By Harriet P. Gross
This is an only-in-America story, something to reflect on in the month marking the 42nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination: Alysa Stanton, the first black woman rabbi, is a living success story deep in America’s South. This may be despite, or perhaps even because of, some factors besides race: She’s in her mid-late 40s, and the divorced mother of a teenage daughter.
Chosen over six others for the pulpit of 60-family Conservative/Reform Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C., she was selected, its president said, because “We’re a one-synagogue town, so we need a rabbi who can reach out to all members.” She has certainly reached the community’s youth: Religious-school enrollment has almost doubled since she assumed her position there last October.
Stanton recently gave a speech (she called it “a one-woman monologue about my journey to the rabbinate”) at the University of Pittsburgh. A senior, Carly Adelman, arranged it: “Pitt’s got a Cross Cultural and Leadership Development Department, and this is an individual who’s had experiences [with diversity]. She exemplifies how being part of many groups can be a struggle, and how you can learn from that.”
We learn that Stanton moved away from her family’s Pentecostal faith during her Ohio childhood. “There was a rule in my house that you had to go somewhere to worship God. Didn’t matter where. I was allowed the freedom to choose….”
She tried out several faiths, including Eastern and Evangelical, until finally finding her religious home while attending Colorado State University in her 20s. Studying Judaism along with a major in psychology, she was converted at Denver’s Conservative Temple Emanuel. After graduation, she worked as a grief and loss psychotherapist, and was one of the counselors called to Columbine following the 1999 school massacre there.
At first, because she also loved music, Stanton thought about becoming a cantor. But learning trope — traditional Hebrew prayer settings — “opened the doors of my soul,” she said. “I had a hunger and thirst to learn more.” That desire took her to Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, where after seven years, she was ordained last June. Time magazine then ran an article calling her “an outsider who’s become the ultimate insider.”
A rabbinic spokesman for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism cautioned, “The color of her skin shouldn’t be a distinction. But I understand that historically, intellectually and culturally, it probably is. [However,] if we’re a light among the nations, and there are people interested in becoming a part of that light, we should welcome them.”
At first there had been some trepidation in the Alabama synagogue where Stanton served as student rabbi, but people soon got over it. And interestingly enough, the South has made things easier for her, in a way. The pastor of Greenville’s First Presbyterian Church points out that Christians there “have many prominent female African American religious leaders, so another black female minister isn’t a surprise. I don’t think when she walks into the room [at an interfaith event], people say, ‘Oh, there’s that black female rabbi.’ People just see her as the rabbi. They just think, ‘Oh, there’s the rabbi who happens to be female and black.’”
Stanton says much the same thing herself, emphasizing color over gender: “I’m foremost a rabbi who happens to be African-American, not THE African American rabbi.”
She is, however, THE first female black rabbi anywhere. Learning that she would be making Jewish history actually came as a surprise to her after she started her rabbinic studies. “I’m glad I didn’t know at the time,” she says now. “I would’ve been scared away!”
The San Francisco–based Institute for Jewish and Community Research said last year that a surprising 20 percent of today’s American Jews are not Caucasian; they are converts like Stanton, or adoptees, or children born of mixed marriages. IJCR was founded by Gary Tobin, whom locals may recall as the engineer of a major Dallas Jewish community study a number of years ago. He passed away last year, just a few weeks after Rabbi Stanton’s ordination.
Now Diane Tobin heads the “think tank” in which she worked side-by-side with her late husband, and offers a current-day assessment: “Due to assimilation and intermarriage, the stability of the American Jewish community has never been more vulnerable. If we are to survive, we must become more welcoming to people, not just send them away….”
Certainly we must not send away Rabbi Alysa Stanton, or others who may follow.