“Justice, justice we shall pursue”

Rabbis Joshua Lesser and Sandra Lawson discuss Judaism, race and justice as part of Mount Holyoke College’s Week of Racial Justice and Reconciliation.

By Keely Savoie Sexton 

Each year, Mount Holyoke’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Division of Student Life sponsor a series of events in honor of the legacies of racial justice activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. The 2021 theme for the Week of Racial Justice and Reconciliation is “Our Interconnectedness Binds Us Together,” with an emphasis on King’s speech to Mount Holyoke students in October 1963. 

On Thursday, January 21, Joshua Lesser, senior rabbi of the Bet Haverim synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia, and Sandra Lawson, associate chaplain for Jewish life at Elon University, will join the Mount Holyoke community to discuss “Building Solidarity: Challenging Anti-Blackness and Anti-Semitism Together.” The virtual event is free and open to the public.

In addition to the joint panel with Lawson, Lesser will lead another event for the week, “The Fight Against Anti-Semitism: Supporting Jewish Students on College Campuses.”

Prior to the panel, rabbis Lesser and Lawson discussed the importance of racial justice within Judaism.

Their interviews have been combined and condensed for brevity and clarity. 

Rabbi Sandra, your biography lists an impressive number of identities: rabbi, lesbian, Black, veteran, vegan, weightlifter and more. Why is it important to name these many different facets of your identity?

Sandra Lawson: By highlighting the diversity that exists within me, I am calling attention to the fact that we all have many identities. The first thing people see about me is that I am Black. By highlighting my many identities I’m helping show the young people I work with that you can be your full self when you show up in places. 

When people come to college they are trying to figure out how they fit into society, trying to figure out who they are as they separate from being the children of their parents — they’re exploring things. That may mean that people with a strong Jewish upbringing come to campus and say, “I’ve got the Jewish thing, but let me explore my Latinx background.” Or “Let me acknowledge that I’m queer — how does that work?” I do have students ask me how I am my whole self. I also want to acknowledge that I am also older and it has taken a long time to feel comfortable in my skin.

Why is it foundational in Judaism to not only fight antisemitism but also anti-Blackness?

Joshua Lesser: One of our primary teachings is “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or “justice, justice you shall pursue.” It is incumbent upon the community whose master story is related to freeing the oppressed through the Exodus and whose primary teaching is the pursuit of justice. How could we not address anti-Blackness? It is the fundamental issue in our country. 

Not only does Judaism have a fundamental approach to justice, but so much of the Jewish frame is about participating in communal life. 

That is why supporting Black Lives Matter and the movement for Black lives has been important to me. I think it is part of my role as the common good. It’s a counterpoint to American society that is very individualistic and very bootstrap oriented. I think white supremacy has supported that notion of “just pick yourself up” without recognizing all the ways that society structurally supports some people over others.

When ideas of improvement are so individually focused, it eliminates the understanding that your well-being is important because it impacts the common good. 

We must deconstruct the system, and confront our anti-Blackness for the well-being of our country.

We often speak about the work of being antiracist, and the work of dismantling white supremacy. Can you talk more about that? 

Lawson: Dismantling white supremacy and being anti-racist is hard work. It’s not about, “I read ‘White Fragility,’ I’m good,” or “I had a rabbi come in or a Black person come in and give us a workshop, and I’m good.” 

It is everyday work to try to dismantle the system. 

It’s really hard to go against something you’ve been taught your whole life. In my workshops to help people understand how racism works, I ask people to imagine this beautiful baby, but the baby is out in the rain. That rain is racism, homophobia, xenophobia — all those negative messages we get about marginalized groups in our society. As we grow up in that rain there is no way we are not soaked. We say we don’t want to be racist, we don’t want to contribute to a racist system and we want everyone to be treated equally, so we dry off. But the problem is the rain returns over and over again. Every time the rain comes back we have to dry off. 

Even though you may be working hard to not be racist, something is going to happen. You have to dry off again. It is constant work. 

As rabbis, what do you do to challenge racism within your own communities and own lives?

Lawson: Racism is a system designed to benefit one group of people over another. To be anti-racist means you are working actively against the system to get rid of what you have been taught your entire life about marginalized groups. 

As clergy I feel like I am pre-wired to find common ground. I’m looking to find where we can connect on a spiritual level, on a relationship level. I am looking for that common ground so I can be the rabbi or clergy for people in need. My job as a rabbi is to be a witness to people wherever they are in their life. 

Building relationships is important. I have worked in communities where they are not used to Black people being rabbis, and I show up. I am here to serve. 

Lesser: When I decided to become a rabbi, I was just out of college and teaching in an all-Black community and was in the process of applying to law school. It was there that I witnessed the combination of my own white privilege, the supremacist societal messages that I had absorbed, and the systemic racism that cultivated poverty and hopelessness. It was overwhelming and I knew I had to work on myself and support my communities to deepen our understanding of our responsibility for personal and structural change. For me this was a spiritual awakening and a significant part of why I wanted to go to rabbinical school.

This is a path of advocacy, education and personal growth. My rabbinate has been a combination of supporting people’s awareness and growth towards anti-racism, advocating for equity and criminal justice reform, and showing up for protests. I try to balance meeting white people where they are at, offering pastoral support compassionately to encourage their courageous awareness, and speaking to the larger congregation, offering the necessary but sometimes uncomfortable messages of the racial repair in which we must participate.

Most recently, I presented to a large Jewish community on the case for reparations in America from a Jewish lens. And I worked with racial equity groups to advocate to our city council for bail reform, decriminalization of marijuana and for pre-arrest diversion.

Within my congregation, I support our ongoing inclusion work and education. And I work with Jews of Color Initiative to support their leadership and ally with them for the necessary changes within the community.

For the past year and a half I have been working with the Bridges Faith Initiative, a multifaith organization doing immigration work. 

I’m really interested in understanding how to think through and do community organizing around issues like this. Understanding how the United States has approached endless war, and how some of our foreign policies deeply impact the instability of certain regions, which then creates refugees, which then impacts our immigration system. Really looking at things from a systemic perspective feels important.

Why do you feel it is important to engage in these conversations? What does success look like in this context?

Lesser: Too much fear and fragility prevent white people from having necessary conversations about race and racism. I hope to model the belief that we can have conversations where we don’t have all the information, or we may have different opinions but we can still engage with each other and honor each other’s humanity and be open to learning. 

We all make mistakes. I fundamentally believe if the goal is to not make a mistake, then we are holding back and not taking enough risks. I believe that taking those risks is as important — if not more — as how we clean up our mistakes responsibly when we do them and how to rebuild communities.

Lawson: Changing hearts and minds one step at a time is really important to me. 

In my workshops to help the Jewish community understand racism, I ask people to participate and I frame it in a Jewish way by offering blessings. I offer a gratitude blessing, and Mi Sheberach prayer for healing, to help people let go of the pain they are holding on to so that they can move forward. 

I give people permission to release themselves from the pain of realizing our society is not equitable, and from the pain of realizing that maybe you knew our society was inequitable but you didn’t do anything about it. If we are holding onto that guilt we are not doing anything. We can share that as a community. I do believe that when Joshua Lesser and I leave, if people and organizations who are committed to this work, they need to do more. That should not be the end, that should be the beginning, or one of the many things that they are doing to change our society.