Growing up in a black, Pentecostal family in Cleveland, Alysa Stanton never imagined the day when she would be preparing to be ordained as a rabbi.
But that day will come June 6 for the single mother who will be ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, becoming the first African-American female rabbi in the world.
"Ten years ago, if someone said I was going to be a rabbi, I would have laughed," Stanton, 45, told ABCnews.com. "Me, a spiritual leader?"
Soon-to-be rabbi Stanton and her daughter Shana, 14, whom she adopted when she was 14 months old, will move to Greenville, N.C., in August, where Stanton will take her spot behind the pulpit at Congregation Bayt Shalom, which is both conservative and reform.
Then, at age 10, she received her first Hebrew grammar book from her devout Christian uncle who made it a habit to attend Jewish ceremonies, as well as his own. By her early 20s, Stanton said she'd decided to convert.
"Most people convert because they're marrying or dating someone who is Jewish or for another reason other than just picking that spiritual path," Stanton said.
"I did so because it was the path for me," she said. "Not only from a religious standpoint but from an ethical and social and communal standpoint, it was important to me."
Twenty percent of the U.S. Jewish population, or about 1.2 million people, are diverse, meaning black, Asian, Latino or mixed race, according to the Institute for Jewish and Community Outreach in San Francisco.
"What's important here is not that this is the first black woman rabbi but rather that it's a symbol of a great change in the American Jewish community, which is becoming much more diverse because of things like conversions, intermarriage and adoption," said Jonathan Sarna, an expert on U.S. Judaism at Brandeis University in Boston.
"That is a change that is really significant," Sarna said. "That a community that even 50 years ago was rather monolithic, so much so that people thought they could look at someone and see if he 'looked Jewish.'
"This is a reminder that the chosen people, so to speak, is not one race or another race but are in fact a range of races," he said. "While Jews remain united by a bond of peoplehood as well as religion, that bond is not characterized in racial terms."
But the Orthodox Jewish community, which has historically not permitted women to hold leadership roles in its congregations, is less accepting of Stanton's upcoming ordination because of her sex.
"My general feeling, as a rabbi, is that there is a great deal of room for everyone to have spiritual fulfillment in Judaism but the public role of a rabbi is only for certain people and that excludes women," Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student of New York City told ABCNews.com. "That's based on tradition and enshrined in law."
As for race, Student said that neither he nor the Orthodox Jewish community finds any problem with African-American Jews. "There is no such thing as skin color in Judaism, it doesn't exist," Student said.