Breaking with tradition, rabbinical student does Shabbat service Arnold's Way

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Sandra Lawson (top left), a rabbinical student, holds a Shabbat Service at Arnold's Way Cafe in Lansdale. Lawson won a grant to develop Jewish programming in nontraditional places. Pictured from the right of Sandra are cafe owner Arnold Kauffman and Sandra's wife Susan Hurrey.

At the end of a store-lined breezeway, a few doors down from a comic-book shop, rabbinical student Sandra Lawson prepares to shake up Shabbat.

She lights the candles and opens the prayer book for the Friday night service, surrounded not by stained-glass windows and majestic interiors, but by shelves of vitamins and wheatgrass juice at Arnold's Way cafe in Lansdale, a Montgomery County hub of all things vegan and raw - and, on this evening, Jewish.

"I want to help create sacred spaces wherever people are," she said, "to give them the opportunity to do Jewish stuff without having to go home, dress up, and drive a few miles to a synagogue."

If the setting isn't exactly traditional, neither is the future rabbi: an African American ex-Army sergeant; a personal trainer and body builder; a vegan; a convert to Judaism; a lesbian.

"It has been the case where people don't know what to say when they meet me," said Lawson, 46, of Roxborough.

A student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Lawson has taken the Shabbat service - an observance of the Sabbath - to an uncommon place through the college's Auerbach Entrepreneurial Grant Program, which supports what it calls "bold experiments" that "reconstruct Jewish experience" for the 21st century. The initiative acknowledges that the ways people belong to a Jewish community have changed. Most are no longer members of a synagogue, and intermarriage rates are rising.

Being part of a community may not mean "I pay, I stay" at a temple, but rather that "I listen to a podcast or visit Arnold's cafe," said Cyd Weissman, who teaches a course in entrepreneurship at the rabbinical school.

Lawson won a $900 grant for her Shabbat services, which draw at least a dozen people to Arnold's every fourth Friday night. Started in March, they will continue through September.

The cafe/store is owned by Arnold Kauffman, a local legend, blogger, and businessman in the raw foods world. He had lived in Israel for seven years.

He and Lawson met when she visited his store. She soon was conferring with Kauffman's daughter, Maya Rapine, who was seeking ways to involve her three children in more Jewish activities.

"I want my kids to grow up with a balance of learning about Judaism, but in a modern way," said Rapine, 33, of Lansdale.

A Shabbat service at Arnold's? But of course.

For much of her life, Lawson felt the discomfort of difference - of being a black student in white districts, of being the new kid in class every time her Army sergeant father was reassigned, of being lesbian in a don't-ask-don't-tell military.

She grew up with little religious training, in a family that moved from Missouri to Iowa, then back to Missouri.

She interrupted her undergraduate studies at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State) to join the Army, serving with the military police.

"I chased criminals down the streets of Seoul, Korea, like I was in a TV movie," she said. "I shut down bars and had prostitutes yelling at me."

Discharged after more than seven years, she moved to Atlanta, and earned a master's degree in sociology from Clark Atlanta University. She became a competitive body builder and a personal trainer.

A Jewish girlfriend began inviting Lawson to family observances. She also met a new client who was a rabbi and openly gay. He invited her to his synagogue.

"I wasn't sure how I'd be treated, but it was great," Lawson said. "This wasn't some sterile environment. It was so warm and friendly, diverse. I went back again and again."

She decided to convert, to be a full-fledged member of the community she had grown to love. She joined the synagogue board and became active in civil rights issues with an interfaith clergy group.

"I was black, female, Jewish, and queer, and I was doing work around organizing clergy," Lawson said. "It felt therapeutic. I saw how clergy are pre-wired to figure out common ground and work from there, but without a degree, there was only so much I could do."

In 2011, Lawson enrolled at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she is president of the student association. She is due to graduate in 2018.

Lawson not only wants to make Judaism more accessible through her Shabbat services at Arnold's, but also through social media. With Snapchat, she shares Jewish lessons, and she plans to use live streaming. She said she also hopes to host religious services with classmates in parks around the Philadelphia area. To implement her ideas, she has applied to another Auerbach grant program that awards up to $20,000.

At times, she said, people can't see past her race, gender, and sexual orientation to accept her Judaism. When that happens, she is called on to explain.

"For me to be accepted," she said, "I sometimes have to disclose more of my personal story than I'm comfortable with."

For her Shabbat service May 27, Lawson arrived at Arnold's an hour early with her wife, Susan Hurrey. She arranged chairs and tables in a circle, and covered a loaf of her own home-baked vegan challah with a cloth. She opened the service by playing traditional music on a guitar. Rapine's children helped light the candles, and later danced to the music.

Joining the circle were Andrea and Jack Platt, of Wyncote, who had met Lawson at a bookstore.

"We're looking for a new spiritual home," Jack Platt said. He called the service "interesting"; his wife described it as "wonderful."

"The interpretation was invigorating and spiritual," Andrea Platt said.

Lawson read Hebrew from the prayer book, and explained parts of the service along the way.

"This prayer is God saying: 'Listen up, people. You don't have a bunch of gods. Just one,' " she said.

At the end, Lawson passed around cups of organic wine, and each person tore off a piece of the challah.

"I'm so excited about being a rabbi," she said later. "But I'm open to what the definition of a rabbi can mean."

kholmes@phillynews.com610-313-8211