SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Alysa
Stanton-Ogulnick isn’t particularly interested in being a
She’s proud to be black, proud to be
a woman and proud to be a 45-year-old single mother who raised
her adopted child on her own.
And when she says that next May, following
ordination as a Reform rabbi, she will become the first black
female rabbi, the huge grin on her face lets folks know she
feels pretty good about that, too.
Stanton-Ogulnick, who is studying at the Cincinnati campus of
the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, didn’t
set out to be the first. It just kind of happened, like so
much else in her life.
“If I were the 50,000th, I’d
still be doing what I do, trying to live my life with kavanah
and kedusha,” she says, using the Hebrew words for
intentionality and holiness. “Me being first was just the luck
of the draw.”
Stanton-Ogulnick -- she’s still getting
used to the second part of her hyphenated last name, the
product of a recent marriage -- was in this city over the
weekend for a conference of ethnically and racially diverse
Jews and Jewish communities sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, an
organization that supports their efforts to enter the Jewish
That’s something the future rabbi knows a
great deal about -- as a woman, as a convert and as a Jew of
color. She’s had to fight for success and acceptance in a
world that wasn't always welcoming.
conference there are people from all over looking for their
identity,” Stanton-Ogulnick says. “Maybe I can help them on
the path by breaking down barriers.”
That’s among her
goals as a rabbi, she says: breaking barriers, building
bridges and giving hope.
Like many rabbinic students
now, Stanton-Ogulnick is on her second career. She came to the
rabbinate as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief
and loss issues.
Stanton-Ogulnickhas worked with trauma victims in Colorado
for the past 16 years, at the same time becoming more active
in Denver’s Temple Emanuel. She has served the synagogue as a
para-chaplain, religious-school teacher and cantorial
Raised by Pentacostal parents,
Stanton-Ogulnick spent her childhood and young adulthood as a
spiritual seeker, making the rounds of various Christian
denominations before finding her home in Judaism. She
converted more than 20 years ago.
“People look at me
and ask if I was born Jewish," she says. "I say yes, but not
to a Jewish womb. I believe I was at Sinai. It’s not as if one
day I scratched my head and said, hmm, now how can I make my
life more difficult? I know -- I’ll become
Stanton-Ogulnick made her choice to join the
Jewish community as an adult, well aware of the difficulties
that might arise. Her daughter Shana, now 13, didn’t get to
choose; she was dipped in the mikveh as an infant.
year they spent in Jerusalem, Stanton-Ogulnick’s first year as
an HUC student, was the most difficult. Shana, then 7, faced
daily prejudice at school.
“She was beat up, and once was literally kicked off the
bus,” her mother says with quiet anger. “We’d been in Israel
three months and her only friend was a cat.”
Shana came home from camp beaming because one of the other
children held her hand.
“ 'Nobody ever holds my hand, Mommy,' she said to me,”
Stanton-Ogulnick recounts. “I said, why? She said, 'Because
I’m shochor,' ” or black.
“Ani lo tov, ani lo yafah,”
the little girl told her mother, using the Hebrew for “I’m no
good, I’m not pretty.”
Even telling the story now, six
years later, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head.
“Sometimes I’ve been in tears with what I have put this
child through,” she says.
Stanton-Ogulnick relates some
of the difficulties of her life’s journey in a monologue she
created last fall called “Layers.”
First performed at a conference of Reform religious-school
educators in October, the piece opens with her standing on
stage with her head in a noose, a shocking evocation of
slavery. The monologue deals with her journey to Judaism and
other major changes in her life, including a recent weight
loss of 122 pounds.
Pulling out an old picture of
herself at her former weight, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head
again. Is she really no longer that person? Is she really
about to become a rabbi?
It’s all so remarkable, she muses.
At the end of
one performance, she says, a woman came up to her in tears,
saying, "You told my story, thank you.”
moments," Stanton-Ogulnick says, her voice trailing off as she
smiles. “Even though the journey is long and the path
difficult, if I can provide someone with a little hope and a
sense of purpose, it’s worthwhile.”
those moments that she is most looking forward to as a rabbi,
whether she ends up in a pulpit, working as a chaplain or in
some other position.
“That moment, that ‘a-ha, I’m not alone’ that comes when
I’m talking with a congregant or an individual struggling with
something and I’m helping them find a solution,” she says,
“that a-ha moment is what it’s about for me.”