First black woman to become rabbi will reveal ‘Layers’
She’ll be the first black female rabbi ever when she’s ordained in 2009. But for Alysa Stanton, the journey is more important than making the history books.
Stanton, who is expected to graduate next spring from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, will be in Kansas City Oct. 30 to perform “Layers,” a monologue of song and story about her experiences in Judaism.
“It’s not a musical, but there are messages within the music that I utilize in ‘Layers.’ Every song or piece of poetry was put in there with thought,” she said. “The message of ‘Layers’ is about hope, tenacity and perseverance, and through those three things, we can accomplish the impossible.”
Jewish Federation Women’s Division Director Bev Jacobson invited Stanton after reading about her story.
“I would hope that anyone attending the event and hearing Alysa’s message will understand that we’re not all alike, and we all have differences, but we’re all Jews, and … it’s what unites us,” Jacobson said.
Stanton, 45, recalled that after a recent performance a women came up to her in tears, saying Stanton had told her own story.
“All I could do was hug her … no matter the race or creed or religion, people thus far have been able to relate to aspects of it. We all have layers, and I just take a few moments to share and take off some of mine for other people,” Stanton said.
Stanton grew up in Cleveland as a Pentecostal Christian. When she was 6, she moved to a neighborhood with a large Jewish population. An uncle who attended synagogue gave her her first Hebrew grammar book.
Stanton said that Judaism has always been part of her life.
“I was born Jewish but not to a Jewish womb,” she said.
She went through the conversion process when she was in college. She said she initially wanted to be a cantor.
“What a way of life – to lead people to God with prayer and music,” she said.
However, when she discussed her ambition with a rabbi she knew, he told her that, according to Orthodox tradition, a woman couldn’t lead men in prayer. Discouraged, she decided not to pursue cantorial studies but remained connected to Judaism.
When she moved to Colorado, Stanton became involved with Congregation Emanuel in Denver. There, she taught religious school and was involved in interfaith and social-justice work.
“It was one of the first synagogues that, when I walked in, it wasn’t: ‘What are you doing here?’ It was: ‘Oh, another new face,’ ” she said.
The engaging atmosphere prompted her to become even more involved, and she learned the traditional Torah-reading chant, or trope, from the cantor there.
“The first time, it was like some something deep opened within my soul. My passion and hunger for Judaism just took off,” Stanton said.
She became a cantorial soloist at another synagogue. People encouraged her to go to school to become a cantor or a rabbi, but she thought she was too old and didn’t have the finances to do so. Then, she heard about a 50-year-old man who moved with his family to study for the rabbinate and was inspired to apply herself.
“I applied to HUC and didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know if they would laugh at me,” she said.
They didn’t, and in the spring, Stanton will receive her ordination.
The journey has had ups and downs, but Stanton said her faith has helped her through the difficult times.
“When I’ve encountered situations that seem insurmountable, I’ve gone to my creator, and I’ve had many (anguished) moments regarding the racial issue and stereotypes,” she said. “I think it has given me a sense of tenacity. I have learned to think on my feet.”
Her rabbinical studies have taken seven years, due to health and other difficulties.
“For my first couple years of rabbinical school, all I wanted to do was fit in. Then, I realized that I have to acknowledge the differences I have while embracing the commonalities,” she said.
She also credits the people she’s met over the years through Judaism with helping her make it to this point.
“The best part of my experience, bar none, has been the wonderful people I have met on this journey,” she said.
She’s now looking forward to her daughter, Shana’s, Bat Mitzvah, which they’re waiting to have until after Stanton is ordained.
Alysa Stanton will perform ‘Layers’ at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 30, at the Jewish Community Campus. Subscribers to the Yad B’yad Enrichment Series and students may attend the event at no charge. Non-subscribers can pay $8 at the door.
Reservations are appreciated; call Nicole Feldman, (913) 327-8111