She’s black, gay and soon you can call her ‘rabbi’

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Sandra Lawson prays at the Bristol Jewish Center. Photo by Kim Weimer/Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times, courtesy of Sandra Lawson

Sandra Lawson prays at the Bristol Jewish Center. Photo by Kim Weimer/Staff Photographer Bucks County Courier Times, courtesy of Sandra Lawson

(RNS) Sandra Lawson, a former military police officer turned personal trainer, wasn’t religious about anything, except maybe fitness. She wasn’t looking to convert to Judaism or any other religion.

And she certainly never aspired to be one of the first — if not the first — black, openly lesbian rabbi.

But this spring Lawson finished her fourth year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia with the help of an online GoFundMe campaign. She plans to marry her girlfriend and spend the fall semester in Israel. If all goes according to plan, she will celebrate her ordination in 2018.

“Sandra,” explained Josh Lesser, the rabbi who presided at her conversion, ”is an ‘all-in’ kind of person.”

When Lawson, now 45, told him that she wanted to be a Jew 11 years ago, he said he didn’t know she would wind up in rabbinical school, but that “some kind of leadership would emerge from this.”

Lawson will be a free-spirited rabbi who takes the Jewish imperative for tikkun olam (“healing the world,” in Hebrew) seriously, her friends and fans say. No one — including Lawson herself, who earned a master’s degree in sociology while a personal trainer — is quite sure whether she will lead a congregation, pursue chaplaincy, lend herself to a progressive cause or focus on teaching. But just by being herself, they say, she will expand people’s ideas of what a Jewish leader looks like.

From left, Sandra Lawson, a rabbinical student, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, and Jessica Rosenberg, a rabbinical student, have a discussion at a conference for LGBTQ Jewish clergy in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, December 9, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sarah Rice

From left, Sandra Lawson, a rabbinical student, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, and Jessica Rosenberg, a rabbinical student, have a discussion at a conference for LGBTQ Jewish clergy in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 2014. Religion News Service photo by Sarah Rice

“As the American Jewish community is becoming increasingly diverse through intermarriage, conversion and adoption, role models are a critical component of identity formation,” said Diane Tobin, director of Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that runs camps and other programs for and about Jews of color.

“But, race is just one of the many factors that will make Sandra a powerful rabbi,” Tobin continued. “From her military training to her background in sociology to her sense of humor, she brings a perspective that will be valuable to any community she serves.”

Her sexual orientation, Lawson said, has not thrown up obstacles in her path toward Judaism or the clergy. But race comes up in her Jewish circles in a way that being gay doesn’t. There are no solid figures on the number of black Jews in the U.S., but it is by all accounts relatively small.

No one has been purposefully mean or rejecting to Lawson, but too many of her co-religionists ask for her conversion story first off, she said, before they get to know her as a person or a Jew. Not long ago, a stranger saw her in a store, noticed her yarmulke and asked her if she was Jewish. She said she was and asked him the same question.

“He looked shocked,” Lawson said of the man who turned out to be Jewish. “Like I was not allowed to ask him what he had just asked me.”

And though race relations may not become the centerpiece of her rabbinate, it will shape her career, she said.

“As a rabbinical student, and a child of southern sharecroppers, I see (Martin Luther) King as one of the most prophetic voices ever and he reminds me of why I want to be a rabbi which is to help to make the world a better place for all,” she wrote on her blog recently.

A picture of King hung in her parents’ home while she was growing up. But Jesus’ did not. Her family was not particularly connected to her father’s Baptist roots, and her mother didn’t talk about religion. As a child, she was drawn to a story her mother told about an Ethiopian Jewish ancestor. But the point, Lawson remembers, was not so much that this forebear was Jewish, but that he did not come to America as a slave.

“I don’t want people to think I grew up searching for this Jewish identity,” Lawson said. “It was just a back story.”

But through a Jewish girlfriend in Atlanta, she was exposed to a full year of Jewish observances and holidays. At Shabbat dinners, Lawson loved how parents blessed their children. At the family’s Passover seder, she felt what Jewish tradition wants participants to feel — that in telling the story of the liberation of the Israelites, they are telling their own liberation story.

The relationship eventually ended. Then in 2001, she met Lesser, who hired her to be his personal trainer at the Urban Body gym in Atlanta. At first, Lawson knew her client as Josh Lesser. Later she found out he was Rabbi Josh Lesser. He invited her to Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta founded by gay Jews.

The congregation was laid-back but serious about issues she cared about — gay rights and inequality.

“I was looking for a community and I thought: ‘I want to be Jewish. And I want to be Jewish here,’” Lawson said. After her conversion, and when she felt herself more drawn toward leadership in the Jewish community, she found out that “there is a school that trains people like Josh.”

So far, she has paid her $19,000 in annual tuition through scholarships and loans. But she recently launched a GoFundMe campaign titled “I want to be a rabbi.”

It has raised more than $6,300 of the $20,000 she seeks, from more than 115 people, including Daniel Sieradski, a Jewish activist prominent in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“She speaks to the progressive causes that I hold dear as a progressive Jewish American,” said Sieradski.

“I feel that many of the leaders in our community are focused on trying to hew to the center or even appeal now more to the right because of the increasing grasp of the right over the American political paradigm,” Sieradski continued. “She doesn’t seem to be having any of that.”

The Reconstructionist movement is the smallest of the mainstream Jewish movements, but its theology, rabbis and progressive values influence the wider Jewish community. Decades ago it accepted women, gay and lesbian rabbis, and interreligious couples. The head of its rabbinical college and association of about 100 congregations, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, is thought to be the first woman and lesbian to lead a mainstream Jewish congregational movement.

Sandra Lawson & Susan Hurrey photo courtesy of Susan Hurrey

Sandra Lawson with Susan Hurrey, her non-Jewish fiancee, who said she has considered converting to Judaism but remains undecided. Photo courtesy of Susan Hurrey

So it helped that her rabbinical school would have no problem with Lawson’s falling in love with Susan Hurrey, her non-Jewish fiancee.

To make Lawson feel comfortable when she moved into her Philadelphia home in 2013, Hurrey — a court reporter who identifies with no religion — bought Lawson two mezuzahs, doorpost markers containing verses from the Hebrew Bible found at the entrance of Jewish homes.

The two met through OK Cupid, the online dating service, where Lawson had written “somewhat serious” under “religion,” a huge understatement. Hurrey still teases Lawson about it, but explained, “She didn’t want to scare anybody off.”

YS/MG END MARKOE

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  • Larry

    Lets just head this off at the pass before things get silly.

    Reconstructionist Judaism, like the sects of the majority of American Jewish adherents does not believe in discrimination and ostracism of people based on sexual orientation. They support marriage equality.

    Whatever personal sectarian specific beliefs one (expecting a flurry of unkind words against her from other posters) has as to those subjects does not change the fact that she is Jewish and reasonably expects to be a qualified member of the clergy of her sect.

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  • CarrotCakeMan

    Rabbi Lawson will indeed bring tikkun olam where she passes. Good luck!

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  • JR

    A black lesbian Jewish rabbi, planning to marry her lover soon. Just where are these rabbis trained? I love how her goodness is gushed over and her blatant sin is just part of her being. These types of religious sects within sects need to toss all Scripture, Tradition, and history out the window. They obviously violate most of God’s revelation anyway.
    Just when did God hint at the possibility of same sex marriage? Even the teensiest bit?

  • Larry

    JR, as I said above, you’re unkind and blatant sectarian prejudices are duly noted and of no relevance to the validity of her faith and sect.

    Your faith and sect may consider her life and behavior sinful, but hers does not. Your interpretation of scripture is your own. Your clear disrespect for those who do not share the same views is more than apparent in your post. You only seek respect for your own religious views and casually disregard those of others.

    “Just when did God hint at the possibility of same sex marriage? Even the teensiest bit?”

    The version of God she believes in not only hints at the possibility, but sanctions it with full blessings of the faithful. Its just not your version.

    [Please, make me laugh by saying that all people should believe in the exact same way as you do]

  • Alleluia!

  • JR

    She is a religious fraud by the standard of any true religion…….especially Judaism. There is only one version of God…..God’s revealed version. She’s a rabbi as much as you are. You got hoodwinked again……..amazing.

  • JR

    Thank you!

  • Larry

    I must laugh at the irony of your statements. Typical Christian. Has delusions that he is King of the Jews. That they must all follow as you say. Just like his Lord and Savior. 🙂

    Never mind that they have gone 2000 years or so of not bothering to take people like yourself seriously on the subject of religious belief. She is more of a rabbi than you will be.

    In your delusions you think of yourself as the only person with true religious beliefs worthy of respect. Your inability to understand or respect religions besides your own is pretty well established now.

    Even most ironic is that an atheist has to lecture you about how to get along with other faiths. To instruct you how to respect religious belief instead of belittling it.

  • bqrq obviously as a Christian and a frequent poster concerning various sexual acts undoubtedly supports pederasty, and child abuse in general. One has to look no further than the rape camps in Zambia and Mozambique, The Duggars, and the Catholic Church. The “Christian” reaction to their horrific acts of abuse is to minimize them and make knee-jerk excuses. Couple that with lame attempts to blame gays. All clearly done as a diversion for their own proclivities and misdeeds.

    How pathetic.

  • Abigayil

    As a traditionally religious and halakhic ally observant Jew, I have to say that some of the commentary here is appalling. Nobody is going to be won over to a point of view because someone professing it engages in little to nothing besides bash those who don’t fall in line with that POV. It’s immature and undignified.

  • Doc Anthony

    Hmm. As a feature article, it’s certainly informative, but it unavoidably comes across as yet another Arcus Foundation evangelistic tract.

  • Doc Anthony

    What “version of God”, Larry? The God of the Torah? The God of the Hebrew Bible? Hmmm?

  • Greg1

    Larry, since when did you become the expert on religion? You are a areligious, and should focus on where you excel. The Pentateuch clearly forbids gay sex, and Christianity is simply fulfilled Judaism (read Romans 11:17). Both Jews and Christians are all part of the Plan of God.

  • This was one of the best articles I’ve read in a while – Rabbi Lawson will definitely bring tikkun olam into the world.

  • JR

    What’s really ironic is that you believe your statements about your credibility.

  • JC

    Who said she a) wants to work with children, and b) is “unnatural and disgusting” to you, perhaps. It’s ok if you don’t want to work with her (or, any homosexual, it sounds like). But that doesn’t make the way she chooses to live her life (WITHOUT AFFECTING YOU IN ANY WAY) wrong.

  • Larry

    Since I don’t make silly statements expecting all religious beliefs fall in line with my personal views.

    Your views of the Jewish scripture are your own. They are not shared by the sect of Lawson. Quoting new testament passages does nothing to support statements as to how Jews carry out the interpretation of their scripture.

    It is extremely arrogant on your part to be making claims about how faiths besides your own should believe. But it is typical of the disregard fundamentalist Christians have for ideas besides their own.

    You are in no position to speak of any other faith or sect than your own because you make no effort to show a scintilla of understanding of others.

  • Larry

    The version accepted by Ms. Lawson’s sect. Just like you spout off constantly about the version of your Christian sect.

    It is only delusional arrogance on your part that makes you think you speak as the sole voice of Christianity and Judaism.

    Sort of like if universal unitarians start telling you that your whole religious belief is wrong and improper. Outsider arrogance. Nothing more.

  • Garson Abuita

    Greg1: No, the Pentateuch does not “clearly forbid[] gay sex.” The plain meaning of the Levitical verses is to prohibit only anal sex between men. Lesbianism is never mentioned.
    But even if it did, and this probably goes to the “what version of God” question: Reconstructionist Judaism (a) does not hold halacha to be binding and (b) views God not as a supernatural interventionist, but as the sum of the natural processes that enable humanity. Suffice it to say it’s pretty liberal.
    Abigayil, welcome to RNS I’m afraid..

  • Doc Anthony

    Hey, I was just asking for a simple explanation, Larry. You DID say “The version of God she believes in not only hints at the possibility (of gay marriage), but sanctions it with full blessings of the faithful.”

    Okay. So you must have an idea of what Lawson’s “new version of God” entails, yes? Therefore I just wanted you to let me know where I can find this new version of God, that you said she believes in.

    Permit me, then, to repeat the following important questions:

    Is this new “version of God” found in the Jewish Torah? Is this new God, this new “Gay-Marriage-God”, found in the Hebrew Bible at all?

  • Larry

    If you want some details about Lawson’s faith and sect, its called Reconstructionist Judaism.

    There are plenty of resources concerning it for you to peruse. You can read it for yourself.

  • Greg1

    Since when did Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 become part of the New Testament? Larry, you are showing your ignorance.

  • ben in oakland

    @Greg

    ” The Pentateuch clearly forbids gay sex.” But says nothing about lesbians. Oh, well, maybe you can make up more stuff about the APA.

  • Larry

    Greg1, the fact that you have no understanding as to how Jews interpret their own scripture is proof enough of your ignorance. So how does Reconstructionist Judaism treat such passages? You won’t ever care to find out.

    There are entire schools of thought among Jewish scholars of all sects going on for centuries on how they do not interpret Leviticus as you would have so.

    Again, its your arrogant delusion which makes you think that a completely different faith than your own would adopt the same ideas and interpretations of scripture.

    There are enough material differences between Fundamentalist Christianity and mainstream Judaism that you can’t say they are even close to similar. You are simply spouting off a personal opinion. One derogatory to the Jewish faith, Reconstructionist sect.

  • Greg1

    Larry, you mean how Jews in the last 40 years now interpret the Sacred Scriptures.

  • Greg1

    Garson, please tell that to God Almighty at your Judgment.

  • Susan

    “The Pentateuch clearly forbids gay sex, and Christianity is simply fulfilled Judaism (read Romans 11:17). Both Jews and Christians are all part of the Plan of God.”

    I object to the idea of Christianity as “fulfilled Judaism”. Judaism does not need to be “fulfilled” by Christianity. Judaism is not a Pentateuch religion. It is a rabbinic religion. Judaism continued to evolve after the Pentateuch ends. There are centuries of Midrash, Torah commentaries and Talmud that Christians ignore. The same process continues and Judaism continues to evolve today. That is why all the non-Orthodox denominations perform Gay and Lesbian marriages and now accept Gays and Lesbians as rabbis and cantors.

  • Greg1

    Christianity is fulfilled Judaism: just to site a few verses: Isaiah 7:14; Micah 5:2

  • A. Marina Fournier

    I gather mine is no true religion–by your standards. None of my Deities would reject her & her goal of tikkun olam–they would welcome her with joy and open arms, as would most of Their followers. Most cultural injunctions in Tanakh are based on not being “those others”, due to a Jealous G*d. YHWH couldn’t ask to have no others before YHWH without some present.

    Does the Shekinah not live in Judiaism? Do you believe that Tanakh is the whole of writings that your understanding of G*d revealed to mere mortals, many of them men? The Dead Sea Scrolls cannot be the only set of holy writ which had to be abandoned in a sudden long journey. We have no records, possibly due to the choices *men*, not G*d, made as editors/move coordinators, of G*d’s views on female religious leaders.

    As with the US Constitution not having been set for future shifts in society, so could not those early writings, for those times, predict social changes beyond the understanding of mere mortals, religious…

  • A. Marina Fournier

    Thank you. It’s that evolve thing.

    The only male-male joinings in “the ancient world” were Power-Over, and often abusive, with no love expected. The younger male was like a pet, but not the chattel women were in many of those cultures.

    Gays and lesbians are lovers and partners of each other, and any inequality in power during the relationship is not necessarily abuse.

  • A. Marina Fournier

    I love the fact that she is a descendant of an Ethiopian rabbi.

    When I have some cash available, I may just give some to her GoFundMe account.

  • mizrahi jose

    The white Americans who do this are no different but they can get away with it, as usual! He works on mysterious ways that no one can fathom but Divine Intervention does not follow human ignorance so that is a good thang! G*d bless USA

  • Greg1

    A. Marina.; If you only knew how greatly offended God is by sins of this sort. During Mary’s final appearance in Fatima Portugal in 1913, with a very sad look on her face, Mary’s final words to Lucia were: “Do not offend the Lord our God anymore, because His is already so much offended.” At that she opened her hands and the miracle of the sun occurred, which was witnessed by about 30,000 people. We will all stand in Judgment before Our Lord at the end of our earthly lives, and then there will be no excuses, only Truth.

  • Fmr Cath

    She is not to be judged by Christian standards, NO. She will be judged by the God she claims to worship. The sacred scriptures (Jewish) do not allow for women rabbis, active homosexual behavior within the Jewish faith nor same-sex marriage…. She is a rabbi in her mind and in the minds of the sect she is a part of but absolutely not in God’s eyes. Besides, the Jews rejected their God long ago and broke his commands and covenants themselves. He is no longer blessing the Jews/Israelites as his chosen people. He has chosen others in their place and has made a “new covenant” with “the Israel of God”. (Romans 2:28-29) For he is not a Jew who is one on the outside, nor is circumcision something on the outside, on the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one on the inside, and his circumcision is that of the heart by spirit and not by a written code. That person’s praise comes from God, not from people. She is NOT following God’s law. See Lev.18:22; 20:13; 26:9-17; Jeremiah 31:31-32;…

  • Susan

    I have read Isaiah 7:14. First of all it does not say virgin it says a young woman of marriageable age. Second, it is not talking about Jesus. It is talking about an immediate event that Jews will be saved from.

    I have also read Micah 5:2. It is talking about an Assyrian invasion. It is not talking about Jesus.

    All these examples of supposed prophecies from the Tancach only apply if you read them backwards and already believe in Jesus.

  • Susan

    That is what one Protestant theologian called the “theology of contempt” of Christianity towards Judaism.

    I repeat that Judaism is a rabbinic religion. It includes how the rabbis have interpreted the Tanach over the centuries. For many Jews, but not all Jews, this process still continues.

  • Garson Abuita

    Greg1, the Almighty is more concerned with misrepresenting his words than arguing over what it means. There’s plenty of debate about Jewish law concerning same-sex relations, but the plain meaning of those verses from Leviticus is clear: it solely prohibits anal sex between men. To go further, you must do what Christianity has condemned for nearly two millennia: become a “Pharisee” and start getting Talmudic.

  • Larry

    Greg1, their sect, their rules. You can make your derogatory comments about it all you want. But it doesn’t mean a damn thing other than you don’t respect the beliefs of that group. How very sectarian of you.

  • Larry

    So what do the rattlings of catholic hysterics and outright fraud in service of a tourist industry have to do with a liberal Jewish sect? Absolutely nothing.

  • Larry

    Thank you for showing that you have no respect for Judaism as a religion.

  • Greg1

    They have the right to reinterpret the Sacred Writ any way they choose, but it is hard to redefine something that is objectively written. If I said to you the car is black, and you told me it was yellow, I’d either think you were color blind, or insane. The same goes here.

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  • Joshua

    Reconstructionist Judaism is the equivalent of the Unitarian Church. The Conservative sect is about the same as the Episcopal denomination. Orthodox is about the same as conservative Christianity. And Reform are on the same level as the United Church of Christ.

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