A Personal Trainer, Vegan and Sociologist Walk into a Synagogue — Oh Wait, that’s just Sandra Lawson
Sandra Lawson is a recently ordained rabbi who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and has previously served as a Military Police investigator in the U.S. Army, a personal trainer, an investigative researcher and an adjunct instructor of sociology. As a rabbi, Lawson seeks to foster inclusive communities and engage with Jews outside of traditional synagogue environments. Lawson visited Yale this Tuesday to speak about religion, intersectional identities and creating inclusive environments at multiple events hosted by the Slifka Center for Jewish Life, the Office of LGBTQ Resources and the Afro-American Cultural Center.
Q: I just have to ask. In all of Slifka’s promotional material, they describe you as “a rabbi, sociologist, personal trainer, food activist, weightlifter, vegan, writer and musician.” I know what most of those things are, but can you just explain to me what a “food activist” is?
A: I think on a blog post or something I wrote a few years ago, I used the term “food activist” and I think if my memory’s correct, I did it right after Passover. I was really frustrated with — I’m a vegan, and I’m more of a whole foods, plant-based vegan, not a lot of processed food. And so I was in a Kosher grocery store and I saw these people getting all this processed Passover food and not eating any of the actual food that’s kosher for Passover, so like no vegetables, none of the things that are whole, plant-based. Instead, they were getting all this processed crap.
I’m black, I’m queer, I’m Jewish, I belong to different communities that don’t have the best eating habits. And so at the time, when I used that phrase, I was trying to bring more whole, plant-based eating, or healthy eating. I’m not sure I would describe myself that way anymore, but I still do that — this was before rabbinical school — I still believe in that, I still think that we would be healthier, live longer, have a better impact on the environment if we ate less meat, and we made different choices when it comes to our food, and we stopped subsidizing processed food and helped people eat more whole food.
Q: Have you noticed any similarities between being a personal trainer and being a rabbi?
A: Yeah, yeah. I think in some ways, personal trainers are like bartenders, they’re like counselors, hairdressers, barbers and rabbis, in the sense that I would get to know a lot of personal information from people in confidence. If you’re training with someone, you kind of need to know their mental state — depending on what they’re training for. But I just think that when you do things with the body, whether you realize it or not, it also involves a lot of emotional stuff. I would learn all kinds of things about people. How they felt about their relationships, how they felt about having children, how they felt about whatever illnesses they had. So yeah, I think there is — I wouldn’t’ve thought about it before you asked me, but yeah. There are some similarities between the two. I’m not saying that a personal trainer needs to be a rabbi. When it comes to actively listening and being empathetic, yeah.
Q: On your website, you write about your limited religious experience as a child, when your mother took you to a church led by a pastor who used his sermons to voice his homophobic and sexist views. You said your mother told you that “she would take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff” when she went to church. In a day and age when the lines between political values and moral and religious values can often become blurred, and many congregations struggle with inclusivity, do you think the idea of taking the good and leaving the bad is the best option for religious people, or is there an alternative approach?
A: What I think is interesting is that in that experience with that particular church, and how it’s etched in my memory like that, we had no sense of community. We were sort of in that church for a little bit and then we stopped going. I think when people go to church or go to synagogue on a regular basis, they’re in a community. And as a community — I’m hoping this is how it works — as a community, you’re making decisions as a community, together. So that may mean that there are things that your rabbi, that your preacher may say that you may agree with, that’s not part of your practice.
And how those conversations get played out — so what I would hope as a rabbi, if I say something that a congregant or a student disagrees with, then that student and I can have a conversation about why I made the choice that I made, or why we do the things that we do, and it’s okay to disagree. But when it comes to something that’s so fundamental to your core — if you’re an openly gay person and you go to a synagogue or a church where the rabbi or the reverend or the minister spews out homophobic stuff that’s hatred, I think that’s toxic to take the good and the bad. I think that people make those choices all the time, for a variety of reasons. I, personally at this stage of my life am not going to spend any time in a community with the homophobic leader or racist leader or sexist leader or anything like that, because it’s not the community I want to be in.
Q: Another thing that you mentioned [on your website] is that you said that at one time, you were “gay over here, Jewish over here, and black over here,” rather than connecting those identities to one another. How did you go about connecting those and uniting them into a cohesive whole?
A: [When] I was younger, and I was in a Jewish community, and I would go to pray in my synagogue, and I would hang out with my black friends over here, hang out with my queer friends. Sometimes there was intersection, a lot of times there wasn’t. I had never thought about, “What would happen if I’m in a black space and I’m Jewish and I’m queer?” or any of those things.
Q: How did your approach to your identities change when you made the conscious choice to unite them?
A: I started doing more interfaith work. I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, so it was really hard politically to be gay in Atlanta at the time, or in Georgia at the time, the South at the time. And the Supreme Court had just decided that it was legal to have same-sex relationships, but then the state was going to pass an anti-gay marriage amendment. We’ve come so far, obviously from that time period, so I was invited to be part of these early conversations to create a coalition of activists to fight this. I think one of the reasons that I was invited was because even though Atlanta has a very rich, diverse religious community, at the time these groups didn’t necessarily work together.
A lot of black Christian churches and ministers didn’t necessarily interact with the Jewish rabbis. A lot of the queer religious folks didn’t necessarily interact with either one of those groups, and so my rabbi and friend who was a white, gay male had spent a lot of time building some of these relationships that other rabbis had not tried to do. And so here I come as a black Jewish person, [and] whatever suspicions black clergypersons had of Jews, I didn’t fit those anymore. I think that because of that, I was often invited into spaces where a lot of my clergy friends were not invited.
Q: I read an article about you in the Philadelphia Inquirer from two years ago, and you said at the time, when you were still a rabbinic student, you were “so excited about being a rabbi,” but also “very open to what the definition of a rabbi can mean.” Now that you are a rabbi, do you feel like that definition is becoming clearer, or is it becoming more open?
A: For me in this moment, it means I understand our religious tradition, I understand what it means to be a rabbi, I understand Judaism, and I want to help students come to an understanding of Judaism that works for them, and/or come to a God of their understanding, or come to some kind of Judaism that works for them. So in that way, I feel like I’m gonna always be flexible. There are rabbis who think, God is this, or this is what Judaism means, or we’re not that flexible, but I think I’ll always be — I hope.