Rabbi Sandra Lawson departs Elon leaving behind a legacy of learning and love

Lawson is departing Elon on February 17 to join Reconstructing Judaism as their first director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion,

For Rabbi Sandra Lawson, who is departing Elon Hillel for a position at Reconstructing Judaism on Feb. 17, building community for college students is all about creating space and opportunities for others to lead, even if those leadership choices are different from what she expected or planned.

Lawson joined the Elon Hillel team fresh out of rabbinical school with a goal of building equitable and accessible communities for all who wish to join.

“College students are the future,” explains Lawson, “At Hillel, it’s pretty cool that we have this opportunity to help students at this crucial time in their lives. We are here to help them stay in their Judaism, or help them exit a community that is not a good fit, to connect them to their Judaism, and support them in their Judaism, whatever that looks like. Because our goal is to help them thrive in their own Jewish identity.”

As Lawson tells it, working with university students is always a back and forth, a blend of leading by example and inspiration while encouraging them to stand up and take ownership of programs, events, and their own Jewish identities.

Her pioneering use of social media as a community convener, her intersectional identity, and her extensive work in racial diversity, equity, and inclusion education on the national stage prepared her to challenge Elon students’ preconceived notions of Jewish identity while still creating a welcoming and inclusive space for them to grow and thrive.

For Lawson, part of this campus community building is to expose students to new ways to observe Jewish traditions, new ways to pray, and new ways to think about Jewish identity.

“Young people coming to college have had one, maybe two different experiences of Judaism,”  shares Lawson, “That is the experience they have had with their family, and maybe their grandparents, or a childhood synagogue, or camp. Then they come to college and for many of them is the first time being exposed to the diversity of Judaism: different prayers, different melodies, different customs. For some students that’s exciting, and for others, it’s some version of culture shock like, ‘this isn’t Jewish, what are you doing?’”

For Lauren Singles ’23, Rabbi Sandra’s approach made her feel welcome and included in Elon Hillel’s Jewish community.

“When I first got to Elon, I was scared to get involved with Hillel and Jewish life,” Singles said. “I come from a complicated religious background, and because of this I didn’t grow up in a traditional Jewish environment like the majority of people at Hillel. Rabbi Sandra, along with everyone else on Hillel’s staff, never made me feel like an outsider; my identity was never questioned and instead, Rabbi Sandra gave me a safe space to learn and grow.”

Lawson often tells a story about when she first got to Elon and was learning the religious and spiritual needs of her students. She had hoped to introduce a practice of saying the full kiddush on Friday nights, a prayer that was meaningful to her. But no matter how many times Lawson shared the words to the prayer with her students, they never did include it their services. So Lawson stopped asking. For her, this is the part of that balancing act of mentoring students while letting them lead.

“I realized that it was much more important for them to offer whatever blessing they wanted to offer than for them to say that particular prayer,” she shares with a wry smile “Because, ultimately, I want our students to lead in ways that feel comfortable to them.”

For Lawson, this is part of leading by example: sharing her own personal practice as a model, and also being flexible and celebrating those students who want to express their own Judaism in a different way.

Elon’s Director of Jewish Life Betsy Polk has fond memories of the day she hired Lawson, and great appreciation for all that the rabbi brought to Elon Hillel.

“I will never forget calling Rabbi Sandra on the day she graduated from Rabbinical School to offer her a position at Elon. She was thrilled – she said yes on the spot – and we, the hiring team, at Elon, celebrated,” divulges Polk.

“Since then, it’s been an honor to watch Rabbi Sandra grow and learn from students, the Jewish Life team, staff, and faculty at Elon. It’s been an even greater honor to learn from her. She has shared many valuable teachings and is leaving us all wiser and more aware than we were when she arrived at Elon.”

During her time at Elon Hillel, Rabbi Sandra and the Jewish Life team introduced weekly musical Kabbalat Shabbat services, and this community observance is one of the legacies that Lawson hopes the Hillel community will continue to practice, and an example of how she believes a campus rabbi needs to lead.

“I am not shomer Shabbat,” Lawson explains, “But I think it’s important to model to our students that we as a Jewish community have this time set aside to rest, an opportunity to stop, reset, recharge, and renew, and to come back better.”

Renewal is one of Lawson’s passions, and this is not limited to taking a break on Shabbat and observing what she calls “Jewish time.” Lawson is also in favor of renewing the way communities adapt traditional Jewish teaching and learning to be relatable, as highlighted by her innovative use of social media.

“One challenge I have as a Rabbi and Jewish educator is to condense centuries of knowledge and rabbinic teaching into the 3-5 minutes that students will take to watch a video on social media,” explains Lawson.

It seems that she has risen to the challenge: her Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok accounts have tens of thousands of followers from all demographics and all levels of religious observance, not just the students she had mentored on Elon’s campus.

In this strange time of social distancing and virtual meetings and conferences, Lawson’s expertise in online platforms has only helped her move closer to her goal of helping students find their Jewish path,  continue on their Jewish journey, and ask questions about holidays, practices, and values.

During her time at Elon, Lawson focused on helping the Hillel community open their eyes to a diversity of Jewish practices, identities, and ideas, while creating a rooted foundation in the traditional Jewish calendar.

Now, even as Lawson moves on to a position with Reconstructing Judaism as the movement’s first director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion, she encourages Elon students, faculty and staff to stay in touch.

“I might be leaving Elon, but I am staying in Burlington,” said Lawson, “I want students to remember that even if I am not the campus rabbi and chaplain for Jewish Life, I am still their rabbi, and will always be here for them.”

Singles and other Elon students are grateful for that. “Knowing that Rabbi Sandra’s door is always open means that I will always have someone I can reach out to whenever I need to,” Singles said.