Growing up in a Pentecostal home in Cleveland, Ohio, newly ordained Rabbi Alysa Stanton, 45, started questioning the rudiments of Christianity at the precocious age of 9. It wasn’t, however, until her college years did she discover the path that brought her to complete awareness. Judaism for Rabbi Stanton isn’t just about religion—it’s a way of thinking, breathing, and living. After seven long years of rabbinical study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Rabbi Stanton is now the first African-American female rabbi ever in mainstream Judaism. She’s not only fulfilling a lifelong dream, she has become history in the making. Rabbi Stanton spoke to ESSENCE.com just a few days before moving to her new assignment in Greenville, North Carolina, about her journey through Judaism, some of the difficulties she has faced on the way, and her expectations as she makes the move with her 14-year-old daughter to her new congregation.
ESSENCE.COM: What does it feel like to be a part of history?
RABBI STANTON: I haven’t had time to really think about it but those little glimpses of time when I do, it’s kind of overwhelming.
ESSENCE.COM: Why did you choose to become a rabbi?
RABBI STANTON: This is my calling, my destiny. This wasn’t something I sought out to do. It wasn’t like I started out saying, “Let’s see how I can make my life more complicated.” I did it to serve my God and my people. I wish I could say that there was one specific thing, but I was a seeker from early on.
ESSENCE.COM: When did you start questioning Christianity?
RABBI STANTON: I questioned my spiritual place and it sounds weird that a 9-year-old would do that, but I knew there was something more. It just took time and it wasn’t until I was in college in my early 20’s that I realized Judaism is the language of my soul. It encompasses so many things. It’s not just a religion for me—it’s a social, ethical and moral gateway.
ESSENCE.COM: Part of your training involved living in Israel, the Holy Land, for a year. What was the experience like for you and your daughter?
RABBI STANTON: It was an eye-opener. I learned that God is still God despite difficult circumstances. The Israeli people have tremendous tenacity and can survive and flourish under opposition and diversity. I learned about the tenacity of the human spirit, but I admit it was a painful time. My daughter and I both experienced racism while we were there. She was beaten and people would ask her in Hebrew, “Why are you Black?” Her only friend for the first few months was a stray cat. How do you explain to a 7-year-old that no one wants to hold their hand because of the color of their skin? But I chose to focus on that which is good. In the midst of trials, rejection and adversity, there were people who stepped forth, helped me up when I was weak and gave me encouragement to go on to that next step. Those are the things I want to remember about Israel. We remember the pain to keep us going, but I’m not about keeping the anger and negativity.
ESSENCE.COM: What are you looking forward to the most at your new post at Bayt Shalom in Greenville, North Carolina?
RABBI STANTON: Serving my congregation. I want us all to grow, learn and worship together. I’m excited to get to know the greater Greenville community. I’ve been there twice already and I have a wonderful congregation. We’re going to start more community outreach and interfaith relationships, programming for the children and the youth, outreach to the Hillel, which is the Jewish student group on campus. So I’m going to be pretty busy.
ESSENCE.COM: Rabbi Funnye, the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, once said “I am a Jew and that breaks through all color and ethnic barriers.” Do you agree?
RABBI STANTON: I am a Jew period. People try to make my African-American, single motherhood and Jewish experience mutually exclusive. I’m all of these things. I’m a Jew and a rabbi who happens to be African-American. I’m not an African-American female rabbi. People have tried to make this into a racial thing.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think there will be more Black females to follow you as rabbis?
RABBI STANTON: I hope the floodgates will open for whoever is seeking a spiritual path whatever that spiritual path might be. If my story inspires others to seek beyond themselves to a power greater than themselves, then this journey would not be in vain regardless of what religion someone chooses.