know about How Sandra Lawson Combats Racism in Reconstructionism – The Forward
Like other Jewish institutions, the Reconstructionist movement committed to racial justice in 2020 as part of its stated mission to combine a strong commitment to Jewish tradition with a search for contemporary meaning.
Unlike others, its leaders are committed to making it more than just lip service. That year, his Tikkun Olam Commission made racial justice the primary focus of his work. Deborah Waxman, president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism, said that in 2021, her board of governors “has elevated racial diversity, equity and inclusion to one of our top strategic priorities.”
Reconstruction Judaism is the core organization of the Reconstructionist movement, training the next generation of rabbis, fostering emerging expressions of Jewish life, and maintaining a strong commitment to both tradition and the search for contemporary meaning.
Rabbi Sandra Lawson, one of the world’s first queer black rabbis, joined Reconstructing Judaism as the inaugural director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion in January 2021. Her vision goes beyond simply discussing issues of racial justice with the congregation. . . “I’m more interested in changing the culture,” she said.
Lawson, who was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1970, grew up in a military family. A US Army veteran, she has degrees from Florida Saint Leo University and Clark Atlanta University, and has served as an investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League, identifying hate groups in the Southeast. Lawson’s teachings on Jewish life have also earned him a large and loyal following on Twitter, Snapchat and other social media.
While studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and after her ordination in 2018, Lawson was qualified for opportunities denied to her because of the color of her skin. She was serving as Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life and Hillel Jewish Educator at Elon University in Elon, NC. her when she learned of the opportunity to rebuild Judaism.
“I took this job so I could do everything I could to prevent another student or colleague from experiencing what I went through,” he said. “I won’t be able to erase racism, but maybe I can make it safer for our black and brown colleagues in the same way we did when the first generation of LGBTQ rabbis came along.”
Lawson’s position was made possible by a grant from the Black Jews Initiative as part of a series of assignments to pilot programs and early-stage efforts to develop and support Jews of Color in Jewish institutions and communities. In announcing Lawson’s hire, JoCI Executive Director Ilauna Kaufman praised Lawson’s work in making Judaism more accessible, saying, “We are delighted to see that Reconstructing Judaism has recognized Rabbi Sandra as a vital leader. . [and] We are proud to be part of this process.”
Lawson created the Pilot Congregation Assessment Tool for Rebuilding Judaism for Racial Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to help rabbis and other leaders make their religious spaces more welcoming. The assessment tool, which focuses on anti-racist reading materials, deep introspection, and visual assessments of religious spaces to help rabbis and other leaders gain insight and learn tactics that can make their congregations more inclusive and equitable, was developed partly through Lawson’s conversations. with white rabbis and Jewish leaders who had done racial justice work.
Lawson invited four congregations to beta test the assessment tool in a pilot project. The participating rabbis were Rabbi David Barior of Kadima in Seattle; Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton of Or Haneshamah in Ottawa, Canada; Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde of Oseh Shalom in suburban Washington, DC; and Rabbi Rachel Weiss of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Chicago. They recently shared their experiences at B’Yachad: Reconstructing Judaism Together, the movement-wide convention held in late March in suburban Washington, DC, and online.
Lawson began the pilot project by asking each rabbi to form a task force of leaders in the community. He met with them to recommend steps to become more aware of how Jews of color might experience their spaces. After reviewing the movement’s strategic plan for racial justice, they dove into recommended reading, including an Ashkenazi white privilege checklist. They met in pairs and as a group to discuss what they learned.
“The checklist helped us as Ashkenazi Jews begin to notice all these elements that we take for granted, like not being seen as exotic when we walk into a synagogue, and generally having prayers and melodies that are familiar and reflect the traditions. who I grew up with,” Jacobs-Velde said.
The groups then walked through their physical spaces to see them through the eyes of Jews of color and BIPOC people, then discussed ways to improve the visual environment. “We saw things that weren’t going to be welcome: materials in the library, signs when you walk in the door, toys in the preschool, where a Jew of color would walk in and see themselves,” Weiss said.
Jacobs-Velde described how her group realized that a large display case at the entrance to their synagogue where traditional Judaica was displayed presented an opportunity to share more diverse representations. And how the placement of various images required a new awareness. “We have some beautiful signs that say, ‘Jews come in all colors’ from the Jewish Multiracial Network, but they are located in the wing of the school where few members can see them,” she said. “In our sanctuary, we have an Israeli flag and an American flag. We stopped to ask who is inclusive and who is not. She also mentioned that they are rethinking how they train their greeters to create a more welcoming atmosphere.
The four rabbis and their working groups then studied resource materials borrowed from Audacious Hospitality, the Union for Reform Judaism’s program focused on racial diversity, equity and inclusion work.
Finally, the pilot program groups met with Lawson to review their findings and discuss next steps. “This is the beginning of the beginning,” Lawson said, emphasizing the ongoing nature of the work. These people are not going to get a certificate saying they have endorsed anti-racism or that their congregations are no longer racist,” he said.
At the B’Yachad convention, the rabbis and members of their working groups described their experiences with the pilot project, from joy to discomfort to sometimes feeling attacked, and how working with the assessment tool helped them Realize that those reactions are a natural part of the process. They stressed the need to listen to Jews of color and listen to what they were saying, even if it was painful to do so.
“Like many congregations, ours is filled with loving, wonderful, social justice, justice-loving, justice-loving white people,” Weiss said at the convention. “This assessment tool is really good and we should all experiment, to say, ‘Let’s see how you need to change yourself.'”
Bolton shared that one of the “Aha!” moments for the group he was taking responsibility for being proactive. “That’s when we stop saying, ‘We’re so welcoming and inclusive, why don’t you come to us?’ That’s the job,” he said.
Barior highlighted the solidarity that resulted from the process. “It allowed us to bring together people who care about this work and have been doing it, internally and externally, with a strong sense that we are on the path to tackling this problem together,” he said, adding that the training allowed people of different generations to be on the same page.
“We live in and are the product of a society that is deeply racist, and we are deeply racist,” Weiss said at the convention. “We can have books in the library, dolls in the classroom, liturgy in the pulpit, [but] if we don’t actually talk about our personal responsibility for our personal actions and use the synagogue as a container for that, then that’s only part of it.”
Lawson emphasized the need for deep introspection. “There are a lot of congregations that are doing anti-racism work, they are showing up at protests and rallies, but they are not doing the internal anti-racism work that needs to be done so that Jews of color can belong in Jewish communities.” she said. “None of our synagogues are going around saying ‘We don’t want you here.’ But they do not know that things they do not see can be unpleasant for people. There are many subtle ways that we tell people that they are not welcome.”
Congregations are already expressing interest in signing up for the next cohort. “I’m trying to help take the shame and guilt out of talking about racism,” Lawson said. “I think people’s hearts are in the right place. They need education on what racism looks like. They need to learn to listen. They need to understand that the white experience that they have is not a universal experience for all people. And they need to have some humility around what they don’t know. That’s when I think things will really start to change.”
Part of the urgency fueling this work comes from America’s demographic darkening and its impact on Jewish communities. “I am concerned about the number of phone calls and messages that I get from Jews of color who are fed up and leaving the Jewish community, who don’t want to be a part of it,” Lawson said. “If we don’t start creating spaces where Jews of color belong, we are losing future churchgoers, future rabbis, future singers. We can’t afford to lose people who really want to get involved.”
Check out Hashivenu, Rabbi Waxman’s podcast on Jewish teachings on resilience, co-hosted by Rabbi Lawson. This allyship episode has been downloaded over 10,000 times.