Against All Hate, a web series produced by the Israeli Consulate General of The Southeast Anat Sultan-Dadon who recently hosted “Asking the Uncomfortable Questions” with Rabbi Sandra Lawson, is part of an initiative to confront racism and anti-Semitism. Lawson is the Associate Chaplain at Elon University in North Carolina where she uses her platform as a queer Black woman in leadership to educate Jewish communities about Jews of color. The conversation began with Rabbi Lawson saying a prayer of gratitude usually recited in the morning. Watch the full conversation here
“We’re about to have a challenging conversation for many and I want to ground us and the people watching in gratitude,” Rabbi Lawson stated before saying the blessing.
Rabbi Lawson answered questions from Israeli Consulate General Sultan-Dadon,Wendell Shelby-Wallace, Director of External Affairs, Strategic Partnerships and Initiatives at Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast; and Sierra Weiss, Director of Academic Affairs and Jewish Community Relations at Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast, addressing the presumption that Jews of color are converts. Many times the question crosses personal boundaries like asking “What was your journey to Judaism?” Rabbi Lawson says these questions often get dismissed as innocent “curiosity,” but she says that’s not always the case.
“Asking about my personal journey to Judaism only answers that question. It only tells you I converted, and absolutely nothing about me as a person,” Rabbi Lawson says. “I don’t think it’s about curiosity. If I tell you I want to go about my day, or eat, or sit in a pew and pray, and the person asking insists on knowing, that tells me it’s not about curiosity. It’s about you needing to know why I am here or why I’m Jewish, so you as a white person can feel safe. And I think white folks need to figure that out.”
Rabbi Lawson says the demographics are changing and if white Jews continue to treat Jews of color like they don’t belong they’re not going to come back to your communities. When Jews of color enter a predominantly Ashkenazi synagogue they are prepared for inappropriate questions, but Rabbi Lawson says questions can catch you off guard leaving you in a predicament where you may not know how to respond.
During the conversation special guest Patrice Worthy, journalist and creator of Tzipporah’s Tent, a digital space exploring the Black Jewish experience, says it’s important to understand that how Jews of color allow themselves to be treated sets a precedent for those that come after them, including their children. Worthy asked Rabbi Lawson how Jews of color can stand up for themselves in situations where offenses are taking place. She says it’s important to weigh power dynamics in your response.
“….The challenge is when our armor is down and we have to decide in a moment or second how we’re going to respond. Sometimes it’s good to call it out, if you have time. Sometimes it’s good to provide education, if you have time. And sometimes it’s good to just walk away,” Rabbi Lawson says. “I’ve done it all, I’ve called people out. I’ve sometimes called people racist or sometimes I take the opportunity to educate people.”
And for Jews of color in membership or leadership positions in organizations, Worthy asked “When do you know when an organization may not be ready for a Black leader or members?” Rabbi Lawson says it is as simple as being aware of how it’s affecting your daily life.
“When you are a marginalized person and you work some where you are really trying to find out who your allies are, who you can talk to, and trying to decide what you can call out and what you can’t,” Rabbi Lawson says. “You leave when it’s hurting your soul. When you come home and you’re constantly complaining to your partner about your job, it’s time to make some changes.”
The conversation continued with more questions about Eruv Rav, or the mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with the Hebrews. She says the text in the Book of Exodus explicitly mentions the mixed multitude that followed Moses out of Egypt which is a direct reference to Jews being a diverse people.
“They took their cattle and herds, which represents who has money and wealth, so rich people followed Moses,” Rabbi Lawson says. “There’s that mixed multitude where the Israelites choose to follow Moses… so that Eruv Rav was a mixed multitude of people who left Egypt with Moses. And we cross the Sea of Reeds, we get to the mountain, we receive revelation and then we become a people. So, from the beginning, we have always been and will always be a mixed multitude of people.”