Jewish& is a blog by Be’chol Lashon, which gives voice to the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. Today, with globalism and inclusion so key in making choices about engaging in Jewish life,Jewish& provides a forum for personal reflection, discussion, and debate.
Sandra Lawson is an expert in making big life changes. After serving as a military police investigator, she became a personal trainer and helped others change their lives. She went on to get a masters in sociology and become Jewish. In the spring of 2018, she will be ordained as a rabbi. As we approach the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we checked in with Lawson to see what advice she has to offer us on making change in the year to come.
Team Be’chol Lashon: What in your background prepared you for a life of change?
Lawson: My dad was in the military and we moved around a lot. I was always the new student. When you move all the time, it makes you ready for changing environments. Looking back it was just what I knew. Each place was different, in St. Louis I was in a junior high that was 95 percent black. In Iowa, the junior high was 97 percent white. I was 13; I was miserable. I was one of only three black kids in the school, and there was also a huge class difference compared to the school I came from. And I did not felt like people liked me. One thing that helped me was playing sports. Also, I had a great social studies teacher. When we were moving again, my father said, you will like the new school better. I asked him how he knew this would be the case, and he said there would be more black kids.
Team Be’chol Lashon: So coming from a military family conditioned you to navigate change?
Lawson: My own military experience too. I joined the military because I wanted to get rid of my student loans, but the military teaches you how to solve a problem, and that involves making changes. In the military, you are given lots of leadership responsibilities. Somewhere along the way, I learned about backwards planning. If you want X you have to think about steps for how to get there. Once you map out the steps, you can go back and then you know how to start. I had to be taught that.
Team Be’chol Lashon: How did that change things for you?
Lawson: Knowing what I wanted to do in the military, I was able to make a plan and move forward to accomplish it. I knew I wanted to be an investigator and work undercover, and I had aspirations of working for the FBI. I knew if I had an awesome physical fitness score and if I looked good in my uniform, I could advocate and move forward. The military police care very much about first impressions, because they are the first people you see when you come onto a base and are the color guard. Once I figured out what I would need to do to open doors, I did those things and then the opportunities were open to me.
Team Be’chol Lashon: What change have you made in your life that has been the hardest?
Lawson: I’m not sure, I feel like people always ask if becoming a vegan was hard. It wasn’t for me. I had finished graduate school, I stopped working as a personal trainer, I was still exercising but I was overweight and felt sluggish. I was looking for something to help me feel healthy again, and I learned about being vegan, and for me it was a smooth transition. Change is only hard for me when I’m not convinced that the change is worth making.
Team Be’chol Lashon: Was there ever a time when a change you tried to make did not work?
Lawson: When I first started thinking of applying to rabbinical school, my then partner decided not to convert. I still wanted to be a rabbi, and I was angry with the whole situation, and I felt stuck. I decided not to go to rabbinical school and instead went the academic route and enrolled in a program for Jewish studies. I only lasted one semester because it was not the road I wanted to be on.
Team Be’chol Lashon: What gets in the way of people when it comes to change?
Lawson: Change is hard. Really hard. Most people don’t want to change, you have to really want to change, you may have to give up some control to make the change happen.
People don’t want to give up something, I used to tell clients, you are spending lots of money not to listen to me. I had a client who was a big guy who was out of shape and wanted to have kids and did not feel in shape enough. I told him to give me eight weeks; after four weeks his sex drive was back and he felt great. I saw him a few years later, and he was out of shape and worried about my judging him. But it is not about judgment. If people want to make the change, they will do what they need to do. Now he is a personal trainer and in great shape.
Team Be’chol Lashon: Why is change important to you?
It has helped me to be a better person, I have grown. I have had a huge amount of diverse experiences in my life, and it has allowed me to navigate different communities. I don’t want to be the same person with the same level of knowledge 10 years from now.
Team Be’chol Lashon: What advice would you give to people who want to make change happen this year?
Lawson: There are four things I would recommend:
- Commit to a goal. Figure out what you want. Ask yourself why you are choosing this goal and know why you want it. You have to want it bad enough to keep trying. Failure is just an experiment that is not working -yet.
- Make a plan. Having a plan helps break things down, without a plan it can feel hopeless. Not only does it help you figure out what to do next, it also helps you see how much you have done. I’m going to graduate this year. I realized a few years ago, that if I was going to graduate like I wanted to, I needed a plan to get through all the things I needed to learn and get done. Some things had to go by the wayside. I turned down opportunities to go to conferences or participate in things, because they would get in the way of my plan. I had to work really hard, and it was not always fun, but I knew if I stuck to my plan I was getting to my goal.
- Get support. It is hard to do things successfully without help. I like to do things by myself. When I’m making changes, I need someone’s ear or to get advice. At my rabbinical school, RRC (the seminary of the Reconstructionist movement) all the faculty are great, but if things were not right, I would go to Rabbi Amber Powers, when I needed help or needed to cry. I knew with her, I always had someone in my corner, someone to listen to my difficulties, she was a cheerleader for me and that helped me move forward through the hard times.
- Experiment. As much as you plan, to make a change you have to be open to possibilities. For example, I had real trouble with learning to speak Hebrew. And the teacher made it clear that I had to teach one class and not to read the material. I went home and tried all sorts of things. I was not sure how to navigate and get things into my head. I then realized I could sing-songy it. Which made me realize that if I could sing my final presentation and I could get the whole class to sing, I could do it. Of course, I had never written a song, but I tried it nonetheless. It was clunky but when I did the presentation the teacher was so enthusiastic. I tried something new and unexpected and it opened a whole new path for me.
Team Be’chol Lashon: Shana Tova, Happy New Year!
Lawson: May it be a year of making the changes we want to happen.