First African American woman rabbi ordained

"I represent the new face of Judaism," Alyssa Stanton says.

Alysa Stanton black rabbi 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Alysa Stanton black rabbi 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Alyssa Stanton's long, spiritual journey - one that began 45 years ago - reached a milestone on Saturday when she became the first African-American woman ordained as a rabbi. Stanton, a convert who was born into a Pentecostal family in Cleveland, Ohio, was ordained at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. She graduated from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a Reform seminary, and will be installed in August as the new spiritual leader of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, South Carolina. "I feel awe and a healthy dose of fear about being the first," she told The New York Times in an interview. "I try to keep it simple. I am a Jew, and I will die a Jew." Stanton, the 45-year-old adoptive mother of a 14-year-old girl, converted to Judaism 20 years ago as a college student. She is also trained in psychotherapy with a specialty in trauma and grief. In interviews, Stanton has said that from an early age, she felt a "strong spiritual stirring." She attended a Pentecostal church in Cleveland as a child, and over the years attended a Baptist church, studied Eastern religions and participated in services with Messianic Christians who practiced Judaism and spoke in tongues. When she converted to Judaism, her Christian friends thought she'd grown horns, her African-American friends thought she'd sold out and the Jewish community was "less than welcoming," she has said. When she and her daughter lived in Israel while Stanton was at HUC, other children bullied and taunted her daughter because of the color of her skin. In recent interviews, Stanton has spoken humbly of her historic achievement. "I represent the new face of Judaism, a new era of inclusiveness," she told the JTA. Stanton has also said she tries to embrace both her Jewish and her African American identity. "I am a Jew and I am an African American. These identities are not mutually exclusive in my life," she was quoted as saying in a 2004 article on Jewish identity published by Reform Judaism Magazine. "My daughter Shana and I are both Jewish and black. We do not have to choose. We will not choose. We proudly embrace both cultures," she said. Stanton's new congregation, Bayt Shalom, is affiliated with both the Conservative and Reform movements. The congregation is mostly white. "We are a one-synagogue town, so we are trying to be inclusive," the synagogue's president, Michael Barondes, said in media reports. He said while it was "unusual" to have an African-American rabbi, Stanton's leadership felt "natural."