Sabrina Sojourner wears many hats. She is an advocate, a word artist, a “facilitator of important conversations,” as she puts it, a hazzan, a mother and a grandmother. Having just turned 69, she considers how she can make Judaism and the wider world more inclusive and equitable.
As the spiritual leader of the Revitz House at Charles E. Smith Life Communities and as a chaplain and hazzan at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, Sojourner serves the spiritual needs of Jewish patients.
Sojourner said her aim is to make Jewish liturgy accessible for everyone in her care. “I have always loved liturgy, but I have been mostly dissatisfied with its delivery,” she said. “It seemed like the tradition put a lot of emphasis on men with dramatic voices and not enough emphasis on the spiritual delivery of the liturgy. I can do the whole service in Hebrew, but I choose not to because that leaves a lot of people out.”
Prayer is less meaningful if the congregant doesn’t understand the words, she said. “The difference for me is shifting from praying ‘at’ people to praying ‘with’ people.”
Much of Sojourner’s work is centered on belonging, justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. To address these aspirations, she co-founded Khazbar Inc., which works hand in hand with the activist group Bend the Arc to promote progressive values, such as racial equity and social justice.
Khazbar is a resource and gathering place for Jews of color, Sojourner said. “We broadly define Jews of color to include Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, as well as Jews of mixed heritage. All spans of Judaism are welcome.”
A longtime advocate for minority voices, Sojourner was the first openly gay, African American to be elected to Congress, where she served as the District’s shadow member (not to be confused with D.C.’s delegate).
As a Jew of color and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Sojourner said she has a personal stake in facilitating dialogues between groups that sometimes do not see eye-to-eye on issues of equity. “If we meet fire with fire, no one gets anywhere. I made a formal commitment to myself, on this last birthday, to meet hate with love, and injustice with justice.”
Even though she sometimes finds herself talking to people whose worldview is at odds with her own, she said that by confronting someone with love and understanding, they are more likely to find common ground with her. It is only through finding common ground that people can begin to solve many of the issues surrounding equity, Sojourner said.
“When white-identifying Jews see the existential threat of antisemitism and ask all of us — whoever we are — to be with them and fight it, but then do not show up for the struggles of people of color, they diminish God and they diminish the work they are trying to do,” she said. “There is no ending antisemitism without eliminating anti-black racism. They are intrinsically linked.”
This is not something that many white-identifying and white-passing Jews appreciate, Sojourner said.
She said many people become uncomfortable when phrases like social justice and racial equity come up. And conversations around critical race theory, which understands racism as thoroughly saturating American society and public policy, can be downright unsettling.
“What many people object to is the idea that white people need to be uncomfortable,” Sojourner said. “What they do not realize is that [their children] are already uncomfortable. [Kids] know something is missing and that they are not getting the whole picture.”
Sojourner herself has a background in education. She received a bachelor’s degree in technical theater and black theater history from University of California, Santa Barbara, and a master’s degree in transformative leadership and social change from Maryland University of Integrative Health.
But while critical race theory is a product of academia and is being used as a weapon in the culture wars, “it is not something that is taught — not even in high school,” she said. “I am not aware of any advanced placement classes on critical race theory.”
A self-described “wordsmith,” Sojourner said she is working on a novel, but is tight-lipped about the details. “It is too delicious and somebody else will try to grab it,” she said. “It is not something that is out there right now.”