Piqua rabbinic intern on track to be first African-American female rabbi

Alysa Stanton profile

By Sue Fishkoff, JTA

Alysa Stanton isn’t particularly interested in being a standard-bearer.

Alysa Stanton

She’s proud to be black, proud to be a woman and proud to be a 45-year-old single mother who raises her adopted child on her own.

And when she says that on June 6, following her ordination in Cincinnati as a Reform rabbi, she will become the first black female rabbi, the huge grin on her face lets folks know she feels pretty good about that, too.

“I represent the new face of Judaism, a new era of inclusiveness,” she says. “I’m honored to have this opportunity, and I’m thankful to my God for making it happen.”

Stanton, who completes her studies at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, served as rabbinic intern to Temple Anshe Emeth in Piqua for the 2008-09 year.

She says she didn’t set out to be the first. It just kind of happened, like so much else in her life.

“If I were the 50,000th, I’d still be doing what I do, trying to live my life with kavanah and kedusha,” she says, using the Hebrew words for intentionality and holiness. “Me being first was just the luck of the draw.”

As a convert and as a Jew of color, she’s had to fight for success and acceptance in a world that wasn’t always welcoming.

Among her goals as a rabbi, she says, are breaking barriers, building bridges and giving hope.

Like many rabbinic students now, Stanton is on her second career. She came to the rabbinate as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss issues.

Stanton worked with trauma victims in Colorado for 16 years, at the same time becoming more active in Denver’s Temple Emanuel.

She has served the synagogue as a para-chaplain, religious-school teacher and cantorial soloist.

Raised by Pentecostal parents, Stanton spent her childhood and young adulthood as a spiritual seeker, making the rounds of various Christian denominations before finding her home in Judaism. She converted more than 20 years ago.

“People look at me and ask if I was born Jewish,” she says. “I say yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I believe I was at Sinai. It’s not as if one day I scratched my head and said, ‘Hmm, now how can I make my life more difficult? I know, I’ll become Jewish!’”

About 20 percent of American Jews are racially or ethnically diverse, according to the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research, yet they are greatly underrepresented at the community’s leadership level.

There are a handful of African-American congregational presidents, but none who are rabbis of majority-white congregations. Stanton will be the first.

Stanton made her choice to join the Jewish community as an adult, well aware of the difficulties that might arise.

Her daughter, Shana, now 14, didn’t get to choose; she was dipped in the mikvah as an infant.

The year they spent in Jerusalem, Stanton’s first year as an HUC student, was the most difficult. Shana, then 7, faced daily prejudice at school.

“She was beat up, and once was literally kicked off the bus,” her mother says with quiet anger. “We’d been in Israel three months and her only friend was a cat.”

One day, Shana came home from camp beaming because one of the other children held her hand.

“‘Nobody ever holds my hand, Mommy,’ she said to me,” Stanton recounts. “I said, why? She said, ‘Because I’m shochor,’” or black.

“Ani lo tov, ani lo yafah,” the little girl told her mother, using the Hebrew for “I’m no good, I’m not pretty.”

Even telling the story now, years later, Stanton shakes her head.

“Sometimes I’ve been in tears with what I have put this child through,” she says.

Stanton relates some of the difficulties of her life’s journey in a monologue she created called Layers.

First performed at a conference of Reform religious-school educators, the piece opens with her standing on stage with her head in a noose, a shocking evocation of slavery.

The monologue deals with her journey to Judaism and other major changes in her life, including a recent weight loss of 122 pounds.

Pulling out an old picture of herself at her former weight, Stanton shakes her head again.

Is she really no longer that person? Is she really about to become a rabbi?

It’s all so remarkable, she muses.

At the end of one performance, she says, a woman came up to her in tears, saying, “You told my story, thank you.”

“It’s those moments,” Stanton says, her voice trailing off as she smiles. “Even though the journey is long and the path difficult, if I can provide someone with a little hope and a sense of purpose, it’s worthwhile.”

It’s experiencing those moments that she is most looking forward to as a rabbi.

“That moment, that ‘a-ha, I’m not alone’ that comes when I’m talking with a congregant or an individual struggling with something and I’m helping them find a solution,” she says, “that a-ha moment is what it’s about for me.”

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.

“I look forward to embracing the commonalities we share,” she says with some delicacy.
Asked whether any Jews of color belong to her new congregation, Stanton jokes, “Yes, me and Shana.”

But, she adds quickly, there are many intermarried families, so there is outreach work to be done.

Meanwhile, Stanton is packing up her Cincinnati home for her June move to North Carolina.

“I knew this day would come, and Baruch Hashem (bless God), it’s here.”

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