May 2, 2002
Rocky Road to the Rabbinate
Alysa Stanton prepares to become the first black female rabbi in the United States.
When Alysa Stanton announced to her family that she planned to convert to Judaism, they thought it was just another one of her many phases. "It wasn't until my mikvah that my mom realized I was serious." Now, 15 years later, as she begins a path that will make her the first black female rabbi in the United States, her mom is not the only one taking Stanton seriously.
Ever since she received her acceptance from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's (HUC-JIR) rabbinical seminary, Stanton's life has become a whirlwind of television appearances and telephone interviews -- everything from the CBS "Early Show" to Black Entertainment Television have taken an interest in her story. But she is still overwhelmed by the media attention she is receiving: "I'm so grateful that people are supportive, but it's very confusing to me that I've made national news by being the same person that I've been the last 17 years."
Currently a licensed therapist in grief and loss in Aurora, Colo., "becoming a rabbi was just a natural progression of what I've already been doing," Stanton said. She hopes that attending HUC-JIR will "extend my knowledge base and do more of what I am doing."
Yet, while Stanton is merely doing what comes naturally to her, she also realizes that she is making history, and it hasn't always been easy. Stanton, who was raised in a Pentecostal family, had always been intrigued by other religions. "Judaism was what resonated with me. It's what touched my soul," Stanton said. Although she admits that it wasn't an "aha!" moment or dramatic epiphany that ignited her conversion, Stanton's passion for Judaism was powerful enough to make her drive 144 miles a week to meet with the rabbi who agreed to perform the ceremony.
The majority of Stanton's friends, however, did not understand or agree with her decision. "My Christian friends disowned me and Jews questioned," she said. But Stanton stuck by her philosophy that "if God created us equally, then we're going to worship God in different ways."
Understanding Stanton's determination to be a Jew, despite all odds, it's not difficult to understand why she is so taken aback by all of the support that she has recently received. "I think I've been breaking down barriers the moment I stepped out of the mikvah, but the amount of attention that it's been getting and the well-wishers have been amazing to me," she said. She doesn't deny that there will always be those who do not agree with her decision, however, now the "negative stuff that I have been getting is silence, but silence is enough from some people."
For the most part, however, the people who care about Stanton continue to stand by her. When she received her acceptance letter from HUC-JIR, she immediately went to pick her daughter up at the black Pentecostal church where her mother was playing the piano for choir practice. Announcing her achievement, Stanton received a standing ovation from the choir. "We may not agree with lifestyles or philosophies, but they love me, and I love them, and they are very supportive."