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Rabbi Laura Geller Moves From Senior Rabbi to Study of Aging

Published on 6/22/2016

by Danielle Berrin, Jewish Journal

Rabbi Laura Geller

Leaning against the chair at a small glass table in her office, Rabbi Laura Geller exudes the energy of a meditative state. Aided by a stream of afternoon light, she is the picture of equanimity: relaxed, well postured, comfortably adorned in a coral cotton dress that sits pillowy soft on her figure. Her gaze is intense and focused, and she hardly notices when the wind swirls through the room so heavily that it blows the door shut. At her feet, a stack of empty boxes waits. 

“I’m packing up my office,” Geller, 66, announces. 

At the end of June, Geller will officially step down from her role as senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the congregation she has led and served for 22 years. But there is nothing anxious about her mood, despite the fact that the core routines and responsibilities of her life will soon shift considerably, and she will enter a new phase in which the goalposts are less clear. One might expect her to be a bit on edge. Instead, she is looking forward to it.

“You know,” she says, retrieving a few books from the shelves, “the measure of success of a congregational rabbi is whether he or she would choose to be a member of the congregation when no longer the rabbi. That’s how I know I’ve been a success.” 

It would certainly be understandable, considering the demands placed on pulpit rabbis, if Geller planned to escape to a remote island and sunbathe her way through retirement. But that’s not the exit she’s after. She insists she isn’t departing out of exhaustion: “Sometimes people leave when they’re burnt out,” Geller says. “I’m not burnt out. I’m ready to move on to the next stage — with gratitude for everything up until now, and curiosity for what comes next.”

Geller has no plans to “retire.” Instead, she will take on the role of rabbi emerita as of this weekend, the final Shabbat in June, when the congregation will salute her legacy at three festive events — Friday night services, Shabbat morning — to which all are welcome — and at a gala Saturday night. Asked which will be most important to her, she says, “all of them.” 

Concluding a two-decade chapter in a four-decade career is worth marking in any profession. But Geller’s departure is even more significant considering the circumstances of her arrival: In 1994, when she was hired as senior rabbi, Geller became the first woman in America to lead a major urban congregation. With only one woman in the country ordained ahead of her — Rabbi Sally Priesand — Geller became the first woman rabbi on the West Coast. Yet she didn’t have a single day of congregational experience before joining Emanuel. 

“The news story when I came here was, ‘Woman rabbi breaks stained-glass ceiling,’ ” Geller says. “But the real news story was: You can start anywhere, and you can end up anywhere — as a rabbi.”

Geller’s trajectory was not traditional as either a woman or a rabbi. She was ordained in 1976; her first job out of rabbinical school was serving as campus director for USC Hillel — the first female rabbi to do so. “There were leaders in the Reform community who told me I’d be throwing my career away if I went to Hillel,” Geller recalls. At the time, she had no interest in leading a congregation and preferred the path of political action and social justice.

After 14 years at Hillel, she became executive director of the American Jewish Congress, but eventually stepped away because she became uncomfortable with its “right-wing” political approach to Israel. Around that same time, Temple Emanuel was seeking a new spiritual leader.

“In some significant ways, I was the second woman to pursue a full-time life as a rabbi,” Geller says, looking back. “I’m grateful I wasn’t the first. I came into the rabbinate already a strong feminist, and it might have been more difficult for somebody as outspoken and engaged [as I was] to have been the first. It was easier that someone else had opened the door,” she says of Priesand. 

Not that being “second” was breezy. In 1980, a group of Reform rabbis known as the Rabbinic Women’s Network conducted a survey regarding public “fears” about female spiritual leadership. By the time Geller took her pulpit — almost 15 years later — the stigma remained. According to the report: “Women cannot do the job because the rigors of the rabbinate are too great and women too weak for the demanding routine; the Torah is too heavy [for them]; women are too soft-spoken; too political; do not know how to … wield power or authority; will cry at meetings when pressured or criticized.” The big reveal, though, was: “fear of women succeeding.”

“If women can read from the Torah, preach and teach, the rabbis’ duties become accessible to everyone,” the report says. “The mystique is lost. This possibly leads to the breakdown of the hierarchy of the rabbi-congregant relationship.”

Before Geller could ascend to the Emanuel pulpit, its then-Rabbi Emeritus Meyer Heller felt it necessary to defend a female hire. “I am fully aware that there are those who find it difficult to bring themselves to accept a woman rabbi,” Heller wrote in a 1994 letter to the congregation. He then made clear he “enthusiastically endorsed [Geller’s] candidacy.”  

“The purpose of halachah and all the commandments is to achieve the ethical and moral perfection of the individual. … If a woman sets this ideal as her course in life and wishes to serve the Jewish community in the highest way possible in terms of living a full life of Torah, then to deny her the right to be the Senior Rabbi of a major congregation would be an act of immorality.”

Geller has told and retold these stories throughout her career. For better or worse, breaking the gender barrier is part of her legacy, and even though it may have felt limiting at times, she is proud of her contribution to the transformational shift in American Judaism. 

“When women became rabbis, everything changed,” she says, “because we brought the Torah of our experience to our rabbinates. So liturgy changed, prayer changed, theology changed, scholarship changed, everything changed — including the structures of institutions.
“Hierarchy,” she says, “is not the best way to organize human relationships. For me, success is not being at the top of a ladder, but being in the middle of a hub.”

Geller grew up in Brookline, Mass., in a household devoid of Jewish education. “I never heard the Birkat ha-Mazon until I was a first-year rabbinical student — that’s how much my Jewish background hadn’t prepared me for certain kinds of basic Jewish rituals.”

Her curiosity was strong, however, so when she first had the opportunity to study — in 1967 — as a student at Pembroke College, Brown University’s sister school for women, she gravitated toward a religious education. Because there was no Jewish studies program, she enrolled in a course on Christian ethics. “I was always curious about the relationship between morality and theology,” she says. “Where do someone’s values come from that determines the choices they’re going to make?” 

Geller also became an activist in the women’s and civil rights movements — and volunteered as a draft counselor during the war in Vietnam. Her immersion in these struggles made her realize she could agitate and advocate from within her community, but first she had to figure out which community that was.

“I decided to go to rabbinical school not because I wanted to be a rabbi, but because I wanted to learn how to be Jewish,” she says. Eager to integrate women, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion accepted her into its rabbinic program even with only passable Hebrew and little other Jewish background. “I was like a clean slate,” Geller recalls. Of 50 students, she was the only female. 

When one day a teacher declared, “There is no important moment in the life of a Jew for which there is no blessing,” Geller had a visceral reaction: There were many moments in the life of a Jewish woman bereft of blessings — among them first menstruation and the onset of menopause; after a miscarriage or an abortion.

“That was a moment when the Torah of my life became clear,” Geller says. She would go on to create the blessings and rituals she and other women needed. 

 These days, Geller’s professional work continues to reflect her personal struggles, and what preoccupies her most is the challenge of aging with dignity. “The way [aging] is viewed is through a lens of decline, and fears people have around invisibility, isolation and dependence,” she says. “But I think there’s a way of framing the experience not about decline, but about different kinds of opportunities.”

 Because most Jewish communities today lack a holistic mechanism for supporting aging and elder members of the community, Geller has spent the last several years conducting focus groups on what it might look like to create a Jewishly supported system for aging in place. One outgrowth of these conversations is an initiative called “The Synagogue Village,” which recently was awarded a Jewish Community Foundation Cutting Edge grant. Secular models of this concept exist throughout the country, but this will be the first faith-based village; to establish the L.A. pilot, Temple Emanuel partnered with Temple Isaiah and Congregation Kol Ami. Geller also plans to co-write a “how-to” book on aging with her husband, Richard Siegel, as part of her post-pulpit rabbinate.

“The fact is time is passing and it’s limited,” Geller says of getting older. “At this moment in my life, there is more time behind me than there is ahead; but that might have been true at any moment in my life. To the extent that I am able to live with that, celebrate it and pay attention to it, is the extent to which this moment actually becomes way more significant than all the moments when I was younger.”

Near the end of our two hours together, the conversation turns toward spirituality. Inner life is something Geller has cultivated with deep interest over the last 15 years, owed in part to her involvement with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and it has endowed her with a striking quality of presence, even in casual conversation. “Honestly, I think the point of spiritual practice in general is about paying attention to what is going on right now. And most of us don’t,” she says. “Most of us are asleep all the time. 

“When I think about all the times in my life when I wasn’t paying particular attention to my own children … ” she continues, “I’m not critical of that, but I do notice it now.” 
Free of past regrets, unworried about the future – Geller seems more like a Buddhist than a typical Jew.

“One of the things I’ve recently come to learn is that there is a happiness curve,” she says, drawing a curve in the air with her hand. “You are happiest in the beginning” — in childhood — “and here, at the end. But in your 30s, 40s, 50s, is when you’re least happy. Now, why is that? Maybe it’s because some of us have a script and expect that by a certain stage we’ll achieve certain things, and we never get there; or if you do, it doesn’t turn out exactly as you imagined. But then, what starts to happen — and I’m beginning to experience this — is, ‘I am who I am.’