Rabbinical student breaking down racial barriers

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

Nonetheless, that’s exactly what the 45-year-old single mother will become next year when she’s ordained as the first black female rabbi.

But Stanton-Ogulnick, who is studying at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, didn’t set out to be the first.

“If I were the 50,000th, I’d still be doing what I do,” she says. “Me being first was just the luck of the draw.”

Stanton-Ogulnick was in San Francisco recently for a conference of ethnically and racially diverse Jews and Jewish communities sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, an organization that supports efforts to enter mainstream.

That’s something the future rabbi knows a great deal about — as a woman, a convert and a Jew of color. She’s had to fight for success and acceptance in a world that isn't always welcoming.

“At this 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: 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 worked with trauma victims in Colorado for 16 years, at the same time becoming active in Denver’s Temple Emanuel. She served the synagogue as a para-chaplain, religious school teacher and cantorial soloist.

Raised by Pentecostal 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 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.

The 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.”

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 recounts. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because I’m shochor,'” or black.

“Ani lo tovah, 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.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].