Rabbi Sandra Lawson does not look Jewish. A former military police officer turned personal trainer, Lawson wasn’t religious about anything (except maybe physical fitness), she also wasn’t looking to convert to Judaism, and she certainly never aspired to be one of the first black, openly lesbian rabbis. But she has done all of these things and is very Jewish now.
“Sandra,” explained Rabbi Josh Lesser, the rabbi who prepared Lawson for her conversion, ”is an ‘all-in’ kind of person.” When Lawson told him that she wanted to become a Jew 11 years before her conversion, Lesser said he felt that “some kind of leadership would emerge from this.”
Through a Jewish girlfriend in Atlanta, Lawson 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.
That relationship eventually ended. Then in 2001, Lawson met Lesser, who hired her to be his personal trainer at a gym in Atlanta. At first, Lawson knew her client only 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 very serious about issues Lawson 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.” 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.”
Although Sandra Lawson would probably be surprised, there is a good chance she has always had a Jewish soul. As a child, she was drawn to a story her mother told about an Ethiopian Jewish ancestor. There are hundreds of thousands of people from Africa with Jewish souls. Their Jewish ancestors came to Africa during Roman times. Most of them lived in the area around Ethiopia and never lost their connection with the Jewish people. Almost all of these Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel.
Many other Jews who lived in smaller communities in east and west Africa eventually lost contact with the Ethiopian Jewish center and assimilated into African pagan culture. In later centuries these assimilated Jews were drawn to Islam and Christianity because it reconnected them to their Jewish origins. In the last few generations, some of their descendants have inherited a Jewish soul from one of their original Jewish ancestors.
This led them to return to the Jewish people by forming separate Black Hebrew sects (both in Africa and in America) or by individual conversion (like Sammy Davis Jr, the grandfather of opera singer Marian Anderson and Julius Lester, author of Lovesong: Becoming a Jew).
Every human on earth has 8 great-grandparents and 16 great-great-grandparents. Each of these 24 individuals contributes an equal amount of genetic material to their descendants. Nevertheless, siblings who share the same 24 ancestors do not have identical genomes. Unless they are identical twins their physical, mental and personality traits always differ, sometimes greatly, from their siblings who share the same physical genetic heritage.
This difference is the result of both the unique physical combination of genes that occurs at conception; and the unique human soul that enters the body during the first or second trimester.
Every year many hundreds of people find out that one or two of their 24 ancestors might have been Jewish. For most of them, this discovery is an interesting fact of little significance. For many of them, it might be an embarrassment to be ignored.
But for some of them, it becomes a life-changing discovery. They feel drawn to Jewish people and seek to learn about Jewish music, food, literature, culture and religion. They feel more and more attached in some mysterious way to the Holocaust and the struggle of Israel to live in peace in the Middle East.
Many of these people eventually are led to become Jewish either by formal conversion or by informal reversion within Reform, Renewal or Progressive synagogues.
These people provide a rather unusual form of evidence for reincarnation that comes from the Jewish mystical tradition; the Kabbalah.
Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation (gilgul) occurs over the course of hundreds of millions of years to millions of different sentient species.
According to Kabbalah, only the souls of self-conscious moral creatures like human beings reincarnate; and they reincarnate only when they have not fulfilled the purpose of their creation in their current lifetime. These esoteric Kabbalistic concepts from the 12th to 17th centuries; were popularized and spread throughout Eastern Europe, especially in Poland and Ukraine, by the Hassidic movement in the last half of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Since Judaism is an optimistic religion, most Kabbalists teach that most people can accomplish their life’s purpose in one or two lifetimes. A few souls may take 3-5 lifetimes or more. The bright souls of great religious figures like Abraham and Moses or Sarah and Miriam can turn into dozens of individual sparks that can reincarnate several times over many centuries.
The tragic souls of Jews whose children have been cut off from the Jewish people, either through persecution or forced conversion to another religion, will reincarnate as one of their own, no longer Jewish, descendants. These non-Jewish descendant souls will then seek to return to the Jewish people.
A majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people have Jewish souls from one of their own ancestors. Thus, the Jewish mystical tradition, claims that the souls of most converts to Judaism are the reincarnated souls of Jews in previous generations who were cut off from the Jewish people either voluntarily or involuntarily.
Through conversion to Judaism, they feel they are coming home. Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos of Spain and Portugal, or European Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust and then the decades of Communist oppression.
Other times they are descendants of individual Jews who married non-Jews and did not raise their children to be faithful Jews.
Most of the time people who become Jewish do not find out that they have a Jewish ancestor until years after their conversion. According to a mystical 14th century Kabbalistic teaching found in Sefer HaPliyah, those non-Jews who do feel this powerful attraction to Jewish things and Jewish people, have Jewish souls that are reincarnations (gilgulim) of one of their own Jewish ancestors from 3-7 generations in the past.
That explains why they react to the discovery of some Jewish heritage in such an unusual way. It also explains why many people who do not even know that they have Jewish ancestors follow a similar path; and only discover a Jewish ancestor years after they have returned to the Jewish people.
The Hebrew word for reincarnation is gilgul which means recycling. Many people are born with new souls who are here for the first time. Others have a soul that has lived on this planet before. Most people do not reincarnate after their life on this earth is over. Most people who end up becoming Jewish, especially now, after the Jewish people has experienced several generations of assimilation, marriage to non-Jews, hiding from anti-semitism and outright genocide, are descendants of people whose children, in one way or another, have been cut off from the Jewish People.
Among their non-Jewish descendants, a few will inherit a Jewish soul (gilgul) that will seek to return to the Jewish people (Sefer HaPliyah).
The following introspective personality and character test can help people who never had or have left their own childhood religion; discover some hints that they may have a Jewish soul from generations past.
1- People who like to ask questions especially about religion; but when they asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied them, although others in their family didn’t question this answer.
2- The trinity never made any sense to them even as a young child. They prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus, the son of God, even though they were told to pray to Jesus. They never could believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.
3- On first learning of the Holocaust they reacted more emotionally than their friends or other members of their family. They also feel some sense of connection with the Jewish struggle to defend the Land of Israel.
4- They have an attraction to Jewish people, or to Judaism and Jewish culture. They have always been more open to people who were culturally, nationally or religiously different from their own family, or their friends or classmates.
If a person answers yes to three of these four items he or she might have one or more Jewish ancestors. Many, but not all, people who answer yes to all four items will be interested in learning more about their Jewish roots. Those who become very interested in studying Judaism might have a Jewish soul.
If the following item also applies to non-religious non-Jews who study Judaism; then they must have a Jewish soul.
5- When they start to learn about Judaism: the ideas and values seem reasonable to them; the traditions and heritage are very attractive to them; and the non-Jews around them, as well as they themselves, are surprised that they slowly come to feel they are coming home.
If you know any people like this, it would be a great kindness to invite them to study Judaism and return home.