Post-Racial Rabbis: Alysa Stanton and other black rabbis enter the American mainstream

One of the first things that six-year-old Alysa Stanton noticed when her family moved into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was a rectangular ornament affixed to the doorpost of her new home. Her uncle Edward, a “devout Catholic who went to shul on occasion,” explained to her that it was a mezuzah. “He would wear a yarmulke sometimes,” she says, “and he knew a lot about a lot of things.” A few years later her uncle, who spoke eight languages, gave her a Hebrew grammar book, which she still has.

This fleeting introduction to Judaism set Stanton—the granddaughter of a Baptist minister and daughter of a Pentecostal Christian—on a journey that led her to convert to Judaism 18 years later. Stanton, now 45, recently passed another milestone on her spiritual journey. On June 6 in Cincinnati’s historic Plum Street Temple, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, making her the movement’s first African-American rabbi and the first African-American woman ordained by a mainstream Jewish denomination.

The path she took to get there was challenging. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and she moved with her mother and siblings to Lakewood, Colorado, 10 miles west of Denver. In Lakewood’s largely white schools, she faced discrimination. “When I was 12, I was spit on and called the n-word,” she says. “I was chased with sticks one Halloween, and my friends defended me.”

There was also her personal search for religion. Her mother is a staunch Christian who played piano at Zion Temple Pentecostal Church, where her sister is still the choir director. But Stanton longed for something else. She once contacted a priest to learn about Catholicism and briefly considered eastern religions and kabbalah. While majoring in psychology at Colorado State University, she attended services at Hillel. By the time she was 24, she was commuting 140 miles to and from Denver each week to study with a Conservative rabbi, and her search was over. “Once I had the questions answered within my own heart, I just knew, and I decided to convert to Judaism,” she says. “People ask me if I was born Jewish, and I say, yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I had to make it legal.”

She converted in 1987. Her mother and siblings quickly accepted her decision, although, she says, “none are running to the mikvah.” But many of her friends and fellow Jews were suspicious. “It was unusual in that I wasn’t converting because of marriage but because of spiritual reasons,” says Stanton. “My Christian friends thought I’d grown horns and some of my African-American friends thought I had sold out. And the Jewish community wasn’t as welcoming as it is today, either. It was a very difficult period.”

In the mid-’90s, Stanton adopted an infant daughter, Shana, and became a therapist, working briefly with students at Columbine High School after the 1999 shooting rampage. But she felt a calling to become a rabbi. Eliot Baskin, who knew her from his days at CSU’s Hillel, remembers Stanton approaching him about rabbinical school options. He encouraged her to apply to his alma mater, Hebrew Union College, and she took his advice. “I did not know when I got accepted to HUC that I would be the first African-American woman rabbi in the world,” she says. She enrolled in 2002.

Last year, Gershom Sizomu was ordained by the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. A member of Uganda’s Abayudaya community, he returned home to his country to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as chief rabbi.

But unlike Sizomu, Stanton will not be leaving the country or leading a black congregation. In August, she will assume the pulpit at Congregation Bayt Shalom, a largely white synagogue of about 60 families in Greenville, North Carolina. That she has already lined up a job even in tough economic times is noteworthy, says Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna. “Certainly when the first white women were ordained in the 1970s, they had trouble getting jobs.” But with Barack Obama’s election as president, says Sarna, it is no longer “unimaginable” for someone with black skin to become a rabbi in a mainstream synagogue. “Suddenly, it doesn’t shock us that a white congregation in the South would have an African-American rabbi.”

Stanton’s placement comes on the heels of sweeping changes in American Judaism, which—like America itself—has become more accepting of its minorities. Today, anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 American Jews are black, according to Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to grow the Jewish people by drawing Jews of diverse backgrounds into the mainstream. Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy who directs Temple University’s Center for Afro-Jewish studies, says of Stanton, “I think hers is a glorious step forward for the Jewish community, African-American communities of all backgrounds and in the end, everyone, as humanity attempts to reach out and rise to higher standards.”

 

Stanton may be a new face in the mainstream rabbinate, but black rabbis have a long history in America. To Gordon, the very notion of a “black rabbi” is a nebulous modern distinction, particularly as a deeper understanding of genetics displaces earlier conceptions of race. There are Jews of all stripes, he says, “who are publicly known as white people but who in older times would have been known as ‘mulattoes’ or in some cases, given today’s term, ‘biracial.’” Thus, there may “already have been some technically African-American Jewish rabbis.”

Most of those identified as “black rabbis” in the past century, however, are spiritual leaders of black Jewish congregations with Christian roots or practices. Many fall under the umbrella of the Hebrew Israelite community—a term that describes blacks who see themselves as the descendants of the ancient Israelites. The best known is Rabbi Capers Funnye, a Chicago-based cousin of First Lady Michelle Obama, who leads one of America’s largest black synagogues, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. Funnye estimates that there are approximately 50,000 to 60,000 Hebrew Israelites in the world, including the 2,500-strong Black Hebrew community in Dimona, Israel.

The Hebrew Israelite movement arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly in the Jim Crow South, out of a desire by African-Americans to find a more authentic identity at a time when they perceived America to be both Christian and white. The movement’s theology was influenced by the widespread Protestant belief that Jews would have to resettle the Holy Land before the end-times prophecies could come to fruition. By describing themselves as descendants of the Israelites, explains anthropologist James Landing in his book Black Judaism, “the early black Jews made themselves the Jews that would have to be returned to the Holy Land: therefore an indispensable part of the divine plan.”

Many early black Jews practiced hybrid versions of Judaism and Christianity. The Church of God and Saints of Christ, for example, founded by William Saunders Crowdy in 1896 in Kansas, still exists. According to its website, it adheres to “biblical Judaism,” but also believes that Jesus—and Crowdy himself—were prophets. Today, led by a descendant of Crowdy, it has dozens of churches and thousands of adherents across the world, and calls itself “the oldest African-American congregation in the United States that adheres to the tenets of Judaism.”

As black Judaism migrated to urban centers like Chicago and New York it became more orthodox, writes Landing, adopting “Jewish cultural practices, rituals, and ceremony, often accompanied with an anti-Christian bias and the exclusion of basic Christian beliefs.” The Commandment Keepers, a congregation founded by Wentworth Matthew in Harlem in 1919, became its hub. In 1925, Matthew established the Ethiopian Hebrew Rabbinical College, renamed the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in 1970. The school has ordained 46 rabbis—including Funnye—since its founding.

The self-ordained Matthew saw blacks as the original Jews, but his Judaism nonetheless had more in common with conventional white synagogues than Crowdy’s. He retained some unusual beliefs, such as the idea that white Jews are descended from the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic tribe based in the northern Caucasus that is said to have converted en masse to Judaism over a thousand years ago. However, he took several important steps, including the rejection of Jesus. Despite the efforts of his friend Irving Block, a Conservative New York rabbi, Matthew was denied admission to the New York Board of Rabbis and B’nai B’rith, and the community remained separate from the world of white Jewry. Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, the current president of the more than half-century-old International Israelite Board of Rabbis—which Funnye says represents perhaps a third of all the Hebrew Israelites—recently wrote that since Matthew’s death in 1973, “there has been virtually no dialogue between white and black Jews in America.”

Funnye, who has a commanding presence and a deep, resonant voice, has made it his mission to jumpstart that dialogue. Born to a Methodist family, he flirted briefly with Islam and was initially drawn to Judaism by Chicago Rabbi Robert Devine of the House of Israel Congregation. Turned off by Devine’s beliefs that Africans were the real Israelites and that Jesus was the messiah, he soon discovered Rabbi Levi Ben Levy of the Israelite Rabbinical Academy—father of Sholomo—and after five years of study was ordained in 1985.

His initial forays into the American Jewish community were tepidly received. “The most anti-Semitism that I have faced has come from within the Jewish community,” he wrote in 2003. Funnye responded by redoubling his efforts, working hard and earnestly to prove his congregation’s legitimacy. Like many of those affiliated with the Israelite Rabbinical Academy—there are eight synagogues, seven in the U.S. and one in the Caribbean—he prefers the term “Jew” to “Israelite.” Funnye, who describe his congregation as “conservadox,” underwent a formal conversion to Judaism in 1985 and requires all of his congregants to do the same.

In 1997, Funnye broke new ground when he became an “associate” member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. While his official title left something to be desired—it was created specifically for him—Funnye felt that he was on equal footing with his peers. Last year, shortly before Obama’s election, the word “associate” was quietly removed from Funnye’s title, just in time for him to burst onto the national scene.

In April, The New York Times Magazine profiled him, emphasizing his bridge-building prowess and desire to integrate the Hebrew Israelite community into the Jewish mainstream. “The media has done an excellent job,” Funnye jokes. “If we had tried to pay for the amount of media coverage that our congregation has received in the past couple of years, trust me, we wouldn’t have a building. We’d be standing outside.”

While “Christian Judaism” remains common among black Jewish synagogues, some have gradually aligned themselves with the larger American Jewish community. At the same time, that community has begun to embrace diversity in an unprecedented manner. “The doors are opening wider every day,” says Funnye. “There is a growing acceptance in the broader Jewish community for the black Jewish movement. The more that’s understood, the more the broader community sees that there’s no difference.” But Funnye’s success—he has at this point been almost universally recognized as a rabbi by liberal Jewish movements, as well as by many more traditional groups—has not yet been duplicated.

Worlds away in Philadelphia’s middle class African-American West Oak Lane neighborhood is a black-Jewish congregation that has only been headed by women. Indeed, when Hebrew Union College announced that Stanton was to become the world’s first female African-American rabbi, Debra Bowen was bemused. The 63-year-old rabbi of Temple Beth’El has been behind the pulpit since 2001. She became rabbi when her predecessor—and mother—passed away. Louise Elizabeth Dailey, the synagogue’s founder, had served as its spiritual leader for 50 years.

Born into a Baptist family in Maryland—her father was a minister—Dailey was working as a housekeeper for a Jewish family in Philadelphia when she recognized that she had a deep spiritual—and, she believed, historical—connection to Judaism. She decided to observe the Sabbath on Saturdays and to keep kosher, and soon began holding weekly services in her living room. When the crowd grew too large, the group decided to build a synagogue. “My mother had the ability to break down Torah and simplify it,” says Bowen. “She could quote Torah chapter and verse—and she reached people.”

Under Dailey, the congregation wasn’t interested in becoming part of the white Jewish world. Back in the 1950s, “people of color who practiced Judaism were painted in a very negative light,” says Bowen, who recalls that publishers refused even to send prayer books to the congregation. “The doors were closed until we met Rabbi Greenberg.” In the mid-1990s, the revered Conservative rabbi and author Sidney Greenberg, discovered Temple Beth’El near his former home. “He went in and he kept coming back,” says Bowen. “He was extremely instrumental in introducing us to mainstream Judaism, he declared that we were Jews, and helped us acquire siddurim (prayer books).”

Since Bowen took over, Beth’El has deepened its connections to the broader Jewish community. About four years ago, the synagogue was able to order siddurim directly from the publisher for the first time. And earlier this year, the synagogue received its first Torah from Israel—something that it had previously been unable to obtain due to questions about its authenticity. “I feel like the times are changing, that Jews are finally ready to accept us and the fact that Judaism is not monolithic,” says Bowen. “There are different ways to practice Judaism. The commonality is that we believe in one God, and there are too few of us to spend time fighting each other.”

The congregation’s integration into the mainstream has coincided with its shedding of Christian rituals. Some critics still refer to it as a congregation “in transition.” But Jon Cutler, a Reconstructionist rabbi who teaches a class called “Jews on the Fringes” at Gratz College, a transdenominational Jewish school in Philadelphia, says that “a good 90 percent of its [several hundred] members are truly Conservative Jews in keeping kosher and Shabbat.”
Cutler held several joint services with Bowen and her congregation while serving as rabbi of Tiferes B’nai Israel in Warrington, Pennsylvania, and is very enthusiastic about the synagogue. So is Rabbi Carol Harris-Shapiro, another Philadelphia-based Reconstructionist rabbi and a professor at Temple University, who brings students to hear Bowen talk about her Jewish identity. She says that the services “incorporate traditional Sabbath liturgy and Torah-reading mixed with inspiring African-American traditions” and create a “spiritually powerful and uplifting worship experience.”

Bowen is proud that Beth’El is thriving. “I’m not in a position to tell mainstream Judaism how to behave,” she says, “but at some point they’re going to wake up and realize that we are growing and having children and raising them Jewishly. Mainstream Judaism is not growing as rapidly as we are,” she says. “Every Saturday at our synagogue, 20 to 30 children under the age of 10 get up and sing Adon Olam like you’ve probably never heard it. It’s Jewish soul,” she says. “They rock the house.”

 

While Louise Elizabeth Dailey was alive, she didn’t refer to herself as a rabbi. Most of her congregants called her “Mother Dailey.” But before she died, Dailey ordained Bowen as a rabbi, an act that has stirred debate within the mainstream Jewish community.

Dailey did not have an opportunity to receive a formal ordination: Mainstream rabbinical schools would not have recognized her as Jewish, and to this day the Israelite Rabbinical Academy, like Orthodox yeshivas, does not ordain women. The academic door has also been closed to Bowen, who audited six classes between 2003 and 2005 at Pennsylvania’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which she says was “very welcoming and open to me.” In order to matriculate, though, Bowen would have had to convert. “But that’s like asking me to become black,” she says. “I already am."

Bowen believes that because her mother and her ancestors were Jewish, there is no need for her to convert. Like Funnye, she prefers the word “reversion.” “We don’t use the C-word,” she says. “We practice teshuva. You study, you make a declaration that you want to return to your heritage, and then you go to the mikvah. If you are a man, you have a circumcision.” Bowen compares conversion to “being adopted. It means that you’re a Jew, but not a real Jew because you don’t have the DNA,” she says.

In addition to the conversion issue, there are those who question whether her ordination is valid. Traditionally, smicha—the transmission of rabbinical authority—was passed from one rabbi to another, following the model of Moses, who brought Joshua before the Israelite community and ordained him. Today, most rabbis receive smicha from rabbinical schools, but it is only recently “that the formal processes of ordination, mimicking what is done among the Christians in their seminaries, have made their way into Judaism,” says Temple University’s Gordon. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis points out that “the effort to professionalize the rabbinate was very important” because in the 19th century, there were “many people who carried the title of rabbi but who neither had the knowledge nor met the standards to be rabbis and who brought all of Judaism into disrepute.”

In addition to Bowen, other African-Americans have become rabbis in the traditional way. Rabbi Eli Aronoff, a longtime member of Temple Beth’El who leads Temple Beth Emet, a multicultural and multiracial congregation that holds weekly services at the historic Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, DC, was ordained by the renowned Orthodox rabbi and mohel, Morris Shoulson, of Philadelphia. “I was with Rabbi Shoulson in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” he says. “At some point he said, ‘Okay, you’re good to go now, get on out there and serve your [African-American] community.’” Like Funnye, Aronoff formally converted to Judaism, making it difficult for anyone to question his standing as a Jew.

Even in the white Jewish community, says Carol Harris-Shapiro, rabbi-to-rabbi ordinations are making a comeback. “Some Jewish Renewal rabbis in the recent past have received smicha directly from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” she says.

Rabbi Kenneth Ehrlich, the dean of Hebrew Union College’s Cincinnati campus, was surprised to learn of Bowen. While wishing her success, he stressed the importance of rabbinical training through an institution. “It’s very difficult to get the depth and breadth of scholarship and the skill set that a rabbi has to have under the tutelage of only one rabbi,” he says.

Bowen had “a different kind of education,” counters Harris-Shapiro. “She inherited this congregation from her mother and she has gotten a pastoral education from the time she was very young that’s probably second to none.” While Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), affirms the importance of formal training for rabbis, he also thinks other factors are more important. Last year, against the recommendations of some colleagues, he invited Bowen and her congregation to JOI’s annual conference. Rabbi Bowen, he says, “is leading a congregation of hundreds of souls. It’s a powerful group of people who have a deep commitment to Judaism as religion and as people. I don’t want to be among the people that do to Bowen what others do to me,” he adds, speaking of those in the Orthodox world who reject rabbis from more liberal denominations.

The question boils down to community recognition, says Jonathan Boyarin, a professor of modern Jewish thought at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “For an anthropologist like me,” he says, “a rabbi is someone who is recognized as such by others.” Jon Cutler of Gratz College says that Stanton “is the first African-American female rabbi from a ‘movement’ point of view,” but that “from a broader Jewish context, Debra Bowen has been a rabbi for a long time. And her mother, too.”

Aronoff counsels mainstream Jews to be sensitive to unique cases like Bowen’s. “When the doors are necessarily closed to you by the proverbial gatekeepers—and there have been many people in the past who were not afforded the opportunity to attend mainstream rabbinical colleges—what do you do?” he asks. “Do you say, well, we can’t practice our religion because someone won’t let us in their schools? Of course not. Because at the end of the day it really isn’t about what school you attended or didn’t attend. It’s about a certain God and practicing our way of life.”

 

Debra Bowen is proud of Alysa Stanton’s “remarkable accomplishment.” As for Stanton, she doesn’t think of herself as a trailblazer. “I’m not here to reconstruct Judaism or create an offshoot of Judaism—I’m a Reform rabbi,” she says.

But whether she likes it or not, her ordination symbolizes, as her friend Eliot Baskin quips, a “paradigm shift to re-Jew-vinate Judaism.” It’s a sign that Jews are no longer afraid of allowing people viewed as outsiders into the tribe. “I don’t think that people who are entering our community from the outside are entering to undermine it,” says JOI’s Olitzky. “They’re entering in order to enrich it.”

Baskin believes that Alysa Stanton’s uniqueness will be just that, enriching: “As a woman, as a single parent, as an African-American, Stanton’s going to be able to reach out to so many new people to bring them back to Judaism,” he says. “I think her congregation is indeed going to be blessed.”

Like any new rabbi, Stanton is looking forward to stepping into the pulpit after years of preparation. She’s especially excited about Congregation Bayt Shalom, which is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements. “I was their first choice, they were my first choice,” she says. “It’s a growing, vibrant community. The congregation is inclusive, there are interfaith families and there are lots of children, there’s a major university and a Level-1 trauma center there, so there’s opportunity for growth,” she says. “And it’s an hour and a half from the beach!”

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