Alysa Stanton, 45, is the first African-American woman to become a rabbi in any mainstream Jewish denomination, according to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Ordained in June 2009, Stanton took over in August as rabbi of Bayt Shalom synagogue in Greenville, N.C. “I am thrilled to begin serving as your new Rabbi!” Stanton wrote to her congregation of 60 families in the synagogue’s newsletter.
Stanton did not have a traditional entry into Judaism. Born into a Pentecostal Christian home, her first introduction to the Jewish faith came as a child. Her family had moved to a predominantly Jewish suburb of Cleveland, and a young Stanton was curious about the mezuzahs that adorned the doorways of neighboring homes and other Jewish customs.
By her college years, Stanton had found a permanent home in Judaism, and formally converted in 1987, after studying for a year with a rabbi in Denver.
Stanton graduated from college and became a licensed psychotherapist in trauma and grief. She was one of the counselors who worked with victims of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
Divorced, Stanton is the mother of a 14-year-old adopted daughter. In 2002, with her daughter in tow, Stanton entered into HUC-JIR’s rabbinical program for seven years of study and training.
She beat out six other candidates to become rabbi of Bayt Shalom. Synagogue president Michael Barondes told Time.com that Stanton’s appeal lies in her ability to connect and communicate powerfully, both from the pulpit and face-to-face.
“She knows intuitively how to listen to people,” Barondes said in the TIME interview. “And as a one-synagogue town, we need a rabbi who can reach out to all of our members.”
Stanton has high hopes for the congregation that she leads and for her faith as a whole. At the start of the new year, she wrote in her synagogue’s newsletter, “May we each strive to reflect that which is good, purposeful and uplifting.”