Rabbi Sandra Lawson serves as Jewish educator and associate chaplain for Jewish life at Elon University near Burlington, North Carolina. Since September, Lawson has been a participant in our Jewish Political Voices Project, where Moment is exploring the views of American Jewish voters in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election. She traveled a long and winding path to Judaism that began with her acceptance of a rabbi’s invite to an Atlanta congregation. As she describes it, “I just kept on going.” Born into an African-American military family, Lawson, 50, was a U.S. Army military police officer and a physical education trainer before her ordination in 2018 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Lawson also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Saint Leo University and a Master of Arts degree in Sociology from Clark Atlanta University. She identifies as queer and was named a Jewish LGBTQ hero by Keshet, a nonprofit working for the full acceptance of LGBTQ individuals within the Jewish community. Lawson also ranked No. 1 on Kveller’s recent list of “13 Jews of color to follow on social media right now.” Moment contributor Dan Freedman spoke with Lawson about the recent events surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
We are providing the unfiltered opinions of voters interviewed for this project. Those views are based on their understanding and perception of facts and information from a range of sources. In some cases, that information may be misleading or incorrect.
What’s gone through your mind since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing street protests and destruction in cities nationwide?
It’s hard to watch that video and not be hurt by it. The police officers did not see George Floyd as a human being. Add to that the fact that we’ve been home all these weeks because of COVID-19. I’m not surprised by the reaction, the anger. What gives me hope is that these protests are way more racially diverse than in the past. There are a ton of white people out there protesting along with black and brown. And there are some bad people doing damage. But that doesn’t surprise me either. This is a movement being led by young people, just like integration. They’ve had enough.
As an African-American rabbi, what is your perspective on this situation and what white people can do to improve race relations?
White people who have moved further along can help other white people. They need to understand the history of this country, and saying things like “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean their lives don’t matter. I’ve heard people say ‘Well, why can’t the protests be peaceful? I was going to go until there was violence.’ If everything was perfect, nobody would have to be out on the streets. They need to understand why the world is so angry right now. We need to use this moment. I fear that if it stops being on the news, people will stop caring.
Are white Jews better prepared to be responsive, given their historic role as civil rights movement allies?
[Most] Jews know about the Torah saying no fewer than 36 times how you’re supposed to treat strangers. But I think often it’s cited too much without any real vulnerability or heartfelt stuff. So in that realm, Jews who benefit from white privilege have the same issues and challenges other white people in this country have. But for anyone going to synagogue who values our texts, we have framing. In the Mishna it says “one who destroys a life, it is as if they have killed the entire world, and one who saves a life, it is as if they had saved the entire world.” At this moment, that’s way more powerful than the “strangers” text.
Have you suffered from racism in Jewish settings?
As a rabbi, the bias I have experienced plays out in “You don’t look like a rabbi. How is it that you’re a Jew? When did you convert?” So that’s kind of been my story. Nobody in the synagogue is going to call me the N-word. But I can tell you about interviewing for jobs, and the hostility when my name was put forward. A hiring committee once put my name forward as the best candidate, but congregants were getting really upset for no reason. And I remember the president of the synagogue said “I don’t know why they’re so angry.” And I’m like “really? You didn’t do any of the work you needed to do before you brought me into your synagogue.” So I have experienced a lot of racism in the hiring processes of synagogues.
You’ve written eloquently about your conversion to Judaism as an adult. What initially attracted you to the Jewish tradition?
I am Jewish today because of a man who is really important to me, a rabbi in Atlanta (Rabbi Joshua Lesser.) He invited me to go to his synagogue. And I thought ‘this is pretty cool,’ and I just kept on going! I fell in love with the community. It was the first time in my life that I felt I could be my whole self in a religious space. The rabbi knew I had a Jewish girlfriend at the time and that I was asking some questions. I felt like he was my brother from another mother.
The synagogue was a great place but it still had the same challenges as any community. But I became a board member and I really started to see the inner workings of some of the challenges they had around biases and things like that. When I walked into the synagogue, no one seemed to care that I was black. And nobody seemed to care that I was gay because it was a gay-founded synagogue.
How do you feel about efforts to defund or reduce funding for police departments?
I believe that our entire criminal justice system needs to be overhauled. This means of course overhauling our police. Police need better training on racism and implicit bias. They do not need weapons for war and they need to be held accountable.
Can you tell us how you view President Trump’s reaction to the protests? And what about his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden?
Even presidents I disagreed with in the past tried to bring people together in moments of tragedy. But when Trump speaks, he makes things worse. They cleared out peaceful protesters so that Trump could walk across the street and hold up a Bible in front of a church that has an amazing history of civil rights and protecting people. I know that as a rabbi if somebody did that in my safe space, I don’t know what I would say. I know I would be angry. Biden, from what I’ve seen, is acting more like a president should act. And, yes, I do plan on voting for him.