Woman of Impact: Leesa Wallace

What role does Jewishness play in your life, both as an individual and as a mother?

It’s central to everything. I came to Judaism much later in my life, following a Momentum trip to Israel in 2016. Since that time, there isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not touched by Judaism in some way, whether that’s a quick prayer in the morning, lighting candles on Shabbat, or studying Torah when I can. It’s the lens through which I look at all things, including my own behavior: Is this how I want to show up? Am I judging favorably? These core beliefs guide my actions daily — often hourly — and I’m better at it on some days than others, that’s for sure. 


My two oldest children were out of the house and my youngest was 16 when I embarked on this journey. They all identified as Jewish culturally, but we didn’t have regular conversations about what Judaism is philosophically or religiously when they were growing up. That might be a blessing in disguise, though, because I feel that, as an adult, I can speak about my beliefs in a way that’s much more resonant and relevant to them. For example, I’ll talk about tzedakah, or the Jewish value of righteous giving and connect it to a Jimi Hendrix quote. Values like tzedakah then become much more meaningful to them — and I can approach our conversations with more maturity now.


You say you came to Judaism later in life; can you tell us a little more about your journey?

When I was around eight years old, my family moved from a suburb of Milwaukee, where I attended Hebrew school at a reform temple, to the middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin. The nearest synagogue was almost 40 minutes away and there were no other Jews in the town where we lived. We eventually moved to a town with a larger Jewish community, and I asked my parents if we were going to start going back to Hebrew school. My father said no, because the synagogue had burned down. Well, the synagogue hadn’t burned down — there was this group called the Posse Comitatus, who are basically the northern Midwest’s version of the Ku Klux Klan. They didn’t like the government or taxes — and they most definitely didn’t like Jews. The synagogue in town was small, and they’d made death threats against the rabbi. Rather than tell me at eleven years old about the death threats, my parents just said the synagogue burned down. One day, I came home from school and told my mom that a classmate had called me a “dirty Jew,” and she told me I didn’t need to tell anyone we were Jewish. If there are Christmas carols being sung in school, I should just go along with it. If anyone talks about putting up a Hanukkah bush, I didn’t tell them that, as a Jewish person, it really wasn’t a “thing.” I know she and my father were trying to protect us, but in effect, my Jewish education stopped at that point.


Fast forward to 2016. This wonderful woman, Mindy Glickman, decided to take a group of moms raising Jewish kids on a trip to Israel through Momentum. At the time, I didn’t even know what Shabbat was — but I decided to apply, and that trip sparked so much curiosity for me. It filled a gap that I’d felt for years and connected me to something I needed both spiritually and intellectually. 


How did that spark continue after your trip to Israel?

My experience on that trip lowered the threshold for learning more. Judaism can be intimidating — it isn’t for the intellectually lazy and demands more than just showing up. It’s a faith of learning and action. But I was motivated to stay connected to all the people I met through Momentum, and as part of the Momentum requirements, Mindy held monthly gatherings to keep us connected. They were always centered around Jewish learning and some kind of community service. In 2021, I went on a Momentum retreat to the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center; because of the pandemic, they weren’t bringing women to Israel, but they were bringing Israel to women. Like everything Momentum does, that retreat was so non-judgmental; it was about unity without uniformity, whether you kept kosher or not, or belonged to a temple or not. I loved that inclusivity. So, when I was invited to join a weekly Torah study, I did, which I continued to attend for the next few years.


Recently, you and several others co-founded a new nonprofit in Greater Hartford called Yaysh. Tell us about that organization and how it came to be.

Momentum requires that each group traveling to Israel has a partner organization, and we decided that if we formed our own, we could be more nimble and flexible than we would be if a larger organization was the partner. There were five of us who were really passionate about this: me, Mindy Glickman, Sarah Kaprove, Carol Fishman, and Cary Lakenbach, whose daughter-in-law was one of the founders of Momentum. We spent the past summer writing our business plan for our new organization, Yaysh, and we got our 501c3 status just a few months ago. 


Yaysh is Hebrew slang for, ‘You got this!’, and our mission is to bring women to Israel so they can bring Israel back home. Once we return from our trips, we start what’s called a ‘Year of Growth,’ with monthly meetings and a unique curriculum that lasts for a year post-trip. This allows us to empower women to grow their communities and get more people involved. Our tagline is “Bringing Jewish Alive” and we’re serious about that. We want women to feel comfortable reaching out to a friend to say, “Hey, let’s go to this event together,” or “We’re launching this new program; why don’t you join us?” So far, we have a core group of about 40, and we’ll keep growing this. Whether women go on the trip or not, Yaysh is a way of creating more connection and community among Jewish women right here in the Greater Hartford area.  


You also joined the board of Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford in 2022. What made you want to get more involved on that front?

I consider Federation to be central to everything that happens Jewishly in our community. They do amazing work, often work that people don’t even know about, and they’re going to be central to what we’re doing with Yaysh. We’re very much looking forward to partnering with them. 


Looking back on your journey of rediscovering your Jewishness, what feelings come up for you?

I just fell in love with being Jewish. When you lay eyes on your kids for the first time, you just fall in love with them — and that’s exactly how I came to feel about being Jewish. It was a piece that had been missing for me for a long, long time.