One of the first things that six-year-old Alysa Stanton noticed when her family moved into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was a rectangular ornament affixed to the doorpost of her new home. Her uncle Edward, a “devout Catholic who went to shul on occasion,” explained to her that it was a mezuzah. “He would wear a yarmulke sometimes,” she says, “and he knew a lot about a lot of things.” A few years later her uncle, who spoke eight languages, gave her a Hebrew grammar book, which she still has.
This fleeting introduction to Judaism set Stanton—the granddaughter of a Baptist minister and daughter of a Pentecostal Christian—on a journey that led her to convert to Judaism 18 years later. Stanton, now 45, recently passed another milestone on her spiritual journey. On June 6 in Cincinnati’s historic Plum Street Temple, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, making her the movement’s first African-American rabbi and the first African-American woman ordained by a mainstream Jewish denomination.
The path she took to get there was challenging. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and she moved with her mother and siblings to Lakewood, Colorado, 10 miles west of Denver. In Lakewood’s largely white schools, she faced discrimination. “When I was 12, I was spit on and called the n-word,” she says. “I was chased with sticks one Halloween, and my friends defended me.”
There was also her personal search for religion. Her mother is a staunch Christian who played piano at Zion Temple Pentecostal Church, where her sister is still the choir director. But Stanton longed for something else. She once contacted a priest to learn about Catholicism and briefly considered eastern religions and kabbalah. While majoring in psychology at Colorado State University, she attended services at Hillel. By the time she was 24, she was commuting 140 miles to and from Denver each week to study with a Conservative rabbi, and her search was over. “Once I had the questions answered within my own heart, I just knew, and I decided to convert to Judaism,” she says. “People ask me if I was born Jewish, and I say, yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I had to make it legal.”
She converted in 1987. Her mother and siblings quickly accepted her decision, although, she says, “none are running to the mikvah.” But many of her friends and fellow Jews were suspicious. “It was unusual in that I wasn’t converting because of marriage but because of spiritual reasons,” says Stanton. “My Christian friends thought I’d grown horns and some of my African-American friends thought I had sold out. And the Jewish community wasn’t as welcoming as it is today, either. It was a very difficult period.”