Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Rose Russell

First black female rabbi shatters von Brunn's goals

A WEEK ago today, a Cleveland native became the nation's first black woman to be ordained a Jewish rabbi in Cincinnati at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi Alysa Stanton is a proof that America is moving forward on several fronts.

Then on Wednesday, the fatal shooting of a black guard named Stephen T. Johns, 26, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. by a gun-toting white supremacist served as a stark reminder that there are many on the fringe who won't embrace change on these racial, gender, and religious fronts.

To allow the shooting to dampen interest in the new rabbi at Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C., where Rabbi Stanton, 45, has been assigned, would be what the white supremacist wants. However, her accomplishment is too important to be overshadowed by the demented values and morals of someone who is the antithesis of everything she represents.

Rabbi Stanton converted to Judaism while in her 20s and began rabbinical studies at age 38. Like many who consider entering the ministry later in life, this licensed psychotherapist thought she was too old for the pursuit. But that's exactly the type of person ministries desperately need: those who pause before proceeding. That hesitancy is a demonstration in humility - a much needed characteristic in a field replete with so many who have a God complex.

Rabbi Stanton's mother, Anne Harrison, 78, knew her daughter would be distinguished. Her search for religious identity began early. When she was 9 years old, a Catholic priest called her Cleveland home to answer the child's questions about Catholicism. When she was 11, her family moved to Colorado. While a student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, she made the 140-mile weekly trek to study with a rabbi for conversion.

She joins nearly 1,000 women who will have been ordained rabbis in mainstream Judaism by the end of this year. There is reportedly only one black male rabbi in mainstream Judaism.

The divorced, single mother of a 14-year-old daughter - whom Rabbi Stanton adopted when the child was a year old - was considered an oddity by African-American friends. No wonder. For one, the reform Jew grew up in a Pentecostal home. That's why it should be natural for her to explain to her Christian friends their faith's roots in Judaism. The Bible's New Testament book of history, Acts, details that connection.

Meanwhile, had James von Brunn, 88, ever allowed someone such as Rabbi Stanton to touch his life, he might not be going into history books as the person who fired shots into the institution that represents what can happen when hate goes too far. The shooter killed the guard before two other guards shot and critically wounded him.

The elderly man spent more than six years in prison on a 1983 conviction of attempting to kidnap members of the Federal Reserve Board. He claims the Holocaust was bogus and believes in a Jewish conspiracy to "destroy the white gene pool." It's incomprehensible that anyone nearly 90 still seethes with so much hatred that it would drive him to put the lives of anyone at risk, including the schoolchildren at the Holocaust museum.

Though the shooting suggests America yet has quite a ways to go, Rabbi Stanton's ordination indicates that there is hope.

"I want our synagogue to be a place of hope, healing, and inclusion," she said. "I want it to be an oasis for anyone seeking spiritual refreshment."

Surely that includes people like James von Brunn, who don't even know that they need that hope, healing, and spiritual refreshment.

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