In the mid-’90s, Stanton adopted an infant daughter, Shana, and became a therapist, working briefly with students at Columbine High School after the 1999 shooting rampage. But she felt a calling to become a rabbi. Eliot Baskin, who knew her from his days at CSU’s Hillel, remembers Stanton approaching him about rabbinical school options. He encouraged her to apply to his alma mater, Hebrew Union College, and she took his advice. “I did not know when I got accepted to HUC that I would be the first African-American woman rabbi in the world,” she says. She enrolled in 2002.
Last year, Gershom Sizomu was ordained by the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. A member of Uganda’s Abayudaya community, he returned home to his country to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as chief rabbi.
But unlike Sizomu, Stanton will not be leaving the country or leading a black congregation. In August, she will assume the pulpit at Congregation Bayt Shalom, a largely white synagogue of about 60 families in Greenville, North Carolina. That she has already lined up a job even in tough economic times is noteworthy, says Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna. “Certainly when the first white women were ordained in the 1970s, they had trouble getting jobs.” But with Barack Obama’s election as president, says Sarna, it is no longer “unimaginable” for someone with black skin to become a rabbi in a mainstream synagogue. “Suddenly, it doesn’t shock us that a white congregation in the South would have an African-American rabbi.”
Stanton’s placement comes on the heels of sweeping changes in American Judaism, which—like America itself—has become more accepting of its minorities. Today, anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 American Jews are black, according to Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to grow the Jewish people by drawing Jews of diverse backgrounds into the mainstream. Lewis Gordon, a professor of philosophy who directs Temple University’s Center for Afro-Jewish studies, says of Stanton, “I think hers is a glorious step forward for the Jewish community, African-American communities of all backgrounds and in the end, everyone, as humanity attempts to reach out and rise to higher standards.”