Sisterhood Blog

Alysa Stanton, First Black Female Rabbi, Will Leave N.C. Congregation

By Gabrielle Birkner

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Alysa Stanton, who made headlines when she became the country’s first black woman rabbi, will be leaving her Greenville, N.C. pulpit — after the congregation that hired her less than two years ago decided not to renew her contract. Stanton said the decision to leave was not hers, and that she fully intends to serve out the duration of her contract, which expires July 31, 2011.

“I don’t regret my decision to come to Greenville,” said Stanton, who was born into a Pentecostal family and converted to Judaism as an adult. “I’ve grown to love the community, and the citizens have embraced me in a way that has been transformative.”

Stanton, 47, said the challenges that she faced at the Bayt Shalom weren’t all that different from those of any other first-year rabbi, but hers “were more visible because the world was watching.”

Indeed. Her ordination from the Reform movement’s flagship seminary, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, was met with articles in major newspapers and magazines the world over. Stanton was the subject of a 2009 profile in the Forward.

And it’s not easy having all eyes on you, as you’re trying to go about your job. “I’m not a novelty or a freak show,” she said. “I’m a rabbi.”

Stanton came to Greenville in the summer of 2009, and was officially installed during a ceremony in October of that year. Bayt Shalom, which is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements, is home a multigenerational community of about 50 member families, according to board president Samantha Pilot.

She said the decision not to renew Stanton’s contract was made with a lot of member input. “We felt Rabbi Stanton has brought a lot of gifts to the congregation, but we felt she wasn’t a good fit for the direction we’re going,” Pilot said, but would not comment on any particular points of contention.

What it didn’t have to do with, Pilot said, was race. “I can tell you with certainty that race — I never heard that come up once during her tenure or now,” she said. “It’s a non-issue.

Because of the pioneering nature of Stanton’s appointment, Pilot said Bayt Shalom was “getting far more recognition than many other congregations going through the same things on a routine basis.”

Stanton said she’s proud of what she’s been able to do during her short tenure at Bayt Shalom, where she leads two “Judaism 101” courses, and an adult b’nai mitzvah seminar. Also during her time there, she said the synagogue’s religious school has undergone tremendous enrollment growth — from 19 to 32 children.

She insisted that she would continue to work hard through her last day at the congregation. After that, she said she was unsure of where the next step of her journey would take her. “I’ve said ‘Hineini’” — it translates to here I am and connotes a readiness to serve — “with all of my heart and my soul.”


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