Rabbi, crowdfunderRabbi, crowdfunder

Unusual would-be rabbi, unusual tuition

Meet would-be rabbi Sandra Lawson — African-American, lesbian, convert, crowdfunder

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Sandra Lawson is funding her rabbinical school tuition in an unusual way. (Courtesy of Sandra Lawson)
Sandra Lawson is funding her rabbinical school tuition in an unusual way. (Courtesy of Sandra Lawson)

Sandra Lawson is hoping to get by with a little help from her friends…and strangers, too. The third year student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, has taken to social media to crowdfund tuition for the 2014-15 academic year.

Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe (Lawson’s online platform of choice) are not the usual places rabbinical students go for financial help, but then again Lawson is not your usual rabbinical student. She is an African-American, a lesbian, and a convert to Judaism.

“I’ve been funding my rabbinical school education until now with need-based scholarships and loans, but I’ve maxed out on the student loans I can get from the government,” Lawson told The Times of Israel by phone from her home in Philadelphia. “I don’t want to put myself in massive debt.”

“I was embarrassed at first that by starting a GoFundMe page, I’d have to tell the whole world about my financial situation,” she said. “I worried what my school, my friends, and the Jewish community would think.”

As it has turned out, people have been supportive and have either contributed to her fund or have sent her encouraging messages. In less than a week, she has raised $1,167 toward her $20,000 goal. Unlike other platforms, GoFundMe is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Lawson will be able to collect all the funds donated (minus a percentage fee paid to the website).

“You’re an inspiration,” wrote one donor, who like others, were moved by Lawson’s story. She has been very open about her personal and professional background, and about her journey toward Judaism and eventual desire to become a rabbi.

Lawson, 44, shares on her blog that she sometimes attended church while growing up, but that her parents, who divorced, weren’t particularly religious. She learned much later from her mother that her earliest ancestor to come to America was believed to not have been an African slave, but rather a Jew from Ethiopia. The ancestor assimilated and did not pass Judaism down.  Notably, Lawson’s family never ate pork or shellfish. “I asked my mother about this and she would tell me that pork was bad for us,” she wrote.

During her third year in college, Lawson joined the US Army and served as a military police investigator working on cases of child abuse and domestic violence. While serving, she completed her undergraduate studies at St. Leo University in Florida, which is where she took a class in the Old Testament and began to take an interest in Judaism.

Later, Lawson worked as a personal trainer in Atlanta. There, she had Jewish clients and friends, as well as a Jewish girlfriend. Through the girlfriend, Lawson met Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist synagogue founded by gays and lesbians. With Lesser’s support, she converted to Judaism a decade ago.

“Even though I went through a formal conversion, I don’t feel like I converted. I don’t even like the term ‘Jew by Choice,’” she wrote on her blog. “I see the term as a fancy way of saying convert and another way to separate out people who are different in the Jewish community. Once someone is Jewish, then they are Jewish.”

Lawson knows who she is, but there are those who have difficulty accepting her integrated black-Jewish-lesbian identity. Job interviews at synagogues have sometimes proven uncomfortable. “I get asked inappropriate questions, people want me to prove I’m really Jewish,” she shares. “You’d think the fact that I’m a rabbinical student should be enough.”

“Until this last year, I was the only black person in the building,” she says of the rabbinical college. She has found that the issue of race has been more of a hurdle than has her sexual orientation. “The lesbian thing is no big deal. It’s a non-issue,” she claims.

Lawson, who is currently single, is active with a variety of progressive Jewish organizations. This year, she is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow, and last summer she was a T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights – North America) fellow. She is also active in the Rabbinic Circle at Be’chol Lashon, an organization that advocates for the diversity of the Jewish people.

She has yet to visit Israel, but expects to get there at some point during her rabbinical training.

“I’ve always been the strange child,” Lawson joked about how her family perceives her. Others may also see her as different, but she uses that to her advantage—including when it comes to covering rabbinical school tuition.

Fellow students at RRC and colleagues at Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, think she may be on to something.

“When they saw my GoFundMe page, they said, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?!’”

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