Alysa Stanton Becomes First Female Black Rabbi

Shlomah Shamos, the chief editor of the popular New York Orthodox Jewish news site, said that as the reform and conservative movements continue to ordain female rabbis, the Orthodox Jewish community is finding it increasingly difficult to associate with them.

Still, he added, "Orthodox Jews have the highest respect for women and they play the most important role – to raise a true Torah Jewish family."

Michael Barondes, the president of the congregation in North Carolina where Stanton will work, said that he was pleasantly surprised that her hiring did not spark any controversy among congregants.

"I'm very proud of my community," Barondes said. "[Stanton's being a woman or being black] never came up in conversation. Obviously, we all know that's unusual but when she got on the pulpit during her visit, it was totally comfortable."

Converting to Judaism

As for Stanton, she said that her family's reaction to her conversion was ultimately positive, despite having a church pianist as a mother and a church choir director as a sister.

"I think at first they thought, 'OK, she's going through a phase of exploration,'" Stanton said.

When her family realized she was serious about Judaism, Stanton said they became "supportive" and "wonderful."

Before studying to become a rabbi, Stanton had a career as a psychotherapist in Denver, Colo., specializing in grief and trauma. A first responder after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Stanton said that her experience counseling and communicating will benefit her as the leader of a congregation.

Asked whether she foresees any challenges in becoming the rabbi of a mostly-white congregation, Stanton said that she is not concerned about how her race may affect her career.

"There's an adjustment period for any rabbi when they go to a new congregation," Stanton said. "I am not anticipating that race will be a factor in their adjustment.

"My style and their style of worshipping will be the things we focus on, not the color of our skin."

Stanton still anticipates some challenges in her new position.

"It's difficult paving new ground," she said. "It's difficult being a first of anything, and although I'm honored and in awe that God has given me this responsibility, it's one that I do not take lightly."

First Female Rabbi Offers Advice to First Black Female Rabbi

Rabbi Sally Priesand knows all too well what it's like to be a pioneer in the Jewish faith.

Priesand became the first ordained female rabbi in the United States in 1974, a time when many members of the Jewish community reserved the role of a congregation leader only for men.

"It is hard to be the first," said Priesand, who retired in 2006 from the New Jersey congregation where she worked for 25 years. "I was well aware everyone would judge the concept of female rabbis by what I did."

Priesand said that she spent much of her last year in rabbinical school traveling the country so that people would see that "she was a human like everyone else," a decision she said was important to gaining the trust and respect of her congregants.

"Every time I preached a sermon or officiated a bar or bat mitvah for many people, it was the first time they had ever interacted with a female rabbi," she said. "I knew that when they left that would be their opinion of a female rabbi."

When she was faced with people who believed she was filling a role that would be better suited for a man, Priesand said she learned to listen.

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