By April N. Baskin and Corinne Lightweaver
The world has descended upon Rabbi Alysa Stanton. From coast to coast and continent to continent, global media trumpet the ordination of “the first African-American female rabbi.” Whether it’s The Forward, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Jewish Week, CNN, Black Entertainment Television, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and seemingly every other Jewish and secular media outlet, all of them, by-and-large, cover the same facts:
“Alysa Stanton is the first mainstream African American female rabbi in the world. A convert to Judaism after being raised in a Pentecostal family, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College on June 6, 2009. She is the new congregational rabbi of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, North Carolina.”
That’s the whole story. That’s where most of the media stops. What interests us is what is not covered, the questions that are not asked.
America’s response to Stanton’s ordination calls for introspection and self-examination by the larger Jewish community. It is true that Alysa Stanton’s ordination is a historical moment that should be celebrated. However, disproportionate attention is paid to her gender, racial background, and path to Judaism when her work and character should receive equal coverage, if not be at the forefront. What’s more, the emphasis on her being “the first” downplays a decades-old, increasing shift in the fabric of American Jewish life.
Rabbi Stanton’s ordination did not happen in a vacuum. She is not the first person of color to become a rabbi, nor is she the first woman of color to become a rabbi. Just as Rosa Parks wasn’t the first or even the second to refuse to move to the back of the bus, Stanton is the rabbi of color who received the attention of the mass media. It is true that she IS the first African American female rabbi. Yet it needs to be acknowledged that other Jewish clergy of color who are not of African American descent have preceded her in mainstream synagogues, and more are in rabbinical school or on the way. Furthermore, Jews of color who are currently serving as presidents of congregations and working on synagogue boards are not the first to do so.
So, why aren’t the people of color who preceded her in the rabbinate getting equal press coverage? Over the course of American history, a social construct of race developed and the racial binary of white vs. black arose as those in power separated themselves from African Americans, who were—and still are—systematically oppressed. As immigrants came to the United States, they were either classified as black or assigned a non-white status. To this day, that non-white status is often applied to certain ethnic communities including Asian Americans, Latinos, and even Jews at times. Neither black nor white, depending on the situation, all of these groups are classified as the middle ground of America’s social construct of race. And while certainly all of these populations receive media attention, African Americans receive more attention, while Anglo-whiteness remains the norm and groups in the middle ground are often rendered invisible.
Even though the Jewish community is negatively affected by this power dynamic, it is not immune to this systemic habit of ignoring people who are not black, but also not white. We should be beyond the black/white binary in the United States. It seems that in the case of Stanton’s ordination, the U.S. press is gloriously pursuing shock value over critical journalism, marketing sensationalism, and emphasizing the supposed improbability of a black person, let alone a black female, becoming Jewish and a rabbi.
To move beyond this systemic polarization, it helps to know that the number of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis of color is already significant. Three prominent rabbis—among many–come to mind. Last month was the ten-year anniversary of Korean American Angela Buchdahl’s graduation from cantorial school, followed by her ordination as a rabbi in 2001. Cuban-born Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viñas is ordained as a rabbi and master Torah scribe. Colombian-born Rabbi Juan Mejía, who intends to work with crypto-Jews in the American Southwest, graduated this year from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
While information about rabbis of color is readily accessible, some misinformation is still being reported. Take for example a May 29 report from the Associated Press claiming that the only known black male rabbi graduated from American Jewish University (undoubtedly referring to Rabbi Gershom Sizomu of Uganda). On the contrary, there are many black male rabbis in Orthodox communities. In many of these communities, a man who studies in yeshiva for a certain period can choose to take the requisite exams to earn smicha, thereby becoming a rabbi.
There is no doubt that Alysa Stanton has broken ground and established herself as a leader. She has gained not only worldwide interest, but respect as well. Among those who know her, she is seen as a gracious and reflective person who can inspire and aspire while keeping her feet solidly on the ground. Through her studies and her compelling personality, she has become an ambassador for a group of Jews who have long been ignored. Yet, she herself says she is committed to serving all Jews.
After this initial introduction of Stanton, we hope that the media will turn its focus to issues of substance and content. Tiffany Rivka Gordon, an African American rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, says, “I’d like to hear about Alysa’s thoughts on halacha and holidays, not so much about what she is.”
Gordon also notes, “After black and female, Alysa is identified as a convert, which just speaks more to the myth that Jews of color in this country are automatically converts.” We ask, why focus on the rabbi’s conversion with no concurrent investigation of her current conceptions of spirituality, her views on Israel, or her rabbinic interpretations of contemporary halachic debates or ethical dilemmas? Not to mention, according to Jewish tradition, a Jew is not supposed to remind another of his/her conversion.
The media frenzy around Alysa Stanton’s ordination has opened the possibility of improved coverage of Jews from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, but in order to be relevant, journalists must dig deeper. Fortunately, times are changing. According to Gordon, “My own personal experience is so not colored by my skin.” Instead, she says, “People genuinely want to know what my opinions are as a young Jew, not only as a Jew of color.”
As those who know Stanton well can testify, she is a spiritually inspiring rabbi who has much to give and many lessons to teach. As she states with conviction, “I believe that it is a new era for changing, strengthening and deepening our faith in humanity, regardless of one’s religious creed or spiritual practice. I believe this is a time where hope needs to be embraced with all of our might… I have committed my life to being a rabbi of the people, a rabbi of hope.”
April N. Baskin is a Schusterman Insight Fellow. Corinne Lightweaver is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.