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CINCINNATI – A woman will be ordained as what is believed to be mainstream Judaism’s first black female rabbi next month.
Alysa Stanton is to lead a predominantly white congregation of about 60 families in Greenville, North Carolina, after her June 6 ordination.
Stanton was living in a Jewish neighborhood of suburban Cleveland when she began her spiritual quest in childhood, considering some Christian and Eastern religions before converting to Judaism in her 20s.
“It has been a journey with many twists and turns along the way, but Judaism is the language of my soul, and it’s what resonates with me,” the 45-year-old Stanton said.
Yet Stanton didn’t always feel accepted by Jewish congregations or some friends after she converted.
“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,” said Stanton, who had been a Christian.
“I felt ostracized at times, but I had to learn who I was, what my values were and move forward.”
Congregation Bayt Shalom in North Carolina eagerly awaits her arrival.
“We needed someone who is a magnet, who radiates warmth,” said member Carol Ogus Woodruff, 54. “She brings a scholarly awareness but also has great relationships with kids and can talk to different kinds of people.”
Questions about race or gender never arose at Congregation Bayt Shalom, congregation President Michael Barondes said. Stanton’s ability to listen and to communicate with others immediately impressed members.
Stanton, who worked as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief, loss and trauma, thought she was too old and too poor to start rabbinical studies at age 38. But she believed it was meant to be.
She enrolled in 2002 at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the United States’ oldest institution for training rabbis, cantors and educators of Reform Judaism.
She believes her future is in God’s hands but isn’t satisfied with the world as it is, said Rabbi Kenneth Ehrlich, campus dean.
“She deeply believes that God calls upon her – and upon all of us – to make this a better world, a place that God wants it to be,” Ehrlich said, referring to Stanton’s work with a hospice and other community activities.
Her ordination is a politically significant and healthy step in the next stage of Judaism’s development in America, said Lewis Gordon, founder of the Institute of Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. Many believe it could draw more women and blacks to the rabbinate and other leadership roles.
A check of major seminaries in mainstream Judaism show 994 women rabbis will have been ordained as of the end of 2009. And several experts said they know of only one ordained black male rabbi in mainstream Judaism.
Stanton said she is happy to be a face that reflects diversity.
“I want our synagogue to be a place of hope, healing and inclusion,” she said. “I want it to be an oasis for anyone seeking spiritual refreshment.”
Associated Press – May 29, 2009
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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