Throughout her time in the military, Lawson discovered her passion for bodybuilding, another way to make her feel stronger than men. Her experience as a powerlifter inspired her to help others reach their optimal goals, so she opened her own personal training business in Atlanta after retiring from the military police.
One of her main clients was Rabbi Joshua Lesser, from Congregation Bet Haverim (CBH), who came to her to seek guidance on improving his body image.
Lesser would become her self-described “brother from another mother.” She inundated Lesser with questions about Judaism, so he invited Lawson to attend services. As someone who had felt like an outcast in Christian congregations, Lawson was afraid of being seen as different because of the color of her skin.
But she decided to trust Lesser and attended a service.
“I fell in love with that synagogue. The community felt like home,” Lawson said.
Lawson was attracted to the inclusionary aspect of CBH. She attended meetings and services and took Hebrew classes. While Lawson was becoming a member of the CBH community, Elon senior Hannah Podhozer was also in the formative years of her religious upbringing at CBH.
When Podhozer was around the age of seven or eight, she met Lawson for the first time during a once-a-week adult Hebrew class hosted at Podhozer’s house. While Podhozer has few memories of her time with Lawson, she remembers Lawson being different from the other students.
“In Judaism, unfortunately, we have this idea that Jews are white. And that is not true. Probably from a young age I probably realized that she looked different from the other people that were coming to our house,” Podhozer said.
In 2004, Lawson officially converted.
“I really wanted to be a part of the community. I knew to have full membership, that meant converting. I could continue going, but I knew I was missing something because I hadn’t jumped in yet,” Lawson said.
She jumped in wholeheartedly, participating in civil rights services and became involved in interfaith work, eventually earning a leadership role as a board member for CBH.
Still, Lawson felt like she had not learned enough about Judaism. Her curiosity compelled her to take a semester course on Jewish studies at a community college.
But the course did nothing to quench her desire to learn about Judaism. Lesser recommended she consider rabbinical school, so Lawson applied and was accepted to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia in 2011.
Sacrifice to Grow
During her first year of schooling, Lawson watched her classmates drop out left and right.
Unlike most of her classmates, Lawson struggled to learn Hebrew. She studied the language and traditions for hours, while working at a retirement community for her on-the-job training. In the retirement community, Lawson incorporated house blessings, while teaching retirees to rediscover their faith in Judaism.
Due to the sense of responsibility grounded into her schooling, Lawson questioned her sacrifice to pursue rabbinical school until she realized her problem was not learning a new language— she needed determination.
“I thought that I have to see [rabbinical school] through,” Lawson said.
She persevered in spite of her identities clashing throughout her seven years of schooling. In her speech regarding Authentic Identities on Nov. 1, Lawson described numerous occasions when she was asked if she had to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school. Others were uncomfortable with a person who seemed non-Jewish praying next to them.
“I am aware that I live in a world that sees my blackness before they get to know me and they often see my Jewishness as a threat,” Lawson said.
With the help of her classmates and mentors, Lawson fought her way through stereotypes. As Lawson approached her final year of rabbinical school, she decided she wanted to use this confidence to help students at the college level.
On June 10, 2018 Lawson graduated as the first openly gay, female, black rabbi in the world.
Despite her hectic schedule in rabbinical school, Lawson met the love of her life. After being introduced to Lawson through an online dating site, OkCupid.com, Susan Hurrey asked Lawson out over the phone.
Hurrey, a court reporter, saw Lawson’s profile and thought she was out of her league until they finally went on their first date.
“I knew from the very beginning that she was the one,” Hurrey said.
Although a Philadelphia native, Hurrey knew nothing about the world she was getting into at RRC. She does not identify as Jewish, but her immersion into her-then girlfriend’s faith was an entirely new experience for her.
After dating for three years, Lawson ordered a ring online. She wanted to keep it a secret, but she was afraid that Hurrey would find the package while Lawson was away. So, Lawson proposed.
“She’s terrible at keeping a secret,” Hurrey said, smiling.
As Hurrey watched Lawson go through the motions of the late-night studying and long hours, Lawson was applying for post-graduate opportunities. While Lawson whisked herself in multiple locations for interviews, Hurrey remained her constant, never leaving Lawson's side.
Sea of Opportunity
As Lawson flew to an unfamiliar place at Elon for her interview in May, Lawson was greeted at the Greensboro airport by a familiar face. Once again, Podhozer was at the door, welcoming her into a new community.
Following Rabbi Meir Goldstein’s departure last spring to become the new director of Dartmouth College Hillel, Jan Fuller, head university chaplain at Elon, directed the search process for a new associate chaplain of Jewish Life at Elon.
Podhozer was enlisted on the team of faculty and student perspectives in charge of finding Goldstein’s replacement. Currently an intern for the Truitt Center for Spiritual and Religious Life, Podhozer was excited to see Lawson on campus.
While Podhozer acknowledged that she was trying to be unbiased as possible throughout the selection process, she was overjoyed to see Lawson interview for the position.
“The day went really well and I remember talking to people after they finished interviewing her and they were like we are going to fight for her. We really want her here,” Podhozer said.
Fuller’s team was not looking for a rabbi in particular. Instead, Fuller wanted someone who could expand Elon Hillel and continue interfaith outreach efforts across campus. For her, Lawson's willingness to put others above herself went beyond the selection committee's criteria.
“She really defies the mold making project and if we feel like we need to create a mold in which people have to fit then she really refuses,” Fuller said.
During the hiring process, faculty members were also inclined to voice their opinions as well. Although he was not a member of the selection committee for a new associate chaplain of Jewish Life, Dr. Geoffrey Claussen, professor of Jewish Traditions, had the chance to interview the candidates at the beginning stages of the process.
“I was interested in the process in helping to find someone who could relate really well to a diverse group of students on campus, both those who identify as Jewish and those who don’t,” Claussen said.
On June 10, 2018, Lawson was ordained. Less than nine days later, she was officially announced as the new pick for the associate chaplain of Jewish life at Elon.
Making Her Mark
According to Elon student-submitted responses, approximately 5.2 percent of the student population identifies as Jewish. Separately, 1.9 percent identify as reform, a modernized interpretation of Judaism. This is more than the 0.8 percent of Jewish students who identify as conservative, according to the 2019 Spring Registrar Report.
While Lawson sees herself outside of these two sects, she feels in many ways between them. She is a Reconstructionist, a sect of Judaism targeted towards inclusion and justice.
Through using her ideology as a guide, Lawson has realized her role as a chaplain of color extends beyond Judaism.
“I had a conversation with a student a few days ago who is not Jewish and has no interest in Judaism. And he wants to meet with me, and I believe he wants to meet with me because he’s black…. Because I have all of these intersectional identities I think that’s attractive for people who may not feel comfortable or want someone who has a better understanding,” Lawson said.
Her role is not a counselor, although she sees herself as a non-judgemental figure willing to help people. But in times of personal and emotional hardship such as after a gunman killed two black individuals after church at a Kroger on Oct. 24 in Kentucky and the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburg, Lawson put aside her feelings and immediately opened up her doors for others to come talk to her.
With a spare acoustic guitar propped inside of her office, Lawson feels it is her responsibility to stay grounded. As a protector of intersecting identities, she settles in hope of expanding the definition of faith and identity on campus.
For her, it's just another uncharted universe.
“I hope to make it overly understood that I’m a chaplain for the rest of Elon,” Lawson said.
For more stories about Rabbi Sandra, click below
Rabbi Sandra Lawson discusses her use of social media when teaching portions of the Torah. [Video Credits: Alex Hager, Meagan Lynn, Diego Pineda, Alex Mancuso and Alexandra Roat].
Rabbi Sandra Lawson addresses the postponment of High Holidays festivities in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in September. [Video Credits: Elon News Network].