Diaspora Affairs: Hue and cry
Alysa Stanton. Photo: Courtesy
Last week, Alysa Stanton made history when she was ordained a rabbi, becoming the first African-American woman bestowed that title by a mainstream Jewish denomination.
A graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform seminary, the 45-year-old convert to Judaism was ordained at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati on June 6. In August, she will be installed as the new spiritual leader of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, South Carolina.
“I am humbled and I am in awe,” Stanton said of her achievement.
It was a milestone – both for Stanton and for the American-Jewish community – that was decades in the making. “It’s been a long, difficult journey,” she said. “If someone had told me I’d be a spiritual leader 15 years ago, I would have laughed.”
Indeed, her ordination comes during a particular juncture in American history, just months after the first African-American president took office.
“It is of incredible importance to note that her ordination coincides with the election of Barack Obama,” the president of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi David Ellenson, told The New York Times. “It offers a ray of hope that the world can become a better place.”
In fact, Obama’s campaign itself at times shined a light on black Jews, namely Michelle Obama’s cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye. The chief rabbi of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, an Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Chicago, Funnye struggled for years to be accepted by mainstream Jewry. He was invited to speak at a white, mainstream synagogue in New York – the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue – on the Friday night before Obama’s inauguration. “Been a long time getting here, but I’m ready,” he said at the time.
But if Funnye’s – and Stanton’s – experience represent progress toward accepting black Jews, a parallel trend has taken place, as tension has eased between the black and Jewish communities in recent years.
The two communities, whose strained relations resulted in infamous eruptions like the Crown Heights riots during the 1990s, have warmed to each other, according to Dr. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“There has been a significant improvement in relations in many ways, and I have no doubt that the Obama presidency will further improve the situation,” he said. “America has changed very profoundly. That doesn’t mean there aren’t examples of the old racism, the old stereotypes, but a very significant change has taken place. I think that’s why it’s much easier to conceive of a black rabbi serving a white congregation in the South in 2009 than might have been possible 20 years ago.”
Demographers estimate no more than 2 percent of American Jews are black or biracial. But, noted Sarna, “I do think Rabbi Stanton’s ordination reminds us that America’s Jewish community is vastly more diverse than we think.”
BORN IN Cleveland to a Pentacostal family, Stanton was a spiritual child who sought out religion at a young age. As early as age nine, in fact, she called a priest to ask about Catholicism.
“It is true that I was a seeker early on,” Stanton said. “I don’t know why, but I was.”
Over the years, she attended services at a Baptist church, prayed with charismatic Christians and studied Eastern religions.
Her first introduction to Judaism came from an uncle, whom she describes as a “world traveler,” who gave her a Hebrew grammar book that she still owns. She converted as a college student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, when she drove nearly 150 miles weekly to study with a rabbi for her conversion. “Judaism is not only a religion to me, it’s a way of life,” she said.
After college, Stanton moved to Denver, where she became a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in trauma and abuse cases. Though learning how to chant Torah portions had made her hungry for more, she had thought she was too old and couldn’t afford rabbinical school. “I look back over my life and it’s like, I don’t know if you call it providence, but the puzzles are fitting together,” she said.
Stanton, a single mother to an adoptive 14-year-old daughter, said she experienced some resistance from her friends after she converted to Judaism; her daughter was teased when they lived in Israel because of the color of her skin.
“A lot of my African-American friends thought I’d sold out; the Jewish community wasn’t as accepting then, and some Christian friends thought I had grown horns,” Stanton told the Associated Press. Feeling ostracized at times, she said, “I had to learn who I was, what my values were, and move forward.”
IN AUGUST, Stanton will be installed as the spiritual leader of Bayt Shalom, a congregation that is affiliated with both the Conservative and Reform movements. The temple’s members are mostly white.
“We are a one-synagogue town, so we are trying to be inclusive,” the synagogue’s president, Michael Barondes, has said. He said that while it was “unusual” to have an African-American rabbi, Stanton’s leadership felt “natural.”
Stanton herself takes a pragmatic, nuanced approach. “I can’t speak for all African-Americans or all Jews; I can only speak for myself,” she said. “And I can say that as a rabbi, I want to be the rabbi of the people. And it is my goal to lower barriers and build bridges, not because of color, but because of the principles of fusing humanity together. It’s not a Jewish and black issue to me, because I’m both. Through the years, people have tried to make those things mutually exclusive, and they are not.”