The first African-American woman rabbi in the United States was ordained last weekend.
Cleveland native Alysa Stanton, 45, was one of 14 rabbis ordained Saturday, June 6 at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. She is a graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which is affiliated with the Reform movement.
Stanton, a convert and single mother to an adopted 14-year-old daughter, will take up her new pulpit as the spiritual leader of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C. later this summer. Bayt Shalom is a small Conservative congregation that two years ago also affiliated with the Reform movement.
“I think it’s terrific,” said Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation when asked her thoughts about Rabbi Stanton becoming ordained. “The Reform movement over the past couple of years has talked about outreach and the many faces of Judaism in terms of different ethnicities and races.
“It says to children within the Jewish community who may not look like ‘your traditional Jew’ that anything is possible and speaks to greater inclusion. It’s fabulous.”
Rabbi Rosenberg said she had the opportunity to meet Stanton when Rosenberg worked as a director of admissions at Hebrew Union College five years ago. Rosenberg said she didn’t know Stanton well, but found her to be very outgoing and personable.
“I am honored to be a visual presence of the ‘new face’ of Judiasm in an era for deepening our faith in humanity and strengthening our faith as Jews,” Stanton said in a release issued by Hebrew Union College. “My goals as a rabbi are to break down barriers, build bridges, and provide hope. I look forward to being the spiritual leader of an inclusive sacred community that welcomes and engages all.”
Stanton entered HUC-JIR’s rabbinical program in 2002 after a career as a licensed psychotherapist in trauma and grief, according to the HUC-JIR Web site. Stanton, who moved Lakewood, Colo. at the age of 11, comes from a Pentecostal Christian home, but converted to Judaism over 20 years ago during her college years. She would drive more than two hours each week to study with a Conservative rabbi in an Orthodox synagogue, the Web site reported. This focused determination culminated with a traditional conversion in 1987. She completed her first year at HUC-JIR’s campus in Jerusalem, followed by studies at HUC-JIR’s Cincinnati campus.
Stanton, as it turns out, was looked at for the rabbi position at Temple Emanuel, which was recently filled by Rabbi Justin Kerber. “She was a really neat lady and high on our list going into the interview process,” said Board President David Sherman III. “But in the end, it came down to finding the best fit.”
Temple Israel’s Rabbi Amy Feder, another Reform rabbi, had the chance to meet Stanton some years ago at Hava Nashira, a song leading and music conference. Like Rosenberg, Feder expressed delight at the news and added that she was surprised it had taken this long.
“It makes sense that the rabbis in our movement reflect the diverse faces we see in our congregation,” said Feder. “It’s taken a long time for the clergy to catch up to where the movement is and it’s about time it did.”
According to the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, at least 20 percent of American Jews – roughly 300,000 to 400,000 — are racially and ethnically diverse by birth and through conversion and adoption. Approximately 20,000 to 30,000 marriages between Jews and African-Americans grew out of the civil rights movement, the institute reports.
Two local Conservative rabbis, Rabbi Emeritus Bernard Lipnick at Congregation B’nai Amoona and Rabbi Mordecai Miller at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, seemed unfazed about the news.
“We’ve already gotten over the hurdle of women as rabbis in the Conservative and Reform movements,” said Lipnick. “So the newness of this is the fact that she is black. That doesn’t excite me one way or the other.
“Black Jews have been in existence for at least 3,000 years. The color of her skin is not the issue and never was for Jews. We brought much of the Jewish community of Ethiopia to Israel.
“Blacks as far as I am concerned are no different from anyone else — their effectiveness (as a rabbi) will be judged by their performance.”
Added Rabbi Miller: “The idea that it is raising eyebrows is unfortunate because it should be a non-issue. The fact that she is a woman and a person of color should make no difference. But this is a first so it becomes a big deal. I wish her mazel tov and success and beyond that, may people be colorblind.”
Not everyone within the Jewish community is embracing Stanton’s ordination as a rabbi. Within the Orthodox community, where historically women have not been permitted to become rabbis or hold leadership roles, the objection is a matter of gender, not race.
Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Landa of Chabad declined to comment about Stanton.
JTA contributed some information to this story.