Sandra Lawson, a former military police officer turned personal trainer, wasn’t religious about anything (except maybe 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 in May Lawson finished her fourth year at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia. 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 Rabbi Josh Lesser, the rabbi who prepared Lawson for her conversion, ”is an ‘all-in’ kind of person.” When Lawson, now forty-five, told him that she wanted to become a Jew eleven years ago, he said he felt that “some kind of leadership would emerge from this.”
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 to Lawson, but 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.
While there was a picture of M. L. King hung in her parents’ home while she was growing up; there was no picture of Jesus’. Her family was not particularly connected to her father’s Baptist roots, and her mother didn’t talk about religion. But as a child, she was drawn to a story her mother told about an Ethiopian Jewish ancestor. “I don’t want people to think I grew up searching for this Jewish identity,” Lawson said. “It was just a 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.”
Although Sandra Lawson probably doesn’t know it yet, there is a good chance she has always had a Jewish soul. 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 century some of their descendants 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 America) or by individual conversion to Judaism (like Sammy Davis Jr, the grandfather of opera singer Marian Anderson and Julius Lester author of Lovesong: Becoming a Jew). How can you know if you have a Jewish soul?
Signs of a Jewish soul.
1- You like to ask questions? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t seem to have a problem with this view.
2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child.
You couldn’t believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven. Even though you were told to pray to Jesus, you preferred to pray to God the father, rather than Jesus, the Son of God.
3- You always related to the stories in the Hebrew bible more than to the stories in the New Testament.
4- You found you related well to Jewish people you met at work or at school even though they were very different culturally and religiously from your own family.
5- When you first learned about the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than did other members of your own family or your friends.
6- When you started to learn about Judaism; you felt Jewish ideas and values were very reasonable, and Jewish traditions and heritage were very attractive. You felt you were coming home.
If most of these statements apply to you, you probably have a Jewish soul. If you can find a possible Jewish ancestor you definitely have a Jewish soul.
To learn more about Kabbalistic beliefs in reincarnation, and the reincarnation of Jewish souls in the non-Jewish descendants of Jews who were cut off from the Jewish People, read God, Sex and Kabbalah by Rabbi Allen S. Maller or visit Rabbi Maller’s website.