While she may not have begun her life with a great zeal for Judaism, Leslie Seid Margolis, president of Bolton Street Synagogue’s board of directors, has fully embraced her role, and she hopes to use her position to practice tikkun olam while combating institutionalized racism.
In addition to her duties at Bolton Street, Leslie Margolis works as a disability rights attorney at the nonprofit Disability Rights Maryland. She and her husband, Russell, live in Baltimore’s Homeland neighborhood, and they have two daughters, Pazya, 27, and Rebecca, 22.
Originally born in Yonkers, N.Y., Margolis was raised Jewish, though she described herself as a “Hebrew school dropout.” At 11, Margolis and her family moved to Fair Lawn, N.J., where she resumed Hebrew school at a Reform synagogue. Though she was confirmed there, she would not have a bat mitzvah until she was an adult at Bolton Street.
Margolis started to become more active in the Jewish community, specifically in Hillel, while studying comparative literature at Princeton University during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She met her future husband, Russell Margolis, also a student at Princeton, within her first week there at a Hillel brunch, she said.
“Every parent’s dream, right?” quipped Leslie Margolis.
At Hillel, she and Russell Margolis made many Jewish friends. They also became very close to the rabbi, Edward Feld, and his wife, Merle, and attended Shabbat dinners, Passover seders and Purim celebrations at their house.
“They would invite the students to share meals and holidays, and we were included, often, in those gatherings,” Leslie Margolis said. “And it was just a warm and wonderful way to experience Judaism.”
After finishing law school at Stanford University, Leslie Margolis moved to the Baltimore area, where Russell Margolis was attending medical school at Johns Hopkins University. They soon married, with Feld performing the ceremony. The two have now been together for 36 years.
After two years in Columbia, the couple settled in Baltimore. They explored several different synagogues before finding that many of their friends attended Bolton Street. They officially joined after it moved into its current space in 2003. The synagogue’s wheelchair accessibility was an important factor as well, as this was necessary for their daughter, Pazya.
“It’s warm, and it’s welcoming, and we just felt like it was a place that we could be happy being a part of,” Leslie Margolis said.
Leslie Margolis became active on Bolton Street’s board of directors after being recruited in 2017, she said, as she saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the synagogue.
At first, Leslie Margolis had very little intention of ever becoming the board’s president. Between her career as an attorney and raising two daughters, she didn’t see how she could find the time to serve as president, particularly after seeing the work her husband, a former president at Bolton Street Synagogue and a psychiatrist for Johns Hopkins University, had to put into it.
“Frankly, I had sworn that I would never become president,” Leslie Margolis said. “I would never, ever, ever do it.”
What changed her mind? A major factor was her commitment to the principles of the Not Free to Desist movement, Leslie Margolis said. Formulated by a group of Jews of color following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the movement deals with institutionalized racism and calls on Jewish communities to adopt a number of different anti-racism obligations.
Bolton Street’s social action committee, which Leslie Margolis was part of, took a closer look at these principles and developed a proposal for how Bolton Street could implement them.
“This is a synagogue commitment,” Margolis said. “And it impacts every part of the synagogue from how you spend your money, to leadership development, to your building and whether your building is accessible, to whether you’re contracting with Black-owned businesses or women-owned businesses. Every aspect of how you operate.”
Leslie Margolis realized that, if she became president of the board, she could merge her professional experience in civil rights and inclusion with her commitment to tikkun olam and social justice, and both shape and support the work Bolton Street would do in this regard.
At the synagogue’s annual meeting in June, she was elected to a two-year term as board president.
To anyone looking for a new synagogue to belong to, Leslie Margolis wants them to know Bolton Street’s arms are wide open.
“Please come, and share an event or a service with us,” she said. “We love to welcome people who have not had the opportunity to come to Bolton Street before.”