Alysa Stanton insists she never set out to be the world’s first black female rabbi. But that’s what she became at her June 6 ordination at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.
“I represent the new face of Judaism, a new era of inclusiveness,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I’m honored to have this opportunity, and I’m thankful to my God for making it happen.”
A Jew by choice and single mother of an adopted daughter, 14-year-old Shana, Stanton has been hired by Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C., a 53-member Conservative synagogue that also is affiliated with the Reform movement.
So along with the usual settling-in challenges, she’ll be dealing with the politics of a merged congregation.
That’s OK with Stanton, though. After 16 years as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and grief, she’s well equipped to deal with personal conflicts.
“I look forward to embracing the commonalities we share,” she said.
About 20 percent of American Jews are racially or ethnically diverse, according to the S.F.–based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, yet they are greatly underrepresented at the community’s leadership level. There are a handful of black congregational presidents, but none who are rabbis of majority white congregations. Stanton is the first.
Institute associate director Diane Tobin sees Stanton’s ordination by the Reform seminary as an important step in mitigating the marginalization felt by many Jews of color.
“There are so many who do not identify with the mainstream Jewish community,” she said. “As more people like Rabbi Stanton come along as role models, others will see themselves better reflected in the community.”
Asked whether any Jews of color belong to her new congregation, Stanton joked, “Yes, me and Shana.” But, she added quickly, there are many intermarried families, so there is outreach work to be done.
The newly minted rabbi didn’t always feel accepted by Jewish congregations — and by some of her friends — when she converted from Christianity during her 20s.
“A lot of my African American friends thought I’d sold out, the Jewish community wasn’t as accepting then and some Christian friends thought I had grown horns,” Stanton said.
“I felt ostracized at times, but I had to learn who I was, what my values were and move forward.”
Stanton said her mother, Anne Harrison, instilled in her four children the importance of having faith and a spiritual path.
“She didn’t care what that was, as long as it was God-based and that we knew there was something greater than ourselves out there,” Stanton said.
Stanton started her religious search at age 9 while living in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The following year, an uncle gave her a Hebrew grammar book that she has kept to this day.
As a student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., Stanton drove more than 140 miles a week to study with a rabbi in Denver for her conversion. She later moved to Denver and became involved with the city’s Jewish community. She also learned to chant the Torah.
Lisa Cornwell of the Associated Press contributed to this report.