Rabbi Stanton aims to ‘lower barriers’

Rabbi Alysa Stanton delivered a monologue as a part of Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in Reynolds Auditorium Tuesday night. Stanton became the first black female rabbi in June 2009.
Rabbi Alysa Stanton delivered a monologue as a part of Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in Reynolds Auditorium Tuesday night. Stanton became the first black female rabbi in June 2009.

Duke’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration continued Tuesday with a performance showcase titled, “Chaos or Community: A Mosaic of Dr. King’s Living Dream,” which featured a monologue by the Rabbi Alysa Stanton as well as student performing groups. Stanton, who became the first black female rabbi when she was ordained June 2009, performed a monologue she wrote in fall 2008 titled “Layers of Healing, Layers of Hope.” The piece detailed her journey from her Pentecostal roots to Judaism and the challenges she has faced in her lifetime. The showcase, held in Reynolds Auditorium, also included performances by In Motion, Bull City Slam Team, Purple, Center for Race Relations and United in Praise. After the showcase, an intimate reception was held in the Mary Lou Williams Center where students and members of the Duke community had the opportunity to ask Rabbi Stanton questions about her life and faith. ­—compiled by Cate Harding

Q: You use your life story for teaching. When you’re back at your congregation what part of that personal story do you reveal?

A: A lot of rabbis hide behind the book, behind intellectualism. And it’s one thing to hide behind robes, but it takes more energy to be real. As I walk through this journey in life there are things I’m struggling with—I’ve realized there are probably five people in the room going through the same thing as me, and so I decided a long time ago to be myself.

Q: I have a lot of friends who are not mainstream Jewish, so what kind of critique or praise did you get from the black non-mainstream community? If there are other black female rabbis in those traditions, how do you justify being seen as the first black female rabbi?

A: When I first entered rabbinical school, I didn’t know I would be the first one. I would still be doing what I’m doing whether or not I was the first one. In one of the articles, I said I was a new face within the diversity of Judaism but it got cut to “she’s the new face of Judaism.” People were like, “What about us?” But in mainstream, I’m it. I decided I wasn’t going to hide this accomplishment, I earned it. I tried to fit in for awhile but I realized, I’m unique. I’m who God made me and so instead of squeezing myself into something I’m not, I accepted it.

Q: How did you go about telling your family about wanting to follow the Jewish path?

A: My family accepted from birth that I was a different breed. Age nine is when I thought there has to be something more. When I decided to convert to Judaism they thought it was just another new phase. It took several years until they were like, “Okay, we’ll give you a Hannukah present for Christmas.” My family has always been supportive of me in whatever I do.

Q: Why North Carolina? It’s a tough place to be Jewish.... What drew you?

A: My faith is strong... who I was makes me what I am today. And so I take that with me. In Greenville [where Stanton is now rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom], it’s tough but I’m supposed to be there. Part of the reason I’m there is because it’s on the Bible Belt, there are churches across the street and I invite pastors to Shabbat services and I’ve gone to churches. I believe truly if there is one God we’re going to worship in different ways. I am here to lower barriers—you can’t always break them but we can lower  them and find common ground.

Q: How have you been received by the black community or black individuals?

A: This year I spoke at Temple Emanuel [in Denver, Colo.] and part of my address was on African-American, economic and social groups and how we judge each other by the way we talk or music we like, and lifestyles. What I’ve taught my daughter is that no one defines my blackness but me and my God and how I choose to live as an African American woman. There are haters on all sides but I focus on those who have been good and supportive.”


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