The Gay African-American Rabbinical Student Hoping to Redefine Where Judaism Happens

'In the U.S., people can deal with a female rabbi, a queer rabbi,' Sandra Lawson says, but ‘Oh, you’re black, too? That’s too much to deal with.'

Philadelphia rabbinical student Sandra Lawson.
JTA courtesy

JTA — Sandra Lawson didn’t expect to perform a public benediction at her local pub in this city’s Roxborough neighborhood.

But when her friend Jay, who was entering firefighter training, asked her for a blessing earlier this year, she stood with him in the middle of the room and put her rabbinical school training into action.

“Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, please bless Jay on his journey of being a firefighter,” she said, placing her hand on his shoulder. “Come back and have a beer with me.”

For Lawson, a bar is a natural place to create a Jewish ceremony. As a rabbi in training who herself is breaking barriers, Lawson is eager to take Jewish practice outside the traditional bounds of the synagogue.

Lawson, 45, lives at the intersection of several communities while being in a small demographic within the American Jewish world. As an African-American lesbian who converted to Judaism, eats vegan and is now studying to be a rabbi at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Lawson believes American Jews need to rethink how their community looks and where it should congregate.

“Redefining or helping people understand what the Jewish community looks like today is something I want to do,” Lawson told JTA in a vegan cafe where she holds Friday night services.

“In the U.S., people can deal with a female rabbi, a queer rabbi,” she continued. But, “‘Oh, you’re black, too? That’s too much to deal with in one day.’ When you put those identities together, it’s too much to handle.”

Lawson grew up in a military family and, while Christian, wasn’t raised religious. Her first exposure to Judaism came in an Old Testament course at St. Leo University in Florida while she was serving in the Army as a military police officer. Following military service, Lawson became a personal trainer in Atlanta, where one of her clients was Joshua Lesser, a Reconstructionist rabbi and local activist for racial justice. She began attending services at his Congregation Beth Haverim, a synagogue for the LGBT community, and converted in 2004.

She decided to become a rabbi after representing the Jewish community at a LGBT memorial service for Coretta Scott King, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife. She realized there that being an African-American Jew could allow her to strengthen connections among communities. She’s on track to graduate from rabbinical school in 2018.

“I was able to help make those connections and build some of those bridges by being someone who wants to be clergy and help build more trust around interfaith stuff,” Lawson said. She wants to get to a point where “when I Google ‘rabbi,’ I see someone other than a bearded white guy.”

(Indeed, when you Google “rabbi,” all you see initially are bearded white men.)

Lawson says “nobody’s been horrible to me,” but she has encountered different challenges to her identity, depending on where she is. At one synagogue, she was standing in a prayer shawl and kippah with a friend when a congregant approached her friend and asked him if she was Jewish.

“I don’t know anyone who goes to a synagogue, wears a kippah and a tallit Saturday morning who is not Jewish,” she said. “Every community has their own idea of who is a Jew and what does a Jew look like. If you don’t fit that framework, they don’t think you’re Jewish.”