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation. He said he found Stanton to be “a very spiritual person who brings the best of two different cultures together. She is a terrific person and we will be lucky in the Jewish community to have her as a rabbi.”
Rabbi Foster said that although Stanton was converted by a “right-wing Conservative rabbi,” she later “connected with us because of our history with social justice issues. ... She used to teach for us and sing for us and when she decided to become a rabbi we all supported her.”
One of her professors at HUC, David Weisberg said the fact that Stanton landed a job already in this tight job market — only about half of the graduates have jobs — is evidence of her special qualities.
“She has a love of Judaism and a pull for the study of the Torah,” he said. “She is very sensitive about the issues of piety and love of Torah.”
Steve Sunderland, a friend at the neighboring University of Cincinnati, called Stanton a “remarkable young lady who has a spiritual commitment to Judaism that is rare. ... She has it clear in her mind that she is a Jew who happens to be African-American. She sees being an African-American one additional gift she brings to Judaism.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Rabbi Samuel Joseph, an HUC professor of Jewish education and leadership development, who said he has “never met anyone more determined.”
“She loves being Jewish and wants to serve the Jewish people,” he said. “It’s always tough being the first, but she wasn’t going to let anything stop her. I don’t believe she ever thought about becoming a pioneer.”
Stanton said, in fact, that she did not know she was the first until after she started rabbinical school.
Rabbi Kanter said Stanton’s prior career, as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss – she was called upon to counsel people after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 – “is an important talent to bring to the rabbinate.”
Stanton is a single mother of a 14-year-old, Shana, who she adopted at the age of 14 months. Stanton later married and divorced. Because of complications from gastric bypass surgery, she was forced to complete her rabbinical studies in seven rather than five years.
Steven M. Cohen, an HUC research professor of Jewish social policy, said it is “no coincidence” that Stanton is being ordained the same year Barack Obama was sworn in as president.
“He is a man who represented the aspiration to cross ancient boundaries, rivalries and conflicts,” he said. “She crosses both religious and ethnic boundaries in her own life, representing a pioneering model of Jewish continuity. ... She is not alone in that the number of converts and others coming to Judaism from non-conventional backgrounds is probably at its peak in American life.”
The Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco estimates that 20 percent of the six million American Jews are racially and ethnically diverse by birth, conversion and adoption. And there have been an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 marriages between Jews and African-Americans since the civil rights movement.
Diane Tobin, the institute’s associate director and director of its Be-Chol Lashon program, said her organization has worked with Stanton as part of its mission to “advocate for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people.”
Although Stanton is the first female African-American rabbi, there are many black male rabbis worldwide, Tobin said.
“With the election of President Obama, the Jewish community is very interested in its diverse roots,” she said. “We have always been a diverse people and young people in particular want to see themselves as part of a global people. ... Mainstream Jewish communities want to partner with us and introduce diversity as part of their programming.”
Although Stanton and her daughter will be the only black members in her Greenville congregation, Tobin said she would be interested to see if they attract blacks to the congregation.
Ernest Adams, 62, an African-American in Manhattan who converted to Judaism in 1997, said he is “meeting more and more black folks in synagogues.”
“In the South the Jewish community couldn’t be as liberal as the Jews up North, where you could find Jews marching with Martin Luther King,” he said. “In the South, the rabbis had to be cautious. But now that a white Southern congregation can hire a black rabbi, there is a significant change. The fact that it has been greeted with equanimity means there’s a big shift. The culture is changing.”
Stanton said graduation day will be something special, not just because she is the first African-American woman to be ordained a rabbi but because of the medical problems she had to overcome to get there.
“I went back to school in a wheelchair [at one point],” she recalled. “So to be finishing now is so poignant on so many levels. God has sustained me.”
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