On June 6 of this year, Alysa Stanton was ordained the first African-American female rabbi and is scheduled to take the pulpit at Bayt Shalom in Greenville, North Carolina this August. JDate President Greg Liberman got the chance to sit down with Rabbi Stanton to congratulate her on her wonderful achievement and discuss the conversion process, interfaith marriage, relationships and more!
Greg Liberman: There are some members of our site who are not yet Jewish, who talk about their willingness to convert and their desire be part of the Jewish community. What initially drew you towards Judaism?
At the time, I was naïve; I didn’t know I’d be the first African-American woman rabbi. I didn’t know until after I was accepted and the story broke. But, if I was the 50,000th, I would still be doing it.
Rabbi Stanton: I wish I could say it was one specific moment, because it wasn’t. I look back on my life now, Greg, and I unabashedly believe in G-d, and I see the puzzle pieces. My first six years were spent in Cleveland, Ohio and then we moved into Cleveland Heights, a Jewish neighborhood. The residents had Mezuzot on their doors and we didn’t know what they were. My uncle, who was a devout Catholic, attended synagogue and wore a yarmulke, gave me my first Hebrew grammar book when I was 10 years old.
I was a seeker and as an adult I studied in England for a year during my undergraduate program. During that time, during one of the breaks, I had this urge to go work on a kibbutz, but I chickened out at the last minute. People ask me if I was born Jewish, and I say ‘Yes, but not to a Jewish womb.’ I had to make it legal, so I converted in my early 20s. But it wasn’t one certain event; I didn’t wake up one day, scratch my head and say, ‘I think I’ll become a Jew. What can I do to make life more complicated? I’ll become a rabbi.’ It wasn’t like that at all.
Greg: At what point did you decide to head down the path of becoming a rabbi?
Rabbi Stanton: I was very involved in the Denver Jewish community. I didn’t start out as a Reform Jew, so when I first walked into Temple Emanuel in Denver, heads turned. But, it wasn’t ‘What are you doing here?’ Instead, it was ‘Oh, another new face.’ And so, I came back but I was leery about Reformers until I learned that Reform Judaism was about a choice, an informed choice.
I think the turning point was when we hired our first cantor who was a woman, Regina Heit, and she taught me trope. And the first time I attended Torah, it was literally like something stirred within the depths of my being. I had a hunger, a thirst to learn more. I was already teaching religious school and music, and then I became a cantorial soloist and then a prayer chaplain. People along the way were saying, ‘You should go to rabbinical school, you should go to cantorial school,’ but I thought I was too old and didn’t have the means to uproot me and my child’s lives..
The last sign of inspiration for me was a 53-year-old man who was seeking a Melton course in Judaic studies. He was a lawyer and packed up his family and went to a Conservative seminary. At that point, it was like, Okay, open the door and point the way. So, I went to my rabbi and I got his blessing and applied. At the time, I was naïve; I didn’t know I’d be the first African-American woman rabbi. I didn’t know until after I was accepted and the story broke. But, if I was the 50,000th, I would still be doing it.
Greg: You mentioned that you adopted your daughter before starting this process. What are her thoughts on your ordination and the attention it has received?
Rabbi Stanton: She’s an old soul and she’s an amazing young woman. She’s now 14 years old. She had a traditional conversion before the ink was dry on the adoption papers because I didn’t want any questions regarding her status as a Jew. Having a rabbi as a mom has taught her to live in a fishbowl with grace.
Greg: I was sitting down with our rabbi a couple of weeks ago and he explained the regimented process in which synagogues interview people from rabbinical school. I went to law school and it sounds very similar to that interview process. At what point did Bayt Shalom become the congregation that most interested you?
Rabbi Stanton: Well, as you said, there’s a rigorous interviewing process that’s called placement where all congregations seeking rabbis and all rabbis seeking congregations converge on one campus during a 4 or 5-day period and it’s brutal. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Luckily, I was Bayt Shalom’s first choice and they were mine.
Greg: I saw that Bayt Shalom is both a Conservative and a Reform congregation. Is that the case?
Rabbi Stanton: Yes, it is duly affiliated. It was a Conservative congregation and it joined the Reform movement a couple of years ago. I’m their first Reform rabbi.
Greg: So, the Conservative members attend different services than the Reform members?
Rabbi Stanton: Hopefully we have a happy medium; we’ll have to explore. You know I come from a traditional background, so I’m able to do both and we’ll see what happens. We’ll use a little creativity.
Greg: As an African American, how do you think your unique cultural perspective will benefit you as a rabbi and your congregation?
It’s easy to like someone or love someone when they’re being good to you, but when the rubber meets the road, when things are difficult, and when there’s a crossroad or a crisis, that’s what really defines a relationship.
Rabbi Stanton: I haven’t been asked that. Good job. I’m a rabbi first and foremost, who happens to be an African-American female. I’m not an African-American female who happens to be a rabbi, and they’re not mutually exclusive. So, I don’t come from that perspective. I’m coming as a rabbi and hopefully as holistically as I can.
I happen to believe in a power greater than myself that I choose to call G-d. I had one congregant who was an atheist. His spiritual power outside of himself became a doorknob because he had to trust that the knob would turn to open the door each time he exited the room and enter into a world of spirit. So, I guess I have a kind of a unique perspective there.
Greg: In talking with folks who’ve converted to Judaism, it seems that oftentimes their families aren’t as supportive as yours have been.
Rabbi Stanton: I would be remiss to say that they weren’t surprised. I think they thought it was a phase and that I was exploring Judaism as I had explored other religions. I think by the time I got to my beth din and the mikvah, they kind of figured this is the real deal. It took some time, but they are now amazing and very supportive. In fact, I had been planning the ordination service for a long time and I bought a tallis in Israel that was very special to me. I had people come from 13 states and Canada to witness my ordination. Before the ceremony, my Pentecostal sister called me into a room and presented me with a tallis. She had worked with my rabbi and my cantor and picked one out for me.
Greg: As a rabbi and a former therapist, what advice can you give to JDaters when it comes to looking for a soul mate?
Rabbi Stanton: I believe in beshert but, I believe there is no magic when it comes to soul mates and every relationship takes work. I believe that we grow into love; not fall in love and I believe that any relationship worthwhile takes time and takes work, hard work.
Greg: What type of advice have you given people on how to foster meaningful relationships?
I shot up in bed, literally in the middle of night, and I said ‘Who am I to judge? Who am I to say someone’s union is less sacred, less holy because they are not Jewish?’
Rabbi Stanton: It’s easy to like someone or love someone when they’re being good to you, but when the rubber meets the road, when things are difficult, and when there’s a crossroad or a crisis, that’s what really defines a relationship. I encourage couples to work hard through their issues and to realize that a relationship is like fine wine or a violin; it takes time to nurture and to grow.
Greg: I’ve read that you were one of the first responders to the Columbine incident when you were a therapist.
Rabbi Stanton: Yes. Not at the high school though. What people didn’t realize is that the event had such a ricochet effect. The siblings of the students who were there and friends and family, it just went on spiraling.
Greg: What are your thoughts on interfaith marriages? Since you’ve converted yourself, I’m interested to hear your perspective.
Rabbi Stanton: I was raised in a city where there was an understanding among rabbis that no interfaith marriage would be allowed. When I came to rabbinical school, I just assumed that was how it was all over America. In Cincinnati, interfaith marriages is not only condoned, it’s encouraged and I struggled. I struggled ‘til I think it was January or February and I shot up in bed, literally in the middle of night, and I said ‘Who am I to judge? Who am I to say someone’s union is less sacred, less holy because they are not Jewish?’ It was at that moment, I decided that I would perform interfaith marriages under certain conditions. There will be guidelines. While I believe our tradition is rich and strong, we have to acknowledge the demographics and the changes that have been happening within Judaism. I would rather embrace a couple than have them leave the synagogue and our faith because they were rejected because they grew to love a non-Jewish spouse.
Greg: Thank you very much for your time. Hopefully you will officiate many JDate weddings in the future.
Rabbi Stanton: Well, thank you. Thank you very much.