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Alysa Stanton ordained as first African-American female rabbi

June 6, 2009
Rabbi Alysa Stanton with Gail Reimer
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Rabbi Alysa Stanton and Gail Reimer at the White House reception for Jewish American Heritage Month 2010

Alysa Stanton became the world's first African-American female rabbi when she was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati on June 6, 2009.

Alysa Stanton was raised in a Pentecostal Christian home in Cleveland, Ohio. She was first exposed to Judaism as a child while living in a Jewish neighborhood in suburban Cleveland Heights. Stanton's mother had always encouraged her to explore different religions, and Stanton became especially drawn to Judaism, receiving her first Hebrew grammar book from her devout Christian uncle at age 10. After moving to Colorado, Stanton became increasingly serious about Jewish learning and, during her college days, drove over 140 miles every week between Fort Collins and Denver to study with a Conservative rabbi in an Orthodox synagogue. She eventually had a traditional conversion in 1987.

Stanton didn't always feel accepted by the Jewish community or by her African-American Christian friends. She encountered racial prejudice while studying in Israel and experienced the discomfort many American Jews felt worshiping beside a non-white person in synagogue. At the same time, many of her African-American Christian friends felt that she had "sold out" or "grown horns" as a result of her decision to convert to Judaism.

Not surprisingly, it was a long time before she thought seriously about the rabbinate. She studied social psychology, neuropsychology, and interpersonal relationships at Lancaster University in England in 1983-84; received a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology in 1988; earned a Master of Education degree in counseling and multiculturalism in 1992 from Colorado State University; and received a professional counselor license in 1998.

In 2002, Stanton began her rabbinic training at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem and then in Cincinnati; she served as a chaplain, received clinical pastoral training, and promoted interfaith dialogue at Reform communities in the United States.

A single mother of an adopted daughter, in August 2009, Alysa Stanton became the rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom, a predominantly white congregation of about 60 families in Greenville, North Carolina, affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements. "My goals as a rabbi are to break down barriers, build bridges and provide hope," Stanton told CNN. "I look forward to being the spiritual leader of an inclusive sacred community that welcomes and engages all." Rabbi Stanton served as the rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom until July, 2011.

See also: "Mazel Tov, Alysa Stanton!" and "Women front and center at this celebration of Jewish American Heritage," and "Alysa Stanton, First Black Female Rabbi, Will Leave N.C. Congregation," Jewesses with Attitude.

Sources: abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=7639090; www.mercurynews.com/ci_12478024; www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/05/21/north.carolina.black.rabbi/; http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/134486/alysa-stanton-first-black-female-rabbi-will-leave/

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Alysa Stanton ordained as first African-American female rabbi." (Viewed on April 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/06/2009/alysa-stanton>.