Rabbi Alysa Stanton has received a lot of media in the last few months. Not only was she the first African-American woman to be ordained by a mainstream Jewish denomination, she recently took the pulpit at a largely white synagogue in Greenville, North Carolina. So what does this mean for the American Jewish community, now that these barriers have been broken? Writing in Moment magazine, Jeremy Gillick uses Rabbi Stanton’s story as a springboard to look at how she and other African-American rabbis are ushering in a new age of post-racial Judaism.
Along with Rabbi Stanton, Gillick looks at the stories of two other prominent African-American rabbis: Rabbi Capers Funnye, leader of Chicago’s Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, and Rabbi Debra Bowen, leader of Philadelphia’s Temple Beth’El. While both are leading thriving congregations, they also represent the different ways African-American Jews have persevered while being forced to practice on the periphery of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Funnye, who formally converted in 1985 and was ordained by the Israelite Rabbinical Academy in the same year, has been leading the congregation ever since. But it wasn’t until 1997 that he “became an ‘associate’ member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.” The “associate” title still kept him separate from the other members of the board. In 2008, the word was removed just before he got national attention as First Lady Michelle Obama’s cousin.
Rabbi Bowen, Gillick points out, has been leading her congregation in Philadelphia since 2001. But she didn’t matriculate through a rabbinical school – she was ordained by her predecessor and mother, Louise Elizabeth Daily. She has also refused to formally convert, saying “that’s like asking me to become black. I already am.” This means she is unable to attend any rabbinical training institution. Gillick spoke to JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, who “affirms the importance of formal training for Rabbis” but also thinks “other factors are more important,” like the fact that Rabbi Bowen has been involved with Temple Beth’El almost her entire life. Gillick writes:
Last year, against the recommendations of some colleagues, he invited Bowen and her congregation to JOI’s annual conference. Rabbi Bowen, he says, “is leading a congregation of hundreds of souls. It’s a powerful group of people who have a deep commitment to Judaism as religion and as people. I don’t want to be among the people that do to Bowen what others do to me,” he adds, speaking of those in the Orthodox world who reject rabbis from more liberal denominations.
Though Rabbi’s Funnye and Bowen – and scores of others – came before Rabbi Stanton, she represents the culmination of all their accomplishments. She has crossed over, and in doing so she will, as Rabbi Olitzky says, “enrich” the Jewish community. Hopefully all their stories will serve as inspiration for Jews on the outside of the community to approach our institutions with greater confidence, and for those on the inside to enthusiastically welcome them in.
No comments yet.