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ToI Podcast Interview'My presence automatically changes what a Jew looks like'

LISTEN: Talking race and US reparations with a Black, gay, female rabbi

Rabbi Sandra Lawson defines terms and speaks frankly about the challenge of not conforming to stereotypes in her role as a Hillel campus educator at Elon University

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

What is privilege? Who are people of color? What is being woke? This week in The Times of Israel Podcast, we speak with Rabbi Sandra Lawson and define terms, discuss racism in the Jewish community and talk about the burning issue of reparations for the ancestors of enslaved people.

Lawson lives in North Carolina where she is the associate chaplain for Jewish Life at Elon University, a school that is consistently ranked among the “Schools Jews Choose” by Hillel College Guides.

After serving in the US Army, earning a graduate degree in sociology, and working as a personal trainer, Lawson found the open and accepting congregation she never knew she needed. She converted to Judaism in 2004 and worked as a researcher for the Anti-Defamation League.

When Lawson was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College two years ago, she became one of the first openly gay, female, Black rabbi in the world. Today she serves as a campus clergy person, an educator and a musician.

Among the terms discussed in our frank and open conversation is “privilege.” Lawson charts the meaning of the term to the foundation of the United States and who was — and wasn’t — included in the Bill of Rights. Originally, privilege was accorded to white males of English extraction, but was eventually extended. Other European groups weren’t initially considered white, she said, but over time gained access to whiteness through assimilation, including Eastern European Jews.

Rabbi Sandra Lawson (courtesy)

“When I say privilege, the best way to probably explain it is the laws and the rules are designed to benefit your culture, your religion, your sex — because men have privilege over women,” said Lawson.

Her Jewish students must request to have their religious holidays off, whereas Christians have it built into the calendar. “We all have some type of privilege in this country, but our country focuses on whiteness and the Christian hegemony,” she said.

Part of being “woke,” she said, is being able to see who may or may not have privilege.

A woke person “has uncovered how our country really operates and has learned a history beyond what they were taught in school,” said Lawson.

Increasingly, one hears “people of color” as an umbrella term for racial minorities. “People of color is used to define a broad spectrum of people who are not white, who don’t see themselves as white, or other people don’t see them as white,” said Lawson.

“This is about self-identification. People need to self-identify as people of color. So I’m a person of color, but I’m also Black.”

This is just about a generation being able to define how they want to be called

“Today, in many ways, I feel like we’ve gone back to the struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s. Black pride, more Afro-centric. I’m waiting for the big afros [hairdos] to start showing up again,” she laughed. “This is just about a generation being able to define how they want to be called.”

Likewise, just as the Jewish community pushes for Holocaust reparations from European countries, Lawson said it is time for the United States to address the “original sin” that is slavery and ameliorate the implications of that past.

Changing faces of US Jewry

Lawson’s retelling of American Jewish history does not begin or end with bagels in New York. “My presence automatically changes what a Jew looks like,” she said.

“If you study Jewish history you know that the first Jews who came to this country were Sephardic Jews” who left Spain in 1492, she said. “We don’t really tell that story, we tell the story of what comes after that.”

Touro Synagogue, nestled in historic Newport, Rhode Island, is the oldest extant synagogue in the United States, seen on September 2, 2004. (John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images/via JTA)

In the ensuring generations, said Lawson, “Jews assimilated into whiteness, but it came at a cost. Maybe changing your name, maybe anglicizing your voice or your name or your facial features… As Jews started assimilated into American culture, Jews started to look more like ‘Americans.'”

However,  due to adoption, intermarriage, and other factors, suddenly there are more Jews in the United States who don’t look European. And many of these Jews face the same discrimination in the Jewish community as they face in the general population.

Like the term people of color, Jews of color “is a self-identifying term that reminds people in many ways that not all Jews came from Europe. Not all Jews look like whatever we imagine a Jew to look like — and that for the most part is white.”

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), the sister organization of The Jewish Vote, march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016. (Courtesy Gili Getz)

Lawson said that despite being an ordained rabbi and prominent figure in the community and on social media, “I personally am often not seen as a Jew… I don’t operate in Jewish spaces in the same way that a white Ashkenazi person does.”

She’s optimistic that this misperception of who is a Jew will eventually change.

“People like me are the American story, but when we tell the story in the Jewish context — rabbis are men who have beards and are white — and I see that imagery in our Jewish communities,” said Lawson. “But the reality is that thousands of rabbis are women and many of those rabbis are gay or queer and many of those rabbis are now people of color. And that’s America, that’s how our country is.”

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