Black woman to be rabbi

Alysa Stanton has been studying at Hebrew Union College.

CLIFTON – Alysa Stanton remembers growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland, when an uncle gave her a book of Hebrew grammar.

“The stirrings were there,” says Stanton, who grew up as a Pentecostal Christian. “It just took me a while to come home.”

After decades of searching in her spiritual life, the 45-year-old Stanton appears to be home to stay.

On June 6, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion student and Blue Ash resident will complete her studies and be ordained a rabbi at Plum Street Temple downtown.

HUC says she will be the first African-American female rabbi in the world. She’ll move this summer to start her ministry at Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C.

Stanton resists labels as a symbol, noting she has other things to worry about. Recently divorced, she has a 14-year-old adopted daughter and will carry nearly $250,000 in education debt when she leaves this summer.

“I don’t think about it a lot,” she says of her milestone. “It’s daunting. I’m honored. I’m in awe. And I have a healthy dose of reverence.”

HUC says that of more than 6 million American Jews, up to 400,000 are people of color. The college has ordained 2,942 rabbis since its founding in 1875, including 582 women since it ordained the first female rabbi in 1972.

Stanton will have more than 50 family and friends coming to the ceremonies in June. The day after her ordination she’ll receive her master’s degree in Hebrew letters from the college.

Her mother, Anne Harrison, will be among the guests and says she encouraged each of her four children to find their own spiritual home as adults.

“That was fine with me,” Harrison says. “I had no problem with that. Alysa will be excellent, because she has people at heart.”

David Weisberg, a professor of Biblical Studies at HUC, says Stanton combines scholarship with her own life experiences and a willingness to use new teaching techniques and technology in her spiritual work.

“We just did a study on Biblical dreams and she has a very interesting insight because she brought her own dreams into the picture,” Weisberg says. “I think in today’s world we need to seek new forms of expression.”

Stanton, for example, talks about the social justice mission of Reform Judaism.

“To me that means meeting people where they are,” she says. “Whatever community we are in, there are needs that have to be met.”

Stanton moved from Cleveland to Colorado when she was 11 years old. She eventually earned degrees in psychology and counseling at Colorado State University, and worked with trauma victims in a community mental health center.

Along the way, she constantly examined her own spiritual life. She started studying Judaism on her own and eventually started weekly drives from Fort Collins to Denver to study with an Orthodox rabbi before converting in 1987.

“I had explored different things,” she says. “I came to realize that Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a way of life, the sense of family, the sense of social justice. But becoming a rabbi? If someone had told me that 10 years ago, I would have laughed in their face.”

She started leading the congregation in Colorado in prayer and song as a cantor. That led others to encourage her to start rabbinical studies.

In 2002, she started her HUC studies with a year in Jerusalem in the midst of the Intifada battles in the Middle East. She remembers her daughter going to school carrying a gas mask.

Since then, she has worked in a variety of congregations and did her clinical pastoral education training at Christ Hospital in Mount Auburn. She also has been the Jewish chaplain at Crossroads Hospice in Blue Ash.

She says she’s happy to have completed what she calls “a lonely journey.”

“It was a journey,” she says. “And I’m glad this part of it is over.”
(Tags: Black, Woman, Rabbi)


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