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Ready to be first black female rabbi

The last time I talked with Alysa Stanton, she said she would have converted to Judaism and submitted to the rigors of becoming a rabbi even if she had been the 50,000th African-American woman to do so instead of the history-making first.

And now, as she is preparing for her ordination on June 6 and her transition to her new job with a congregation in Greenville, N.C., she feels the same way.

Stanton, who visited Lexington in November to perform her monologue, Layers, at Temple Adath Israel, will receive her master's degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati next week and will be ordained at Plum Street Temple there.

She is scheduled to become the rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom on Aug. 1, working part-time.

"It is a part-time position, but it will work into full-time," Stanton said. "There is no such thing as a part-time rabbi."

Her No. 1 priority will be to continue the congregation's growth, she said. There are a few more than 50 families there, but there are a lot of children, which is a good indicator of future growth.

"There will be programs for all ages, and we will be an inclusive community where all are welcome," Stanton said.

Congregation Bayt Shalom is a small, majority white congregation in Greenville that is affiliated with both the Conservative and Reform movements in Judaism. Both movements began ordaining women in the 1970s and 1980s, but none had been black.

Fortunately, that didn't seem to matter to the Bayt Shalom representatives who traveled to Cincinnati, along with representatives of other synagogues and temples, to interview rabbinical students.

Stanton will be one of 43 rabbinical graduates — 30 women and 13 men — at ordination convocations in New York, Los Angeles and Cincinnati. Only about half of them have found employment in their vocation because of tighter congregational budgets.

Stanton, 45, was the first choice of the Greenville congregation, and it was her first choice, she said.

Born in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, she moved at an early age with her family to Lakewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver. She converted to Orthodox Judaism while in college more than 20 years ago. About 20 percent of the American Jewish community is ethnically and racially diverse, according to the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Stanton wanted to become a cantor, but she was told women could not advance to leadership positions in the religion. So she instead became a psychotherapist with a focus on trauma and grief.

When she first saw a female cantor, Stanton revived her dreams and took it even further, becoming a rabbi.

Although her mother, 78-year-old Anne Harrison of Lakewood, has no intentions of converting from her Pentecostal roots, she is thoroughly pleased with her daughter.

"I am so proud of her," she said last week. "This is going down just fine with me. I have four children, two boys and two girls, and they all went in different directions."

Harrison has gone to synagogues with her daughter and has become friends with a rabbi. As long as her daughter still believes in God, Harrison is satisfied, she said.

"That is the most we can ask for," she said. "There is only one God, and he is still in control."

Stanton's movers are coming in June, and she and her 14-year-old daughter, Shana, whom she adopted as a single mother, will soon follow.

Stanton is ready for the future, and she believes that with God's help, she will meet the challenge, she said.

"God is placing people on all four corners of the globe," she said. "Things are changing. I am honored to be chosen to walk this path."

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