Rabbi Sandra Lawson is Leading Progress in Jewish Communities—And Not Just for the Reasons Many Believe

What makes someone a progressive Jewish leader? Does holding one or more marginalized identities inherently make someone revolutionary? As white Jews continue to recognize the very real problems of inequality and exclusion in the Jewish ecosystem—the collection of institutions, communities, and individuals that make up Jewish communal life—the presence of leaders who are from underrepresented and oppressed identity categories may feel like automatic progress.

Jews of Color (JoCs) and those with additional marginalized identities should be in Jewish spaces and in leadership roles (a top priority at the Jews of Color Initiative). At the same time, Jews of Color should not be reduced to their identity labels. Rabbi Sandra Lawson, currently the campus rabbi and Hillel educator at Elon University, has been hailed as a progressive Jewish leader, often with emphasis on her identities as Black and queer.

Rabbi Sandra, as she likes to be called, will herself attest to the meaning she finds in changing the image of rabbi for the Jewish community. She takes pride in knowing that her visibility teaches others “yes, you can be all of these things. You can be queer, you can be Black, you can be Brown, and you can be a rabbi.” But like all Jewish leaders of color, Rabbi Sandra is also more than her identities alone. The substantial efforts that she puts into moving the Jewish community forward, fostering connection and inclusion in innovative ways, are what make her a truly progressive leader.

One of Rabbi Sandra’s most compelling efforts is the push to make Judaism accessible. This is particularly crucial in a moment in Jewish history where more and more Jews are unaffiliated and don’t necessarily build their lives around a connection to the synagogue.

“The era of people building a synagogue, or a JCC, or a chavurah for that matter, and just assuming people will show up is over. It doesn’t mean that synagogues are all going away or that we don’t need synagogues, it just means we have to do a better job of knowing where people are. And for me, that means that if an overwhelming number of unaffiliated Jews use social media, then that’s where I’m gonna be. Let’s say I find out one morning that there’s a whole bunch of Jews hanging out in the park—guess where I’m going!”

This isn’t just hypothetical. Rabbi Sandra has a strong social media following and has committed herself to accessible Judaism on various platforms. Some of these include teaching Torah on Instagram or TikTok, creating her “Minutes of Torah” podcast, and sharing videos of herself singing and playing guitar to Jewish songs and prayers, sometimes even to ones she writes. She has also been known to lead Shabbat services in a café.

“It’s not about trying to be cool or different,” Rabbi Sandra assured. “It’s just like look, Judaism is awesome and let me tell you why.” At every turn, Rabbi Sandra shows a genuine desire to make Judaism relatable; she ascribes to what Ruby Sales and other activists have termed “public theology,” which Rabbi Sandra explained as “taking our theology to the streets.”

Creating a relatable Judaism is perhaps a goal shared by many Jewish leaders, but it’s far more challenging to put into practice. Rabbi Sandra’s gift is her ability to build innovative methods that are firmly grounded in the needs and interests of everyday Jews from diverse backgrounds and levels of involvement. This partly stems from her own unique introduction to Judaism through Congregation Bet Haverim, founded by gay and lesbian Jews almost 35 years ago.

By beginning her Jewish journey with Congregation Bet Haverim, Rabbi Sandra “was introduced to the idea of radical inclusiveness and embracing of diversity” as central to Jewish communities. “Today I have said to people, if I had wandered into many of these synagogues that do nothing for me, or just talk at me, or are boring, I would not be Jewish today, and I definitely would not be a rabbi. So how we treat people when they walk in the door, how we embrace Judaism says a lot to the people. It said a lot to me as someone that knew nothing about Judaism, and I fell in love with the community.”

That love for Judaism and becoming a Jewish leader was, unfortunately not surprisingly, accompanied by the pain of racism. Rabbi Sandra said she has previously experienced racism not only in everyday life but in the hiring practices in Jewish communities, and sometimes through backlash she faced from communities once she was hired.

Rabbi Sandra said that her message to Jews of Color who want to be leaders in the community is that, in the face of racism, to “stay focused on the ultimate goal so that you can go out and make the changes you want to make,” words of wisdom that are that unusual combination of cautionary and empowering.

Some would argue that one of the most powerful individual acts of resistance to a racist society is to live unapologetically as your whole self. Perhaps the more commonly acknowledged way Rabbi Sandra does this is by embracing her Blackness and queerness as a rabbi. But often overlooked are the ways Rabbi Sandra finds joy and practices self-care in her daily life.

Rabbi Sandra celebrates the joys of life with her wife Susan Hurrey, a white Philadelphia native who hesitatingly agreed to Rabbi Sandra’s dream of moving to the South and now is set on never leaving the region. “The two best things that happened in my life were that I married her, and that I was ordained,” Rabbi Sandra said, a full smile spreading across her face. Between challah baking for Elon’s Hillel, enjoying the quirky personalities of their three tiny dogs, and soaking in the sun on their Southern-style porch, Susan and Rabbi Sandra have built a beautiful life together.

Rabbi Sandra also finds joy in music. She has always found meaning and spiritual connection through music and has made it a central part of her daily life and expressions of Judaism. “Music really gets me out of my headspace and into my heartspace,” she explained. “It’s really another way for me to practice self-care and meditate, and to convey challenges that I experience in the world.”

It was never Rabbi Sandra’s intention to be known for her music, but she is motivated by an inner drive to improve her skills and to use music as a source of connection to the Divine, and has found sharing her music helps her cultivate connection in the Jewish community. Bringing her desire to learn and the vulnerability of sharing her creative process into her spiritual communal leadership is itself quite a radical act, and one that encourages her community of social media followers and beyond to connect to her and to Judaism.

As Rabbi Sandra continues to work for a more inclusive and accessible Judaism, one thing is clear: how she builds community and connectedness will continue to inspire us. “Who knows,” she says, “next year there might be something else that I’m doing that nobody knows about yet.”

Edited Jan. 21, 2021: Rabbi Sandra now serves as the inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with Reconstructing Judaism.

Rabbi Sandra has recently been honored by Keshet’s OUTstanding! Program, and will be featured alongside two other honorees at an event on November 18, 2020. Find information on the event, tickets, and all three honorees here.