When she is ordained on June 6th, Alysa Stanton will become the first African-American woman ever to be ordained as a rabbi.
A psychotherapist who converted to Judaism 20 years ago, Stanton will be ordained in Cincinnatti, where she attended HUC-JIR, the rabbinical school of the Reform movement. Although raised in a Pentecostal family, Stanton says her mother encouraged her to pursue her own spiritual path, and the social and community, as well as spiritual, aspects of Judaism appealed to her from an early age. When she joins Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, North Carolina in August, she will establish another landmark by becoming the first African-American rabbi to lead a majority white congregation. Says Stanton, "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."
There has always been a small African-American Jewish community, although it's hard to quantify since, says Lewis Gordon, founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University, black Jews have historically practiced in private, or in segregated communities where neither blacks nor Jews were particularly welcome. In the past 15 years, the black Jewish community has grown substantially. The Institute for Jewish and Community Research estimates that at least 20 percent of American Jews "are racially and ethnically diverse by birth," an increase due largely to growing rates of intermarriage, and the increasing prominence of the Reform Movement, which emphasizes diversity in the community.
It's not always an easy path. African-American converts can face prejudice from both communities. As Stanton puts it, "My Christian friends disowned me and Jews questioned." Stanton speaks of the racial bigotry her daughter experienced while she was studying in Israel, and Latesha Jones, who since her conversion in Atlanta now goes by Elisheva Naomi Chaim, says there are always congregants "that will look at me strangely because I'm black." Chaim also talks about the confusion of some members of her Christian family, including an aunt who declared she was going to hell. For some converts of mixed background, there's a definite sense of coming home, redisocvering distant roots. And for others, there's a natural kinship. One rabbi talked to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the conversion process:
He asks every convert: "Why would you ever want to be Jewish? Don't you know how many people hate us?"...The black converts respond differently, he said. They look at him as if to say: "Welcome to my world."
Stanton's ordination faces disapprobation from the Orthodox community - but due to her sex. Female rabbis are still not accepted by more religious Jews, although the first Reform female rabbi was ordained in 1974. However, for the most part, she speaks of the acceptance and openness she's experienced. Particularly moving is her account of receiving her acceptance letter to rabbinical school. Recounts the Jewish Journal, "she immediately went to pick her daughter up at the black Pentecostal church where her mother was playing the piano for choir practice. Announcing her achievement, Stanton received a standing ovation from the choir." Says the head of her new congregation, "Rabbi Stanton energized this community in a way that was really impressive, across all lines. I think that she's a special person."
Alysa Stanton Becomes First Female Black Rabbi [ABC]
A Black Woman's Journey To The Rabbinate In North Carolina [CNN]
Judaism Drawing More Black Americans [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
Rocky Road To The Rabbinate [Jewish Journal]