GREENVILLE, N.C. —As the first Reform rabbi in a town with one, mostly traditional synagogue, Alysa Stanton didn't fit in.
The world's first black female rabbi was recently told her two-year contract would not be renewed, ending what many had hoped would be a new chapter in black-white relations in the South as well as in congregational Jewish life in the U.S.
"Even though it hasn't worked out the way I hoped, I don't regret the decision to come here," Stanton, 47, said in the living room of the brick ranch home she shares with her 15-year-old daughter, Shana. "I learned so much, and my family is strong."
As the city's only synagogue, Bayt Shalom, which was founded in 1975, is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements in American Judaism. But its past rabbis were shaped by a more traditional approach to Jewish observances and ritual.
"She doesn't fit into a real Conservative box," said Debi Habiba Niswander, leader of Greenville's Interfaith Alliance and Stanton's friend.
Stanton, who was ordained after completing studies at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is a Reform rabbi, and takes a more liberal perspective. The Reform denomination is known for emphasizing the autonomy of the individual, personal choice and theological pluralism.
"She brought in a Reform prayer book and new tunes," said Carol Woodruff, a board member and friend of Stanton's. "But we're the only synagogue in the community, and we have to blend all our traditions."
Reflecting on the incompatibility some felt with Stanton, Woodruff added, "Maybe this was not the community where a trail needed to blazed."
Inundated with publicity after graduating from seminary as the first black female rabbi, Stanton chose the small, 50-family synagogue as much as it chose her.
Since her arrival in September 2009, she helped boost the number of children participating in Sunday school to 32, up from 19. She started two adult Judaism classes; one of them for 10 people interested in learning more about Judaism, with an eye toward conversion. She is scheduled to officiate at four of six bar mitzvah, or rite of passage, ceremonies this year. The synagogue has never had as many bar mitzvah ceremonies in one year.
And even though her position was only half-time, Stanton was eager to fully engage the wider Greenville community.
She joined two ministerial groups in town, was a member of the city's Interfaith Alliance and was appointed to a committee hiring a new hospital chaplain.
Stanton, a self-described insomniac, seemed never to lack energy.
"Rabbi Stanton has such as positive spirit and great energy," said the Rev. Bob Hudak, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, N.C., and a friend. "She is one of the most profound spiritual leaders I've met in my life."
Born into a Pentecostal family in a mostly Jewish suburb of Cleveland, Stanton may have also brought a different cultural and leadership style.
Asked if she thought the mostly white congregation simply wasn't ready for an African-American leader, she answered: "A lot of people expect me to play the race card. That's not what I'm about."
Stanton converted to Judaism in 1987 after earning an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master's of education in counseling and multiculturalism from Colorado State University.
She endured racial taunting when she and her daughter lived in Israel for a year. But the two pulled through, and she chose to move to the South after seminary.
Greenville's black community embraced her. Pitt County Commissioner Melvin McLawhorn invited Stanton to receive a certificate of recognition for her role in blazing a new path. McLawhorn visited the synagogue, and Stanton gladly accepted the honor.
"She brought a lot of contributions to the area, and we're very proud of her," McLawhorn said. "She reached out to the total community and engaged herself."
Stanton is applying for other positions but plans to remain in Greenville at least through the end of July, and possibly longer. Bayt Shalom is looking for a new rabbi.
One thing seems certain. Stanton is not the only one leaving the congregation.
Members Susanna Sonnenberg and her husband, Robert, said they'll be looking for a new place to worship after Stanton leaves. The Sonnenbergs adopted two black teenagers during the rabbi's tenure and said she did a great job welcoming them ; their son, Demetrice, 16, will have his bar mitzvah in June.
"I personally felt she was a great fit," Susanna Sonnenberg said. "There's still a lot of confusion about what was so wrong. She's been wonderful to us."