Cleveland Heights native Alysa Stanton, an African‑American woman
who converted from Christianity to Judaism two decades ago, is
about to change the course of world history.
The 45‑year‑old single mother of an adopted teenage daughter recently
completed rabbinical school and is about to become the first ever
black female rabbi, experts say.
Born: Cleveland, lived in Cleveland Heights
Achievement: First black women to be ordained a rabbi.
Education: Bachelor's degree in psychology; master's
in counseling and multiculturalism; and a master's in
On God: "I don't believe one has to warm a pew to be religious or spiritual.
I can find God in the mountains, in the trees, in the smile of a baby. My God
is too big to be boxed in."
Stanton will be ordained June 6 in Cincinnati where she graduated from
Hebrew Union College‑Jewish Institute of Religion.
She has already secured a job at a synagogue in North Carolina.
Scholars believe Stanton will be the first black clergy woman in the history of a religion that traces its roots back thousands of years to Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism first began ordaining women in
the 1970s and 1980s. But no black woman has been ordained until now.
"I try not to think about it," Stanton said in a telephone interview from Cincinnati
this week. "It's daunting. I'm taking it with a sense of awe and reverence. And a
healthy dose of fear. I try not to focus on being the first. I focus on being the best
‑‑ the best human being, the best rabbi I can be."
Stanton was born in Cleveland and lived in Cleveland Heights, attending Boulevard Elementary School, until she was 11 when her family, Pentecostal Christians, moved
to Denver. It was in Cleveland Heights, she said, where she began a spiritual quest, sampling various Christian denominations, but eventually coming to Judaism.
"I believe I was born Jewish, but not of a Jewish womb," she said. "I had to make
Stanton said she was attracted to the culture, creed and social justice work of Judaism. "It involves more than worship," she said. "It's a way of life."
In 1987, she converted, becoming one of the few black members of Denver's largest synagogue, Temple Emanuel, where she taught religion and was a cantor. With academic degrees in psychology and counseling from Colorado State University in
Denver, Stanton worked as a psychotherapist before enrolling in Hebrew Union College
in 2002. She studied in Israel her first year.
"It's been quite a journey," she said, noting that along the way she amassed
$250,000 in student loan debt.
Asked whether she still carries remnants of Christianity, she quickly responded: "I'm
a Jew. But the fabric of our lives ‑‑ each thread ‑‑ hones us into who we are. My mom, for example, gave me the undeniable, unshakable faith in God. That didn't change by
my becoming a Jew. My history makes me the rabbi that I am. I want to help people
in their spiritual journey whatever that may be."
Joking, she added, "Some of my best friends are Christians."
Stanton is one of 43 rabbinical students who graduated this year from the three campuses ‑‑ New York, Los Angeles and Cincinnati ‑‑ of Hebrew Union. Â Only about
half of them have found work. Because of tough economic times, school officials say, congregations are contributing less money, forcing synagogues to tighten budgets.
Large congregations are going without assistant rabbis. Small congregations are merging. And shrinking retirement funds are forcing veteran and retired rabbis to keep working, crimping the job market.
"I am blessed," said Stanton, who, on August 1, will become rabbi of Bayt Shalom
in Greenville, N.C., a 53‑family congregation affiliated with both the Conservative and Reform movements.
"I was their first choice," she said. "They were my first choice."
The irony of a black woman presiding over a white congregation in the deep south is not lost on Stanton. "God has a sense of humor," she said.
Rabbi David Weisberg, who taught Stanton Biblical studies at Hebrew Union, said he was confident his student will do well wherever she goes. "She's a good teacher and she brings lots of faith," he said. "I hope some day we won't be concerned whether people are black or white, but what they contribute to the community. Alysa makes a big contribution to the community of humanity."
Stanton's ordination has drawn widespread media attention from dozens of news outlets as far away as England and Israel. And the buzz is traveling quickly throughout the Jewish community worldwide. Jewish scholars Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University
and Ori Z. Soltes of Georgetown University, both told The Plain Dealer they know of no evidence of a black female ever being ordained a rabbi. "It's very exiting," said Soltes.
Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood said Stanton was treated like a celebrity when she came to his temple in January last year for a Martin Luther King Day service. "People were fascinated," he said. "She is a special lady. She's very charismatic. As a preacher, she has some wonderful stylistic skills and deliveries that will grab people."
More than 50 friends and relatives from 12 states and Canada are going to Cincinnati to celebrate Stanton's ordination. Her mother, Anne Harrison, 79, and daughter, Shana Michaela Stanton, 14, will be there. So will the press.
"I'm living in a fishbowl," said Stanton, longing to be out of the limelight. "But that comes with the honor I've been given. Up until now I've avoided interviews. But now it's celebratory time and it's nice to be able to spread a little hope, inspiration and joy."