Sandra Lawson is studying at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. (photo from Sandra Lawson)
Sandra Lawson, an African-American lesbian who converted to Judaism after being raised in a secular home, is now studying to be a rabbi at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, in Wyncote, Penn.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., Lawson’s dad was in the military, so the family moved around a lot, though mainly stayed in the Midwest. Her dad was a military recruiter and career counselor.
“My dad was raised a Christian, but I really had no religious upbringing when I was a child,” Lawson told the Independent. “I knew about Jesus, and we would occasionally get invited to church, but there really was no religion in our house.
“On my mom’s side, we had a back story of an ancestor who was Jewish. Like folklore, it really meant very little to me until I started on this Jewish path myself.”
This path began when Lawson was an undergraduate student and needed another class to graduate. The only course available at the time was one on the Hebrew Bible, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament. The teacher was a Christian academic from Kenya.
“When I got to the class, the teacher told everyone they needed to get a Bible for the class,” said Lawson. “But, he said to not get a King James version, as, he said, it’s a bad translation.
“This class opened my mind a little bit to the Bible as a piece of literature. He made the Bible acceptable for me. It wasn’t a book to be feared. Years later, I have a Jewish girlfriend and her sister invites me for Shabbat dinner. I thought, I like this. It’s really cool. I shared with my girlfriend at the time that an early ancestor was Jewish, but that I know nothing about Judaism.”
From that first Shabbat dinner, Lawson went to her girlfriend’s family home every Friday night.
“They weren’t Orthodox,” said Lawson. “They were just a modern family that would stop everything for Shabbat. It was really cool. I loved the ritual. I loved how open the family was. I loved how they accepted and treated me.”
Around this time, Lawson met Rabbi Joshua Lesser of the Reconstructionist Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta. Lesser hired Lawson as his personal trainer and, over the course of the two or three years she worked in that capacity, their friendship evolved and he invited her to his shul.
“I was hesitant,” admitted Lawson. “I shared with him the story of my great-grandfather. Eventually, I did go and I fell in love with the community – not necessarily Judaism, at the time – but I loved the community. That’s how I got interested.
“I started going to services regularly. The community has straight people, gay people and kids but, mostly, it is a space where I felt like I could be myself – something I’d never experienced before in a religious community.”
Lawson went on to learn more about Judaism and, in 2003, she told Lesser she was thinking about converting. In the conversion classes she took, the teacher helped her see a broader view of Judaism.
“I loved the class,” said Lawson. “I loved learning about the Jewish calendar and reading the Bible again, as a piece of literature. I loved learning about Jewish history.”
After about a year of studies, the class was over. And, on Oct. 13, 2006 – the day before her 35th birthday – she converted to Judaism.
Lesser asked Lawson to be a congregational representative on the board for the gay members of the synagogue. A year later, when gay marriage was a hot topic in the presidential election debate, Lawson took her stance a bit further.
“It was sort of funny, because I didn’t know anyone in my gay life who was even thinking about trying to change marriage laws,” she said. “We were all just happy that we could be legally gay. Josh [Lesser] asked if I wanted to join the gay and lesbian task force, as they were coming to Atlanta to do some training. I was like, sure. And he’s like, the good thing about it is, they need more diversity. They need more black and brown voices on these issues.”
Lawson later joined a clergy-based group working on the issue. This group, according to Lawson, was all over the map as far as sexual orientation and most everything. But, what they did agree on was that the state had no business legislating what you did behind your own closed doors.
“The more I started to do volunteer work, the more I realized I wanted to have a more powerful effect, more ability to effect change … that I would need the title of rabbi … and here we are today, as I work on becoming one,” said Lawson.
“Obviously, I’m different. There aren’t a lot of rabbis that look like me. I think being on the edge of the fringes of Judaism allows me to be more flexible or more creative in the things I do.”
One of the required classes that Lawson took last year was on entrepreneurship and thinking outside of the box. During that time, she was approached by the Jewish owner of a local vegan café she went to often, asking if she would be willing to lead services at the café on Friday evenings.
“I went back to class and told my teacher about it,” said Lawson. “I wrote it up as a grant … so I had the grant to lead services at this Lansdale café (outside Philadelphia).”
They have been running services at the café for months now. Every Friday, Lawson shows up with two vegan challot and grape juice. Arnold (the café owner) sets up the place and invites friends and customers to stay for the service.
“Every time, we’ve had at least a minyan,” said Lawson. “It’s been a lot of fun. People can show up as they are, with their sandals, their shorts. We sing. We do a little Torah and welcome the Shabbat.
“People come because they want to see what’s happening in the café … I think it was last week, Arnold had a flautist there, and people came to hear this guy play the flute. Also, I think, in May, there was a couple there who were not Jewish, but they had been taking a Christian class on Judaism. The class was finished, they saw this service and came to learn more about Judaism.”
Next on Lawson’s mind is leading services outside. “I don’t know how I’m going to pull it off yet,” she said. “Right now, I’m in this stage of trying to get a lot of buzz around different ways that people can do Shabbat.
“My dream, I don’t know when it will happen, is to have a Shabbat morning service in the future, in a park. I’m someone who, I see God in nature a lot. To be running in the woods, when the sun is coming up, is the best way for me to pray in the morning. I know a lot of people could connect their Judaism to nature. I haven’t quite figured it out yet, but I hope to.”
Lawson is set to graduate rabbinical school in 2018.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.