First black woman rabbi ordained in US

Alysa Stanton: ‘I was born Jewish, but not to a Jewish womb’

Alysa Stanton: ‘I was born Jewish, but not to a Jewish womb’

Alysa Stanton is used to heads turning when she enters a synagogue; African-American Jews are still a relatively rare sight in mainstream American congregations. But next month she will be even more visible, because she will be sitting in the rabbi’s chair.

Stanton is about to be ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, making her the first ever female African-American rabbi. Soon after, she will join a small Reform congregation in North Carolina as its spiritual leader.

“I bring to the rabbinate the new face of Judaism,” Stanton says. “But,” she corrects herself, “it’s not new — more present. Jews of colour, Hispanic Jews, Indians, Asian Jews — we’re all here.”

According to the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, at least 20 per cent of America’s six million Jews are racially and ethnically diverse, by birth and through conversion and adoption. This includes over 400,000 African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics, with the rest mostly Sephardim. Up to 30,000 marriages between Jews and African-Americans grew out of the civil rights movement.

Most African-American Jews have their own congregations, and there are a number of male African-American rabbis, including Capers Funnye, Michelle Obama’s cousin. Some consider themselves to be the “true descendants” of the biblical Jews. Stanton is rare in that she is a member of a “mainstream” congregation. However, she is reluctant to see herself as a pioneer.

“I’m a rabbi who happens to be an African-American woman. My congregation could be polka-dot, I’m a rabbi of the people.”

It was a long path to the rabbinate. Ms Stanton, 45, was born into a Pentecostal Christian family in Cleveland, but began a spiritual quest at the age of nine, when she phoned a priest to find out about Catholicism. Around the same time, her uncle gave her a Hebrew grammar book, which she has to this day. “I don’t know many 10-year-olds who keep grammar books.”

Still, she did not seriously consider Judaism until her college years. She drove 150 miles each week to study with a rabbi of an Orthodox congregation, and eventually converted. The attraction, she says, was almost mystical. “A thread of Judaism was always there. I say I was born Jewish, but not to a Jewish womb.”

Ms Stanton completed her first degree in social psychology at Lancaster University in the UK (still a Christian, she had no contact with the local Jewish community). After graduate school, she moved to Denver to practise psychotherapy, and began to attend the local Reform temple.

“All heads turned, as they always used to when I entered a synagogue. But here the attitude was, ‘oh, another new face’ –— this was different for me.”

Because of her “traditional” conversion, “I didn’t consider myself a Reform Jew, but I came to love the tendencies of Reform Judaism. It’s about choice, and there is lots of room for all of us.”

Stanton, who has an adopted 14-year-old daughter, joined the semichah programme in HUC in 2002.

“My goals as a rabbi are to break down barriers, build bridges, and provide hope,” she says. In her new job, “Jews who are disenfranchised will come to a warm, supportive place.” She wants to use the skills learned during her career, and also continue her interfaith activities.

Are her dialogue partners not surprised when an African-American woman represents Judaism? “After the initial shock, they see what I’m about, and then we can get down to business.”

Ms Stanton, however, seems reluctant to discuss racism in the Jewish community, and dodges questions about why African-American and white Jews remain, on the whole, so separate. Finally she concedes, “As a society we are growing and evolving — there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. I focus on individuals and institutions that have been supportive.”

    Last updated: 11:55am, May 21 2009