As I approached the Temple Sinai of Sharon, Massachusetts the words of King David’s Psalms could be heard from the street, and the pulsing prayers on Ezra’s behalf were rising skyward. Police and security were stationed every few meters, their faces somber and respectful. I stood outside of the synagogue with hundreds of others because the main sanctuary had already been filled to capacity nearly two hours before the actual ceremony. The tears from above and the tears from below came together, the cold rain chilled our bones. I saw some of my campers; we held each as we cried. When they saw me crying, I felt as if they saw me as inviting them to do the same. We stood together, we stand together.
“We fought the Greeks, and the victory was ours!” (Traditional Israeli Hanukkah song)
As a youth, I often felt as if I had two worlds and two cultures that were always with me (Genesis 25:2). Born and raised in Monsey, NY in a context of the Chabad Lubavitch community, with an African-American and Dutch mother who so deeply felt connected to the Jewish mission that she converted nearly 35 years ago, and has officially categorized my siblings as survivors of an Egyptian Slavery, and American one. Today, I am devoting my time to the service of all people and all Jews as a rabbi. No matter the kin, color or creed.
My name is Sandra Lawson, and I am rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I’m spending this semester in Israel studying at the Conservative Yeshiva, in Jerusalem. I’m having a great time studying Talmud, Jewish spirituality and Hebrew. I’m learning a lot, but the best part for me is making a real connection with other human beings and it’s even more special when this connection happens through music.
When I was 6 years old I told my parents I was going to become a rabbi. I was blessed to grow up with extremely supportive parents and a community full of great Jewish role models. Nonetheless, there is no one person who inspired me to be a rabbi. I wanted to be a rabbi because I was sure it was my destiny, I felt like it was what God had called me to do.
Since I was a little kid growing up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, I’ve always known that I was somehow different in the Jewish community. I didn’t look like the other kids in Hebrew school. I was the only one to have Black family members at their bar mitzvah ceremony. And I eventually took on the expectation of providing the perspective and feelings of Black people to my Jewish friends in youth group and at camp. And for most of my life, I made the conscious decision to go with the flow. I figured that just letting these things happen and not really questioning their importance or impact on myself would allow me to somehow continue my life as usual.
I remember the exact moment when I realized I’d never be the Jewish James Bond.
When my then fiancé and I were planning our wedding, I told him that I didn’t want to circle around him under the chuppah (wedding canopy). His reaction was not what I expected. Instead of him saying, “Okay” or “Why not?,” I got something along the lines of, “What are you talking about?”
With joy we share our family tradition of “Lavar la Cara” (washing our faces in the ocean). It seems that this tradition combines many elements of two ceremonies. The first is “Tashlich” from the Hebrew “to cast off,” referring to the custom of tossing bits of bread in the water to symbolize the casting off of our sins. The second is a healing ritual of the Rhodeslis — those who trace roots to the island of Rhodes, tossing ailments into the ocean and receiving renewed health from the ocean, HaShem and the incantations and blessings of our elders.
If I’ve learned anything being a black, observant, Jewish hip-hop artist, it’s that it takes time and patience for something new to be accepted and to catch on. I was told years ago that rap music had no place in the Jewish world and I could never hope to really touch anybody with this kind of music. I wondered, was I being too radical? Did a genre of music that affected me so much for so long stand any chance of being incorporated into the system of Jewish values that inspires and invigorates our connection to the Creator?