Reconstructing Judaism has hired Rabbi Sandra Lawson as the movement’s first director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion.
Lawson, 51, is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and will be tasked with helping Reconstructing Judaism to “realize its deeply held aspiration of becoming an anti-racist organization and movement,” according to a press release. She’ll begin in March, working remotely from her home in North Carolina.
“We are joining together to build and to sustain the community we want to live in. That means, necessarily, it’s going to look different from what it looked like in the past,” said Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism. “For us to really put into place anti-racist policies, it means transformation and change. And that is a good thing. It is not always easy, but it is just and it is beautiful. And it is worth working hard for.”
Though the leaders of movement had held discussions about the possibility of creating such a position since the fall of 2017, it wasn’t until the past fall that such a move became realistic. A grant from the Jews of Color Initiative gave Reconstructing Judaism the necessary funding to act.
Lawson, who has been a leading voice on Reconstructing Judaism’s Tikkun Olam Commission, was a natural fit for the job.
“She’s really been a go-to person for us,” Waxman said.
A musician, writer, powerlifter and popular social media personality, Lawson was named to the Forward 50 last year and also recognized by Keshet as an LGBTQ Hero. The St. Louis native and military veteran, who has served as associate chaplain for Jewish life and Jewish educator at Elon University in North Carolina since 2018, said that she’s received more requests in the past year than ever before to speak with primarily white Jewish groups about race and Judaism. She’s looking forward to broadening her impact beyond that of being the Black rabbi brought in to lecture and then leave.
“I’m invested in the movement, I believe in our movement, I believe in our values,” Lawson said. “And I just started talking to [Reconstructing Judaism] and we worked it out to get to this position.”
Lawson will work virtually out of Waxman’s office, where her role will include a wide range of duties.
She’ll provide mentorship and guidance to people of color studying to become rabbis at RRC, while developing new courses and curricula to guide all RRC students. Lawson will work directly with communities affiliated with Reconstructing Judaism, leading the effort to implement anti-bias training and racial equity in hiring practices. She’ll work with the Jews of Color and Allies Group, the board of governors and the aforementioned Tikkun Olam Commission to “set priorities and strategies related to diversity and inclusion.”
“I don’t believe Jewish communities are setting out to be unwelcoming,” Lawson said. “But they need to understand that when they look at a candidate and can’t get past the candidate’s race or gender or sexual orientation or [gender identity], whatever, that they are bringing biases that don’t need to be there in hiring.”
She doesn’t know a single Black rabbi, she said, who hasn’t experienced some racial bias during a hiring process. What she wants is for Black Jews in primarily white Jewish spaces to not have their religious credentials questioned. In five years, Lawson hopes, students of color entering RRC today will step into religious communities that are more welcoming than they are today.
Rabbi Micah Weiss, assistant director of thriving communities/tikkun olam specialist at Reconstructing Judaism, said that Lawson’s work there will have some continuity with what the movement is already doing, but will introduce novel aspects as well. What could prove especially valuable to the work of racial justice, Weiss believes, is Lawson’s status as “a beautiful messenger and communicator and teacher of what that work looks like.”
Though Reconstructing Judaism is still working to secure long-term funding for the position, Waxman said, the hope is that Lawson will remain in the position for as long as she wants it. And after that?
“I really hope that this is a position that, whenever Sandra is ready to move on from it, we will have institutionalized this position,” Waxman said.