Keila (left) and Kendra Lawrence in Jerusalem in December, 2019.
by Richard Friedman
Two sisters — twins, in fact. Two young African-American women determined to make a difference. Two women committed to the same objective: Helping people, especially elected officials and other young leaders in the African-American community, better understand Israel to promote a more peaceful Middle East.
Much could be written about Keila and Kendra Lawrence, two recent graduates of Birmingham’s Miles College, who are now living in Washington, pursuing new careers and new dreams. Originally from Savannah, Ga., and more recently Jasper, Ala., these two 22-year-olds have pretty much excelled at everything they’ve undertaken — including landing full scholarships to Miles College, an historically black liberal arts college — with Keila serving as student government president and Kendra distinguishing herself as well.
Though they emphasize they are individuals in their own right, much, naturally, connects them. One of the primary connectors is their shared interest in Israel and willingness to advocate for this tiny Middle East democracy so it is better understood. Keila has been to Israel three times. Kendra has been there twice.
Keila got acquainted with Israel when, during her freshman year at Miles, she became involved with Christians United for Israel, which is the country’s largest Israel advocacy group. Kendra followed a similar path, though through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a well-known organization that primarily educates Members of Congress regarding the importance of a strong US-Israel relationship.
“My freshman year, one of my student mentors asked me, ‘Do you support Israel?’ I wasn’t sure how to answer. This person said I want to connect you with CUFI to help you formulate your answer, so I went to a CUFI student leadership session. Among young African-Americans, the topic of Israel doesn’t really come up that much, so I just wanted to be informed,” recalls Keila. “I am a person who is always grasping for knowledge, and in listening determined that taking advantage of the involvement and travel opportunities CUFI was offering would be a really great way for me to learn more.”
Her exposure gave her a good knowledge base, said Keila, and then she started becoming involved with AIPAC her sophomore year, with one of the reasons being that it was a bi-partisan organization. It was through this process that she began reaching out to other Miles campus leaders — hosting them in small sessions to introduce the “Israel conversation” and engage her fellow students in discussions and opportunities for them to learn more. She took the Israel conversation to “where it normally wouldn’t be.”
Keila’s approach is to not suggest solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Rather she strives to advance peace by helping her peers better understand the true nature of Israel, its history and aspirations, and its security dilemmas, without marginalizing the Palestinian people. Another goal is to correct misimpressions, such as the time one of her fellow students referred to Israelis as “people who bomb and kill Americans.”
Kendra’s approach is similar, but like the twins themselves, who are fraternal, their thoughts and approaches are not identical. She was caught off guard as a freshman when the student government president, who had become involved with advocacy on behalf of Israel, asked her, “Do you support Israel?”
“I didn’t know how to answer,” Kendra recalls. “As a Christian, I felt a connection to Israel through the Bible, but I didn’t know that I needed to support or be against Israel.” What followed was her getting involved in AIPAC’s student leaders track, which has a presence on the Miles campus. That led to attending retreats and seminars and visiting Israel. “I found there are multiple ways to support Israel and I found out more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“In 2017, I went to an AIPAC retreat geared toward students of color,” Kendra continued, reflecting on a particularly meaningful experience. “At that retreat, I met a lot of people who were black and Jewish, which was really cool because I had never met anyone who was black and Jewish. There were lots of conversations about Israel and even how Jewish and black people are connected, which I didn’t know or had forgotten.” After that, Kendra became a student activist for AIPAC, and in her sophomore year became AIPAC’s campus liaison/president at Miles College.
“I truly believe we all are connected to Israel,” explains Kendra. “Whether it be by faith, technological advances, agricultural innovations, humanitarian works or democratic values, Israel touches each of our lives.”
Through AIPAC, Kendra became more comfortable with lobbying — influencing elected officials to support positions — a dividend that has impacted on other facets of her life. “Lobbying carries over into other issues — that is the thing I love most about the knowledge and skills I’ve developed through AIPAC. I learned about lobbying through lobbying for Israel.” Other areas where she’s lobbied elected officials include support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and measures to combat trafficking of women.
Kendra and Keila were featured speakers at the 2019 national AIPAC conference in Washington. Their presentation highlighted their commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and focused on the scope and impact of their efforts. This short YouTube video of their presentation is worth watching.
The twins recently moved to Washington to begin new phases of their lives. Kendra will be working for MasterCard and Keila will be attending American University’s School of International Service, doing graduate work in intercultural and international communication. She sees her involvement with Israel as a major factor in choosing this path.
Asked if they intend to stay involved in educating and advocating for Israel, Kendra says, “I don’t think my involvement will ever be at risk. I love that country so much. Every time I go I find something so beautiful. I believe that everyone should visit. People may have their opinions — I respond by asking them ‘Have you been?’”
Keila lets her name do the talking. It’s Hebrew and from the Bible, she explains with pride. It means fortress or citadel. She wears her name on a necklace around her neck, in Hebrew. She has found it’s a great way to start an educational conversation about Israel and the importance of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Southerners at heart, these Lawrence ladies are warm and gracious, welcoming and engaging, and every word they speak seems to be animated by a smile. But it is clear that on the inside they are two driven and highly-focused women, already on their way to making an impact on the world.
That’s good news for Israel, because together these energetic and determined twins have become a unique and powerful fortress; a citadel for a country they understand better than most — a country that they’ve been proud to befriend, a country they’ve come to love.
Richard Friedman is associate editor of Israel Insight and Southern Jewish Life magazines.