By Steve Sunderland.
If you have ever been present for the moment when history happens, you will know what I mean when I report that history happened on the morning of October 23, 2007. Alysa Stanton, ascended the shadowy stairs to the second floor at the Freedom Center, humming a song, looking like an old heavy-set slave, dressed in old rags, and presented herself to an assembly of 300 people, religious administrators from Jewish organizations from all over the country, sitting in front of the Slave Pen.
Ms. Stanton spoke in a Southern dialect, partially intelligible, of the steps she had taken, as her grandmother, to walk from slavery to freedom. The old woman was direct in her recounting of her story of escape and of what it took to start and keep a family alive at those times. Her eyes glistened with tears of memory and hope and she reminded us of what that idea of slavery raelly meant. "It was a fight, a prayer and a victory," she seemed to be saying.
Suddenly, she was stepping out of her clothes, pulling some of them over her head, and revealing herself as a young woman, a child in a Micky Mouse t-shirt, and we heard stories of what it was like to grow up as a black child in a Denver neighborhood that had no use for African Americans. Ms. Stanton's memories was laced with pain as she described being ordered out of her "best friend's" house by the parent and forbidden to play with this child. "Get out!," she remembered hearing along with the accompanying shame.
Her brutal words hung over the group and punched their way through the shock of her lifting off her shirt and standing before us in a tailored suit, dark blue with white pinstripes, and recounting the story of being the first African American rabbinical student sent to a small town in northern Michigan for a summer internship. She described in clear tones the filthy and bug infested room she and her young daughter were given and the open loathing of certain members of her congregation. Suddenly, a different voice emerged from Ms. Stanton as she recounted how an older rabbi, who had retired to this town, befriended her and advised her not to quit. "You will learn a lot about yourself, your faith, and your courage, if you stay and let me help you," the wise advisor told her.
Ms. Stanton continued on in her story and recounted the reality of today, as she approaches the final years of her seminary training. Startling us again, she sang a song of her own composing, "The Jew," that began: "You are a Jew...I am one too, Please don't judge me by he color of my skin, please don't judge me by the womb from which I've come, please don't call me Shiksa or other demeaning names, for I'm a member of your family, I'm a child of Avraham..."
Her song finished to a total silence and then a rousing standing ovation that seemed to go on for several minutes. A great smile was on her face, revealing relief and joy at what she had accomplished. But it was History that was smiling the broad grin of justice, a beautiful justice in which a barrier falls, a new insight is found, hearts are opened and the soul is lifted. No one will forget this experience or know the implications of what we have seen and heard. Ms. Stanton's song contained a stanza that hinted at what was both changed and changing. She sang: "When you look into my eyes, know that there are others just like me, some are lighter, some are darker too, some have slanted eyes and others look like you. Yet you can reject them. Still they chose to be Jews, like you and like me, Why? Why, can't you see?"
What happened at the Freedom Center that lovely day, was the turning of a part of a religion toward justice. Why we haven't seen African American or Asian American Jewish leaders, Jewish teachers, Jewish ministers, is no secret to anyone who understands the role of prejudice in religious history. Religions have been one of the last bastions of segregation, even as laws have fallen in schools, public transportation, and college admissions. The stubborness of prejudice found strong roots in religious tradition that has only begun to yield to the pressure of young and brave people, like Ms. Stanton. She, like Rosa Parks, refuses to give up her "seat" in a rabbinical seminary. She, like Harriet Tubman, knows that others will follow her path once she has gotten through to graduation. Like Jackie Robinson, she has come to demonstrate her faith as a Jew and as a force of spiritual justice as she "slides toward home." Others who are religious historians will come to Hebrew Union College to study her efforts to become a rabbi and wonder how she was helped by her fellow students and faculty to achieve her position.
Being "first" in social justice has carried a very heavy penalty for many of those who have been brave enough to stand at the head of the line. Ms. Stanton will have an interesting and important book to write about how her faith brought her through the day to day questioning of her purpose and career choice. And, she will have an important story to live out with her congregations. Already, she has shared the beautiful tale of a southern Alabama congregation that nurtured and welcomed her for a year of great learning and faith.
Her performance at the Freedom Center was a kind of mid-term report from the battleground. There have been achievements that cannot be taken back. There have been unforgettable moments when her vision and courage became the echoes of her family's vision and courage. When she climbs up whatever remaining steps are left to grasp her degree, her grandmother, parents, siblings, and the community of Jews and other love based faith believers, will stand with her, arm in arm, smiling, crying, and remembering what it is like to step on the Promised Land as the first one. Shalom, Alysa, and thanks.