In 2018, Sandra Lawson became the first openly gay, Black female rabbi in the world. But her path to rabbinical school was far from traditional. Lawson grew up in a Christian household with parents who didn’t get along. When she got to college, she lacked focus and dropped out.
Her dad, a veteran himself, suggested she join the military, and after learning that the military would help her pay off her student loans, Lawson was convinced. She worked for the military police in the U.S. Army for seven years. After leaving the service, Lawson began a personal training business, and it was a friendship with one of her clients, Rabbi Joshua Lesser from Atlanta, that set her on a path that eventually led to rabbinical school.
She attended a service at Lesser’s synagogue and felt a connection with the community and the faith that was distinct from her experiences in church as a young person. Her interest in Judaism bloomed, and she converted in 2004. Lesser noticed her steady commitment to learning about the faith and its culture and suggested that Lawson look into becoming a rabbi herself. Lawson applied and was accepted to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania in 2011. She spent six years learning Hebrew and working an array of jobs as part of her education, including one in a Catholic medical center.
Lawson now works as the associate chaplain for Jewish life and as a Jewish educator at Elon University. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown new challenges into how she works with students and practices her faith, including the proceedings of Jewish High Holy Days like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Host Frank Stasio talks with Lawson about her journey to becoming a rabbi and the ways she hopes her community will evolve.