Student on track to become first black female rabbi

Alysa Stanton-Ogulnick isn’t particularly interested in being a standard-bearer.

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 year, following her 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.

But Stanton-Ogulnick, who is studying at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), 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 said, 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 recently in San Francisco 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 mainstream.

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.

“At this conference there are people from all over looking for their identity,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “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-Ogulnick has 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 soloist.

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 said. “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 Jewish!”

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 mikvah (ritual bath) as an infant.

The year they spent in Jerusalem, Stanton-Ogulnick’s first year as an HUC-JIR 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 said with quiet anger. “We’d been in Israel three months and her only friend was a cat.”

One day, 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 recounted. “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.”

“It’s those moments,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “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.”

It’s experiencing 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 said, “that a-ha moment is what it’s about for me.”

Judaism Through Adversity

"A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion” by Jonathan Sacks. (The Free Press, $25.)

Gently, gracefully, thoughtfully, Jonathan Sacks unfolds an emotionally compelling argument for Jews to reclaim and engage with traditional faith, traditional texts and traditional acts. Wisely, he eschews philosophic reasonings: Jews teach by words, with words, through stories, songs, psalm, exegesis. Logically constructed arguments cannot convince one of religious veracity nor demonstrate a revealed truth.

"No unified field theory will ever finally settle the question of whether or not the universe was created by a personal God…. [Faith] is neither rational nor irrational. It is the courage to make a commitment to an Other, human or divine."

For the past two generations, rabbis have labored unceasingly to convince hesitant and distracted Jews to reaffirm and re-engage Jewishly.

Sacks, chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth and an accomplished teacher and author, knows that his work, as commendable as it is, will not convince all. Written as a wedding gift to his son Joshua and daughter-in-law Eve, "A Letter in the Scroll" encapsulates Sacks’ personal Jewish commitment.

Sacks makes bold claims for Judaism: From the covenant spring the glories of western political thought — personal autonomy constrained by communal concern, democracy limited by moral vision, capitalism restrained by the demands of social justice. Sacks presents a Jewish political vision both profoundly conservative and profoundly radical.

The social institutions in which we live both constrain and protect our freedom. History teaches that a rush toward a utopian liberty invariably results in authoritarian oppression and murder. Nevertheless, day-to-day social ills demand redress and a direct and personal response. Only when rooted in traditional family structure and committed to traditional obligations, and responsibilities, will we be able to express unequivocally the triple demands of mishpat (defined by Sacks as "roughly, justice-as-reciprocity" ), tzedek (social or distributive justice) and chessed (covenantal love).

The political engagement Sacks stresses stands as an important counterweight both to the self-involved mysticism and the easy political liberalism that dominate much of American Jewish discourse. He clearly implies that Jews must live as Jews in public political discourse. That public Jewish politics, however, is not the same as the political positions of either party.

"Judaism was the idea that God, in His lonely singularity, might reach out to an individual, then to a nation, in its lonely singularity, proposing a partnership whereby, deed by deed, and generation by generation, together they might fashion a living example of what it is to honor the humanity of God and the image of God that is the human person."

This deep mystical image draws us into the fundamental enterprises of Jewish life: study, prayer and acts of covenantal love. From these suppositions, Sacks teaches that an axiom of democratic spirituality is: "Since knowledge is power, and the distribution of power is the central concern of politics, then the distribution of knowledge is the single greatest issue affecting the structure of society. It was not on the streets or behind the barricades but in the house of study that the rabbis achieved the three great ideals articulated in the French Revolution: equality, liberty and fraternity."

With that, Sacks would have us reclaim our spot in the bet midrash, the house of study.

Marring this otherwise insightful work, however, is the absence of women: The traditional rabbinic endeavor Sacks describes could be construed to empower the men. With rare and notable exceptions, women as a whole did not have a place in the bet midrash. Having once been caught in painful denominational cross-fire, criticized by English Haredim for his participation in the memorial service for the late, renowned Reform rabbi (and Holocaust survivor) Hugo Gryn, perhaps Sacks purposefully ducked a difficult and painful issue inside Orthodox circles.

This failing does not fatally damage his work. Equally at home with classic rabbinic texts or 20th-century philosophy, Sacks exemplifies the very best currents (and common failings) of Modern Orthodox thought. He calls with success for all Jews to engage, and re-engage, with the tradition and texts that have shaped our past and inform our present. Fittingly, this book won the 2000 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought. This is a book every serious Jew should take seriously.