RABBI Alysa Stanton, fresh off the plane and running a bit late, walks inside Temple Emanuel, stops in her tracks and lets out a deep, disbelieving sigh.
After a two-and-a-half-year absence, history’s first African American female rabbi has returned to her spiritual home.
A congregant sees Stanton and rushes over, repeating her name like exclamation points.
“Hey!!!!” squeals Stanton, whose eager arms enfold her in a prolonged embrace. “It’s so good to see you. So good.”
Then the woman catches sight of Shana, the rabbi’s 14-year-old adopted daughter.
Invigorated by the welcoming shower, the tired teen magically revives.
Stanton, now rabbi at Bayt Shalom, a merged Reform-Conservative synagogue in Greenville, NC, was in Denver to speak at Emanuel’s Friday night Shabbat service and Sunday’s interfaith celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As she makes her way down the winding hallway to the chapel — “my favorite place” — staffers and congregants appear out of nowhere to hug their hellos.
Despite the long trip, her waiting family and a sermon requiring finishing touches, the rabbi seems to move on air.
Arriving at the chapel, Stanton sits in the front, while Shana settles in with her iPod a few rows in back.
Stanton, 46, was raised in the Pentecostal tradition and converted to Judaism in 1987.
She was ordained from HUC-Cincinnati in June, 2009.
Long before her ordination, her singular status ignited a media explosion in the US and Israel from which she’s still trying to recover.
Stanton’s wide eyes grow slightly wary. “I’ve been misquoted,” she says by way of explanation. But the chapel’s familiarity dims the limelight’s glare.
“I live in a fishbowl, and that has been difficult,” she says. “But I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is part of the journey for my daughter and me. Though I do not relish it, I can accept it, and work with it.
“There are rabbis and individuals who love being in the limelight,” she concedes. “I’m not one of them. It’s kind of like those people who don’t like cats, yet the cats are always gravitating toward them.”
Stanton clarifies a comment that she feels has been misrepresented in the press.
“I’m not an African American woman rabbi. I’m a rabbi who happens to be an African American woman. I’m a rabbi first.”
Although the constant media exposure didn’t exactly surprise her –– after all, this was a breakthrough moment in the Jewish world –– Stanton admits she was somewhat naïve about its impact on her personal life.
“I was just trying to be the best rabbi I could be,” she says softly.
Instead of “the first,” she would have been content being “the 50,000th. But for some reason, Hashem chose me.
“There is no way I can compare myself to Moses, but I understand when Moses looked to G-d and said, ‘I stutter, I’m this, I’m that, I am unworthy to do what you’re asking of me.’
“I love G-d. I’m a spiritual leader. But this?
“When I vowed to serve my Creator and serve our people, I didn’t realize this is quite what it would be. I’m grateful and I’m honored and I’m awed — and literally on my face sometimes seeking answers.”
Stanton notices the photographer’s red boots, a gift from her father in Italy.
“Now those are boots!” she marvels. “Those are sharp.”
Stanton laughs at the surprised reaction.
“Hey, I’m a rabbi, but I’m regular.”
ALYSA Stanton was a student at CSU in Fort Collins when she started studying Judaism in earnest in Denver.
She diligently drove over an hour on congested highways in “a car that got 10 miles a gallon.”
Stanton, who describes her conversion as traditional, experienced “the super Jew syndrome that a lot of converts go through –– trying to do everything right –– and it took a while to find the happy medium.”
After earning an MA in counseling and multiculturalism in 1992, Stanton says she adopted a more secular lifestyle.
In 1998, she received her professional counseling license.
“I kept hearing about Emanuel and social action,” she says. “So I decided to come here. When I walked into the sanctuary, and heads turned, it wasn’t like, ‘What are you doing here.’ It was simply, ‘Oh, another new face.’
“So I came back, and saw the passion about social justice and reaching out to interfaith families. They were really walkin’ the talk, instead of talking the talk — putting word and deed into action — and that attracted me.
“Now I’m a Reform rabbi. Proudly. Being a Reform Jew is about having informed choice. And that’s what I’ve learned in these walls” — her arms encircle the chapel — “in this place.”
Stanton’s tone almost fades to a whisper as she discusses the role that Rabbi Foster has played in her personal evolution.
“He’s real,” she muses. “Rabbi Foster is an icon in the Denver Jewish community.
“He has dedicated his life, sacrificing much, for the betterment of our people and the betterment of humanity.”
Stanton, who enthralled congregants at Emanuel and Beth Evergreen with her singing and Torah skills, recalls chanting Torah at a service in Emanuel’s chapel one night.
“I messed up,” she says. “And I was beating myself.
“Rabbi Foster said, ‘Why are you beating yourself up? Are you doing this for yourself or are you doing this for G-d?’ I’ll never forget that.
“He’s my Jewish dad,” she beams. “He has profoundly touched my life and the life of my child — and in the process, the course of Jewish history as we know it has changed.”
Stanton says that the choir helped name her infant daughter.
“I was trying to pick out her middle name. So someone says, ‘Shana Tova.’ ‘Shana Bracha.’
Again, she laughs.
“I knew I wanted Shana, but ?. . .”
Suddenly Stanton bolts from her seat.
“It was right in this room!” She points toward the back. “This room! There was a choir rehearsal and we were going through names.”
The choir finally endorsed Michaela — and Stanton agreed.
She looks over at Shana Michaela, who is absorbed in her iPod.
“She’s my heart,” Stanton says tenderly.
As if on cue, Rabbi Foster walks in the chapel.
Stanton runs over.
“Rabbi!” she exclaims.
“Rabbi,” he motions with his arms.
Their effortless communication –– unfinished questions fully answered –– expresses their mutual affection.
After settling arrangements for the dinner and service later that night, he takes his leave.
It was Rabbi Foster who encouraged Stanton to pursue the rabbinate.
“We plant seeds and we don’t often see them come to fruition,” she resumes. “Somehow, somewhere, someplace, they grow –– through love, nurturing and gratitude.”
STANTON insists she never said she was the new face of Judaism, which to her ears smacks of egotism.
“What I said is that I’m a new face that represents the diversity within Judaism,” she counters. “For whatever reason, my face has been brought to the forefront.
“And it’s time, because Jews are every hue and color, every ethnic, social and economic group — and I’m one of them.”
Asked whether the African American culture influences her preaching style on the bimah, Stanton swivels and tries to grab her daughter’s attention.
“Shana and I were just talking about this earlier today,” Stanton says. “People try to define our blackness, our African American identity. Shana gets a lot of heat because she doesn’t act a certain way. I get it because I don’t act a certain way.”
Stanton has frequently said that Shana was treated poorly during their year in Israel.
The rabbi’s eyes flash defiantly.
“No one defines who I am as an African American or as a Jew except me and my G-d.”
She admits that congregants occasionally remark about a “spiritedness and power” generally associated with African-American religious gatherings.
Her public speaking style “differs from my regular, one-on-one talking voice,” she says. “I have a speech impediment, so I try to talk with measure.
“But sometimes, when I get passionate, yeah, I think it does come out.
“I’m not pretending anything. And sometimes I imagine people laugh at me, like, ‘Who is that woman up there?’”
Stanton leans forward, her fingers locked in conviction.
“My tapestry of life makes me who I am,” she says. “I’m black, and I’m Jewish, and the two are not mutually exclusive.”
Her goal as a rabbi, “and I’ve said this since day one, is to break barriers, build bridges and provide hope.
“And sometimes it’s not about breaking barriers, but lowering them.
“The second thing, that’s so true, is that I want to help people find their spiritual path no matter what that path is. I have quite a rainbow of contacts and seekers.”
Stanton believes it’s crucial to “meet people where they are at — and sometimes that’s not always pretty.”
She elucidates, with measure.
“It scares some people to see me,” she says. “Maybe scared is the wrong word. They are troubled. I’ve heard, ‘What is Judaism coming to?’ I’m just being straight up with you.
“But I’m here,” says Stanton, her resolve so joyful the barriers bow.
“And I’m here to stay.”