Rabbi-in-training breaks new ground for Judaism

Thursday, February 21, 2001 – Alysa Stanton, who is black, used to draw stares when she entered a synagogue.

Now she’s doing something truly off the charts: undergoing a five-year program to become a rabbi.

If she succeeds Stanton, 38, would become the first black woman ordained in a major branch of American Judaism, according to officials of the Reform Jewish seminary where she will study as well as other seminaries for the three main Jewish denominations that ordained women.

“I’m poor humble, excited and scared,” the 1981 Lakewood High School graduate said Wednesday.

A native of Clevelnad Heigts, Ohio, Stanton moved to Denver with her family when she was 11. She was one of three children raised by a father who was a postal supervisor and a mother who worked as a fraud investigator.

Though reared in a conservative Christian home, she said she was a precocious child and began her own religious search, looking at everything from the occult to charismatic Christianity” a branch of Christianity that practices speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy.

When she began a study of Judaism, she knew she had found home. She converted in 1987 and became one of handful of black members at Temple Emanuel, the city’s largest synagogue.

“I didn’t become a Jew in order to be ordained,” Stanton said. “Women rabbis weren’t that common then. But I guess the idea was tucked away in my mind because it did pop into my head from time to time.”

About two years ago, she couldn’t escape a feeling that the rabbinate was the right thing for her.

“When I learned to chant the Torah, my heart just leapt,” she said. “It touched my soul.”

To win acceptance at Hebrew Union College, Stanton was interviewed at the Los Angeles campus, was questioned about intent and academic training, was given a psychological test and wrote an autobiography.

Hebrew Union president David Ellenson and dean Lewis Barth issued a statement Wednesday saying they are “thrilled” at Stanton’s admission.

“This shows the universal character and inclusiveness of Judaism,” they stated.

Regina Heit, the cantor at Temple Emanuel, who has helped Stanton with Hebrew and chanting the Torah, said Stanton is bright, compassionate and caring.

“I am thrilled that she wants to be a rabbi,” she said. “It is wonderful for our congregation and for the Jewish people.”

The next five years will be rigorous, but Stanton knows how to balance work, study and her private life.

The single mother of a 6-year-old girl, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology and counseling from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She works as a psychotherapist for a mental health facility in Aurora, is learning Hebrew and can play several musical instruments.

Stanton almost had a music career. She got a music scholarship for the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley but changed her mind “when I decided I wanted music to be fun, not a job.”

She is a para-chaplain at Jewish Family Services and participated in religious services at Temple Emanuel and Beth Evergreen Synagogue.

Stanton and daughter Shana will move to Jerusalem in May to study for a year at the Israel branch of Hebrew Union College and become immersed in Jewish life, culture, history and Hebrew.

Then she will spend four years at one of the college’s U.S. campuses in Cincinnati, New York or Los Angeles and become a candidate for ordination.

Stanton’s mother is a big cheerleader for her daughter, going to services at Temple Emanuel when Stanton reads from the Torah.

“I was leery and hesitant at first” about Stanton’s switch in religions said Anne Clemmons who attends Zion Temple Pentecostal Church. ”But now I’m behind her 100 percent. I hope to visit her while she’s in Israel.”

There are fewer than 500 female rabbis in the country, and more than 350 of them are in the largest branch, the Reform movement. Judaism’s Orthodox wing doesn’t ordain women.

Officials at Hebrew Union College, which trains rabbis for the Reform branch of Judaism, and leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, which trains men and women for the Conservative branch of Judaism, said they don’t know of any other black woman to train for the rabbinate in their denominations

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, which trains candidates for the Reconstructionist wing of Judaism, the newest branch, has never had a black man or woman in training for the rabbinate, officials say.

AT the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco, officials said they knew of no black woman who has been ordained or in training to become a rabbi.

Ethiopian Jewish leaders in Chicago and New York said their organization don’t ordain women.

“I know I’m breaking down barriers,” Stanton said.” I just hope I can inspire dreams.”

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