“From this point forward I’m just going to ride the wave of belonging, helping and healing,” Leslie K. shares from her high school classroom, where she’s still a part-time teacher.
That need to belong goes all the way back to early childhood for the precocious and “mature beyond her years” little girl, born in Tallahassee, Florida, and raised in the “Live Free or Die” Libertarian refuge of coastal New Hampshire. Her parents had her very young and by the age of two they had divorced. As a child, “I was put into adult situations, as my mother made me tag along to “grown-up parties and dates,“ Leslie recalls. But when she wasn’t her mother’s “plus one,” Leslie spent a lot of time alone with her imagination, creating magical worlds to where she could escape and belong. By the age of ten, both parents had remarried, with her father relocating to New Mexico. Her mom and step-father had started to have additional children and her world shifted. Now no longer the center of attention and entering puberty, “I became the ‘weird kid.’ I didn’t really belong anywhere,” Leslie painfully recounts.
And, not surprisingly, the teenage Leslie went from being the “good girl” to the “bad girl.” Trading her good grades and sweet demeanor for a hot pink Mohawk and a bad attitude, she began rebelling, swearing at teachers and, in general, screaming for attention. And to add even more fuel to her “rebel without a cause” attitude and behavior, Leslie began drinking. It all finally came to a head between her sophomore and junior years of high school. “I hated school and I wanted to drop out and start working at a bakery. I gave my parents an ultimatum,” she explains. But, instead of letting their unruly and defiant teen pursue her confectionary dream, Leslie’s parents moved her from the large public high school she despised to a private college-prep school. “It was small and helped to calm and center me. It got me back to some sense of normalcy,” she explains.
After graduation she enrolled in the all women’s Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Having chosen the school simply because, as she relates, “it was the most beautiful campus I’d ever seen,” the school also afforded her a sense of community and finally belonging. But despite all the “warm and fuzzies” the picturesque bastion of learning provided the young Leslie, she really had no idea what she wanted to declare for her major. Finally settling on a Religion major because, as she describes, “it had always fascinated me,” Leslie immersed herself in her new and uncharted direction of study. However, having never been raised very religious, save her maternal grandmother’s strong Presbyterian faith influence, Leslie quickly tired of her declared area of learning. As she recalls, “The study of religion didn’t speak to me but feminism began to draw me in as a favored avenue of education. It helped me better understand my mother and grandmother’s lives.”
By the time she graduated, she had degrees in both English and Women’s Studies. And she had met the man who would eventually become her husband, Bill. Following graduation the couple moved across the country to Seattle, Washington so Bill could pursue a graduate degree. While in Seattle, Leslie had decided she wanted to become a lawyer. “I liked the image of wearing the cute skirt and going to court and looking all legal and stuff,” she shares with a little giggle. Her mother, however, did not approve of her daughter’s vocational choice. Having a strong intuition her daughter would hate it, she suggested that Leslie spend a day at a law office just to make sure. “I didn’t even make it past lunch. It was so boring,” she remembers. Following that deflating experience, her mother ran another option past her eldest child. “She told me I should go to a high school and observe a day in the life of a teacher. I was like, what? I hated high school. Why would I want to be a teacher?” Leslie laughingly recounts. Within ten minutes, “I was teaching a class on ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and whether or not we should read it because of the use of the ‘N Word’,” she explains. She was hooked. Finding the experience dynamic and exciting, she discovered that she liked being with people in transition. As she relays, “I didn’t belong in the ‘safe’ spaces. I belonged in those ‘in-between’ spaces.”
So she put law school in her rearview mirror and enrolled in graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in Education. By the time she received her degree, two momentous events occurred that would set Leslie’s life trajectory in a new and unexpected direction. She got pregnant and she got married. In fact, everything happened so fast that, “We have a picture of both of us in the hospital wearing our graduation robes as I was about to give birth to our first son, Isaac,” Leslie shares with that same infectious giggle. The couple moved to Maryland, following her son’s birth, so Bill could finish his postdoctoral program. During that period the couple welcomed a second son, Jonas, and following Bill’s last stop on his education journey, the family moved to Pasadena, California for his new job at JPL.
Now that the family had settled into a more stable routine, Bill decided that he wanted the boys raised Jewish. “I had to take the kids to Synagogue and Hebrew school. I made friends and learned a lot about Judaism,” she says. It was at this point Leslie came to the realization that this belief system spoke to her in a way no other religion had. It was a religion based on action and not necessarily belief. It encouraged questions and, most importantly, it felt like home, again satisfying her almost primal need to belong. And it was during a Shabbat service where “I had what I can only describe as a spiritual experience,” she relates. So moved by the event Leslie decided she wanted to convert to Judaism. She approached her Rabbi and began studying. And then she had to tell her parents. That’s when things got very interesting. Her paternal grandfather was Jewish so her father was completely fine with it. But when she approached her mother, who was adopted, she learned a very powerful and telling little piece of family trivia. It turned out that her mother’s birth parents were Jewish. “It was no big deal to her. But for me, it was a really big deal. I was Jewish all along. I really had come home,” she joyfully declares.
Following, what turned out to be, her “adult” Bat Mitzvah ceremony, Leslie went back to work. Armed with a second master’s degree in Elementary Education, she began working at her local elementary school. However, a few years into that job, due to budgetary constraints, she was transferred to the high school where she currently teaches. Life was proceeding along rather nicely at this stage in her life, but there was something missing. Then the boys transitioned from childhood into adulthood. The nest was empty and Leslie was at the edge of that nest wondering what was next for her. Then in 2016, she received an answer to that life query. “I recalled something Isaac said to me when he was twelve years old. He said, ‘mom, if you don’t go to rabbinical school I’m going to be very disappointed in you,’” she vividly recalls. There was her answer. Shortly thereafter she began regularly attending events at the AJR (Academy for the Jewish Religion). Again, she had found a place where she belonged and then Leslie learned about the position of Chaplain. “I discovered that a Chaplain’s job was all about helping people figure stuff out during those ‘in-between’ moments I mentioned earlier,” she recounts.
And that’s when all the pieces of her life puzzle began to fall into place and reveal her true calling. But she had one last issue to address—her drinking. “It was about two and a half years ago that I decided that alcohol had become a problem for me. It was holding me back,” she explains. And, then, just as she became sober and started attending Chaplaincy school, all while still working part-time at her local high school, Beit T’Shuvah came into her life at the perfect moment in time. “Here was a Jewish faith-based drug and alcohol treatment center where Rabbis and Chaplains worked to help addicts heal using the spiritual tools provided by the Jewish religion,” she enthusiastically shares. And, as mentioned earlier, G-d had yet again shown her the path to another place of belonging, helping, and healing. Working as a spiritual counselor, Leslie gets to aid residents, who are all in the “in-between” moments of their own life’s journey, in figuring out what’s next in their healing transformation. But it’s not just a one-way energy exchange. She concludes by saying, “I’m being helped as much, if not more, than the souls I’m helping. I take away something for myself every time I assist someone dealing with his or her transition process,” she warmly relates.
In a life filled with beautiful moments, difficult emotional challenges, and unexpected twists and turns, Leslie has finally found that perfect place of belonging in her life. A loving wife, mother, daughter, teacher, and Chaplain-to-be, Leslie has a wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and love to share with the residents and staff at BTS. And every time she touches a soul with her maternal warmth and affection that person is changed forever. Yes, Leslie, you most definitely belong and we’re lucky to have you.