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A multilayered spiritual journey

Alysa Stanton was born into a Pentecostal family. Her mother played the piano at church and her sister became a choir director.

But Stanton was looking for more.

More than two decades ago, she found it in Judaism and converted. Her family doesn't "understand it all, but they are proud and they see the transformation," she said.

Some of that pride is because Stanton is about to become the first female African-American rabbi in the United States and, in fact the world.

"When I went to apply, I didn't know anything," Stanton said by phone from Cincinnati, where she is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"When I was accepted I found out I would be the first in the world. But I would have done it even if I were the 50,000th."

Stanton, 45, will tell the story of her conversion and her life Sunday at Temple Adath Israel. Her monologue, "Layers," uses prose, poetry and song.

'I am literally taking off layers," she said. "The layers are a representation of perceptions and realities. They represent the complexity of human nature."

Rebecca Young, a program chairwoman for the Temple Adath Israel Sisterhood, which is sponsoring the program, said she had read about Stanton and thought we in Lexington ought to hear her story.

"I thought it would be something that not only the Jewish community, but anybody, should hear about her journey. Being a first is a big deal."

Indeed it is, as we've witnessed with the president-elect.

Stanton was born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, but she moved at an early age with her family to Lakeland, Colo., a suburb of Denver.

She converted to Orthodox Judaism while in college and wanted to become a cantor. A rabbi told her, however, that a woman "couldn't lead a man in prayer," she said. "I just put it aside and became a psychotherapist."

Stanton moved to Denver in 1992 and attended a Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel, which tends to be more welcoming to those who are not born Jewish. "When I walked in, I was another new face, not 'what are you doing here,'" she said. That was a first.

The congregation was about helping humanity and social activism, which appealed to Stanton. And then, the temple hired a female cantor.

That reawakened her dream to be a cantor. Studying the symbols and chanting the Torah stirred the depth of her being, she said. As a cantorial soloist, she felt such a passion and love for Judaism that she wanted to become even more involved.

"I don't know if it was a choice," she said. "It was a calling."

But, as a first, the roads were not well-paved; the journey was not easy. She and her daughter have been confronted with rejection and racism.

Sometimes called black Hebrews or black Israelites, black Jews in America are a minority within a minority.

A survey conducted by the United Jewish Communities in 2001 reported that 1 percent of the Jews in the United States were black. That's about 37,000 people.

Some say the number is more like 150,000.

But Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr., the spiritual leader of a predominantly black synagogue on Chicago's South Side, put the number closer to 300,000. Funnye is a relative of Michelle Obama, this nation's future first lady.

Historically, black Jews have not been welcomed into the faith because of sporadic racism and an aversion to converts. More and more mainstream Jews are changing that, however.

"Judaism is not a race, it is a religion," said Rabbi Marc Kline of Temple Adath Israel. "In terms of welcoming her as a full colleague, that won't be a problem." Black Jews "are a minority in the U.S. but not around the world."

Rabbi will be Stanton's second career. She is a licensed psychotherapist who worked with trauma victims for 16 years in Denver. Before her recent marriage, she was a single parent, the mother of an adopted daughter, Shana, now 13.

The two of them lived in Israel for a year — all first-year HUC rabbinical students must do so — where she had to send her daughter, then 7, to school with a gas mask in her lunch box.

Rabbinical school is taking Stanton seven years to complete rather than the usual five because of health problems associated with her first gastric bypass surgery four years ago. Eight surgeries later, she has lost 122 pounds, half, she said, by diet and exercise.

She credits her per severance to her faith. But she'll tell you all about that in her moving presentation today.

And through that monologue, she hopes to further one of the tenets of mainstream Judaism: tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world."

"Every situation we are in, our goal is to leave it a little better than when we came," she said. "We can each make this world better. One drop of water at a time, together we can do better things."

I believe our problems are big enough to be tackled from all sides. I'm always glad to hear others are chipping away from a different angle.

Mazel tov, Alysa Stanton.

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