Black Woman Studies to Become Rabbi

DENVER (AP) _ Alysa Stanton’s spiritual journey started in her childhood, when she and her family attended a Pentecostal church. As a young adult, she explored other religions, eventually choosing Judaism.

Now, at age 38, she is poised to take her faith another step by studying to become a rabbi _ the first black female rabbi in the United States, according to experts.

“I want to be a rabbi who breaks barriers, inspires dreams and builds bridges,” said Stanton, who is preparing to start the five-year course of study leading to ordination.

There are black rabbis in the Ethiopian Jewish community. But if Stanton completes the program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, the Reform movement’s seminary, she will be the first black woman rabbi in this country, Jewish authorities believe.

“It’s a reminder that Jews come in all colors and all ethnic groups, ” said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union.

Officials at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, and Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, based in New York, said they knew of no black female rabbis.

Stanton, a children’s psychotherapist from suburban Aurora, Colo., went to a Pentecostal church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, before her family moved to Denver when she was 10.

For two years, she studied Hebrew and Jewish thought as a psychology undergraduate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, then sought out an Orthodox rabbi in Denver for intensive study.

At age 24, she decided to convert.

“Judaism resonates,” Stanton said, “not just as a religion, but as a culture, an ethnic group.”

At first family members thought her conversion was just a phase _ and they took years to adjust. She lost Christian and black friends, who felt she was running away from God.

Stanton said it was painful to lose those friendships.

“I think people enter our lives for different reasons and when that lesson or experience is over, we have to move on,” Stanton said.

Her conversion also drew attention from fellow Jews. At some events, there were Sammy Davis Jr. jokes _ Davis also converted to Judaism _ and some people asked whether her mother was Jewish.

She considered becoming a cantor, since she plays guitar and sings, but learned Orthodox Judaism does not allow women to become cantors or rabbis.

In 1992, she began attending a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel, in Denver. She was attracted by the social activism of the Reform movement and said she immediately felt welcome in the synagogue.

“I wasn’t an oddity. I was just another new face,” she said.

Two years ago, Stanton began to consider becoming a rabbi.

She said she had an epiphany while explaining to her 7-year-old adoptive daughter that she belonged to her as surely as if she had given birth to the child. Stanton said it made her see who she was, too _ a person who had been adopted by a religion and now fit into it.

“I realized you’re not just loved and accepted but you belong,” she said.

As she became more active at Temple Emanuel, the city’s largest synagogue, people began asking Stanton if she ever considered becoming a rabbi. That, and word of older students following that path, helped quiet her own doubts that she was “too old and too poor” to do it.

In fact, she may be a better fit than she had initially thought. The seminary has become increasingly diverse, with women making up half of Hebrew Union’s classes, said Rabbi Roxanne Schneider, the school’ s admissions director.

There are more “second-career” rabbis and many of the older students are women, since the rabbinate only become an option for them in the last 30 years, Schneider said.

After getting her acceptance letter to Hebrew Union, Stanton stopped by to pick up her daughter at a Pentecostal church where her sister was directing the choir. When her sister told the group Stanton’s news, they gave her a standing ovation.

“We just stand by each other,” Stanton said of her family. “We may not all agree with what each member is doing but we support each other.”

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