First female Black rabbi tells her story at Pitt

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by Justin Jacobs
Special from the Jewish Chronicle

At an age when most kids are contemplating what they’ll do during recess, Alysa Stanton was contemplating which religion was right for her. She was nine when she called a priest out of the blue to discuss Catholicism; just a year later, she was flipping through a Hebrew grammar book.

Her search for a faith to call her own landed squarely on Judaism, and the born-Pentacostal Christian embraced it in a big way: she went on to become a rabbi. After being ordained last summer, she is the first Black female rabbi ever. On March 3, Stanton spoke to students at the William Pitt Union Ballroom, sponsored by the Hillel JUC, about her journey to Judaism, with a monologue called “Layers of Healing, Layers of Hope.”

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BACK TO THE BEGINNING— Rabbi Alysa Stanton dressed as a slave complete with lynch rope, begins the narrative of her life by going back to the beginning, recalling the plight of her African ancestors during slavery.

Today, her story draws interested ears around the country when she’s not at home leading Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C. But as a kid, she had no idea what stood before her.

“There was a rule in my house growing up: You have to go somewhere to worship God; didn’t matter where. I was allowed freedom to choose what was best for me,” Stanton, 46, told The Chronicle. “It sounds strange, but at nine, there was something I was looking for that I couldn’t articulate.”

She found a match in Judaism, and while studying psychology at Colorado State sought out a rabbi to help move along her formal conversion. Distance was no object, and she began “driving 144 miles a week to study with a rabbi individually,” she said, at Temple Emanuel, a Conservative congregation in Denver.

“When I did finally decide to convert, I was given a list of rabbi’s names. I prayed, and I talked to God like I’m talking to you,” said Stanton, “and a name stood out.” Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Steven Foster was soon mentoring Stanton. But she remained a fairly secular Jew, working as a psychotherapist in Colorado and raising her daughter, Shana Michaela, now 15. It wasn’t, it turns out, Jewish scripture that pushed her toward the rabbinate; rather, it was music.

“The role of a cantor—I thought that would be my nirvana, leading people to pray through music,” said Stanton. “When [my synagogue] got our first cantor, he taught me ‘trope.’ That opened the doors of my soul. I had a hunger and a thirst to learn more.”

One thing she didn’t learn right away was just how rare her situation was. When Stanton was ordained last year, she became the first female Black rabbi. It’s certainly a distinction—one that countless media outlets pounced on—but not one that clouds her main mission, which, said Stanton, is to be a rabbi first and foremost.

“I’m glad I didn’t know at the time [that I was the first]. I would’ve been scared away,” said Stanton.

Her “first ever” title may long be her most common description, but in Greenville, people seem to see through it.

“We’ve many prominent African-American female religious leaders, so that another Black female minister isn’t a surprise to people,” said Pastor William K. Neely of Greenville’s First Presbyterian Church, who has worked with Stanton on interfaith events in their town. “I don’t think when she walks in the room people say, ‘Oh, there’s that Black female rabbi.’ People just think, ‘Oh, there’s the rabbi who happens to be female and happens to be Black.’ People just see her as the rabbi.”

“As a community that’s lived in the vast diaspora of the world, we’ve always been a very eclectic group of people, especially culturally,” said Rabbi Steven J. Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the denomination in which Stanton originally studied.

Wernick said that Stanton’s distinction is important, but “it shouldn’t matter the color of her skin. It shouldn’t be a distinction, but I understand historically, intellectually and culturally it probably is.

“If we’re a light among the nations, and there are people interested in becoming a part of that light, we should welcome them,” he continued. “If someone wants to make the commitment to Jewish life and become part of this great people, we should celebrate that.”

Stanton’s congregation, which includes about 60 families, seemingly has been doing just that. Since taking over as rabbi in October 2009 at the mixed conservative/reform congregation at Bayt Shalom, Stanton said the synagogue’s religious school’s enrollment has almost doubled.

Stanton’s journey from Pentecost to Pentateuch wasn’t always an easy one.

“There were many challenges,” she said. “Moving from one culture to another, but yet maintaining integrity and my identity as a human being. A lot of people who convert, in my experience, discard the old and take on the new. But our tapestry of life and all that we are is shaped by our history.”

Stanton spoke about that history in her performance, which she said “is not a speech, but a one-woman monologue about my journey to the rabbinate, and the good and bad and ugly of some of the lessons along the way.”

Carly Adelman, a University of Pittsburgh senior and Hillel intern, who organized Stanton’s appearance, emphasized the rabbi’s importance on such a diverse campus.

“[Pitt’s] got an entire department devoted to diversity, the cross-cultural and leadership development department,” said Adelman. “And this is an individual who’s had experiences as a woman, as an African-American and as a rabbi. She exemplifies how being part of many groups can be a struggle, and how you can learn from that.”

“The response of individuals coming up [after the monologue] has been so rewarding,” said Stanton. “People say ‘You just told my story. I didn’t know there was anyone else like me.’”

(Justin Jacobs is associate editor of the Jewish Chronicle. He can be reached at justinj@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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