From British daily The Guardian:
Another first for a black American: the female rabbi breaking down barriers
Ed Pilkington in Cincinnati
Monday 15 June 2009
In 2001, three years before Barack Obama came to national prominence, Alysa Stanton embarked on her own audacious journey. She spoke about breaking barriers, building bridges and providing, calling on people to focus on their similarities rather than differences.
Now that stage of her journey has reached its end, with Stanton attaining the distinction of being the first black woman in America to become a mainstream Jewish rabbi. History was made last week at her ordination in the Plum Street temple in Cincinnati, one of the oldest synagogues in the US.
Parallels leap out between her journey and Obama’s. She is 45, he 47. They both straddled racial and communal lines. They both faced hurdles and brickbats along the way.
In her case, her decision to enter rabbinical school in 2001 broke multiple taboos. On top of the age-old tensions between Christian — the religion of her birth — and Jew, were the bubbling hostilities between African Americans and largely white American Jews.
Even at the ordination ceremony the tensions were on display. Her adopted daughter Shana was reduced to tears by a group of white Christian protesters outside the temple taunting her and making disparaging remarks.
Last week Stanton received a letter. Inside was a tract that read “Last rite” above a picture of a coffin. “There are some sick puppies out there,” Stanton said, speaking at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati where she took her rabbinical studies. “But my God is bigger. I will not be boxed in.”
She spent the first 11 years of her life in the midwestern state of Ohio, then moved to Colorado. Her parents were Pentecostal Christians but from the age of nine she can remember looking for something else. “I was a seeker, a different kind of kid. I knew it, my family knew it.”
She experimented with many religions — Catholicism, eastern practices, Messianic Christianity where congregants speak in tongues. Though she spent some of her childhood living in a white Jewish neighbourhood in Cleveland Heights, her discovery of the religion came later.
She was attracted to it she says because Judaism encompasses not just religion but also spiritualism, social justice and community. She began converting to the faith in 1987, driving 144 miles every week to a synagogue in Denver.
The late 80s and early 90s were a period of great tension between Jews and black people. The two communities had a history of working together, particularly in the civil rights period when many young Jews campaigned alongside black protesters. Some 20,000 marriages between Jews and African-Americans grew out of the movement.
But by the late 80s relations had soured. … Stanton found herself in the middle of much distrust on both sides. On the black side, America has a long tradition of black Judaism, with its own synagogues serving almost exclusively black worshippers. Indeed, Michelle Obama’s cousin Capers Funnye is a rabbi in one such temple in Chicago.
But Stanton was making a different statement, by entering mainstream — for which read white — Judaism in mainstream America. “A lot of my African American friends think I have sold out. At the time in my circle there weren’t any blacks who were Jews so I think it was startling for some people and unnerving.” On the Jewish side, the frostiness could be felt the minute she walked into her first synagogue in Colorado. “As a Jew of colour, in the initial days there were comments and stares and isolation.”
Some of the most ugly rejection came, paradoxically, when she lived for a year in Israel. She applied for an extension to her student visa and unusually it was rebuffed. She had to threaten legal action before it was granted.
Her daughter was beaten up at school. The child became so stressed by the racist taunting she developed shingles.
“They would call her ugly and tell her she’s not beautiful. She would say I’m black and I’m beautiful and good. It still brings tears to my eyes, as we are not talking about a dog, we are talking about a seven-year-old child.”
The Israeli episode hurt Stanton. “Here I was in Israel having left everything I knew to devote my life to serve our people, and not only was I told I wasn’t a Jew, I wasn’t wanted.”
She came close then to giving it all up. But just when she was at her lowest point there was a knock on her door and a neighbour with a little girl stood there saying “Shalom” and asking to be friends. “So there was pain and there was joy, and during the depths whenever I’m tired – I’m not talking about physical tiredness – I’ll receive a card or a visit, something that will keep me going on this long journey.”
The next stage of the journey starts in August when she takes up her post as rabbi of the Bayt Shalom temple in Greenville, North Carolina. She knows that her challenges are not over.
“It hasn’t changed. There’s still negativity across racial lines from Anglos and Jews and African-Americans. But I’m still here to serve regardless.”
She believes she represents the new face of diversity in American Judaism, pointing to the little known statistic that up to 400,000 people, about one in five American Jews, are from racial and ethnic minorities.
Her new congregation will be largely white. But she sees that as besides the point. “When I said I would become a rabbi it wasn’t to be a rabbi for only polka dotted people or green or white or black. I’m a rabbi and proud to be that.”
Opinion: Pioneer Rabba Sara Hurwitz: Orthodox women rabbis are here to stay: here.
Women ought not to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronski said at a conference two weeks ago: here.
Italian Americans: here.