Among the few women rabbis ordained during the 1970s Laura Geller has been most prominent in shaping the impact of female religious leadership upon Judaism.
The second of three children, Geller was born on April 21, 1950, the only daughter of Leonard (b. 1921) and Rosalie (Cohen) Geller (b. 1921). Her siblings are Roger (b. 1946) and Michael (b. 1951). The family resided in Brookline, Massachusetts until they moved to New York City when Geller was fifteen. Leonard, a graduate of Brown University, worked in the shoe business. Rosalie, who did not receive a college education, was active as a volunteer and professional worker for AFS (American Field Service), facilitating intercultural exchanges between American and international high school students.
After graduating from the Dalton School, Geller matriculated at Brown University in 1967 where a number of experiences shaped her path toward the rabbinate. Immersion in the Christian-oriented Civil Rights movement convinced her to seek an activist path within her own spiritual tradition, and six months on an Israeli kibbutz pushed her to challenge a claim she heard there—that authentic Jewish identity was impossible outside of Israel.
Although engaged in the emerging feminist movement, when she applied to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform rabbinical school in 1972, Geller was not yet attuned to the significance of women’s traditional exclusion from the rabbinate. Nor was she aware that, in June, Sally Priesand would become the first woman ordained by a rabbinical seminary.
As the only woman among fifty first-year rabbinical students in Jerusalem, Geller found community and studied with her classmate’s wives. Geller remained isolated as a woman in rabbinical school until, returning to New York for her final year of study after two years at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, she found a handful of female students enrolled in the classes below her.
Two ideas central to Geller’s rabbinate and published writing arose early in her career. In response to a professor’s claim that “there is no important moment in the lifetime of a Jew for which there is no blessing,” Geller recognized the necessity of creating rituals that could address the many stages of women’s lives overlooked by Judaism’s male-centered tradition. Later, the response she received as a new rabbi helped her see that women rabbis could offer congregants a different relationship to the sacred, opening new realms and possibilities in Jewish life.
Rewarding internships at Vassar and UCLA during Geller’s rabbinical training confirmed her desire to work in a university setting. In 1976, after becoming the third woman ordained within the Reform movement, Geller took a position as director at the University of Southern California Hillel, arriving with a high public profile as the first woman rabbi on the West Coast. Geller worked actively with all segments of the USC community. The Jewish Women’s faculty group that she founded took an activist role on campus, leading, for example, a successful drive that ended USC’s practice of paying membership fees for university administrators at private clubs that excluded women and minorities. Geller also organized a Jewish Women’s Research Group where a number of male and female Jewish studies scholars made their first forays into the emerging field of women’s studies.
From 1990 to 1994 Geller worked as director of the American Jewish Congress branch in Los Angeles. Drawn by the challenges brought forth in the wake of the Rodney King riots, Geller saw this role as an opportunity to introduce a progressive Jewish voice into the city’s political discourse. She initiated the establishment of a Jewish Urban Center to explore the Jewish stake in LA politics and life. She also created the Jewish Feminist Center to capture the energy that feminism was bringing to Judaism by organizing resources and classes and facilitating public women’s seders.
In 1993 Geller offered a challenging address at a symposium convened to mark the twentieth anniversary of ordination of American women rabbis. She questioned why it was that so few women had advanced to positions of prominence within the Reform movement and the prevailing explanation that women simply chose to have an impact in smaller spheres. Geller pointed out that the striking differences in the career paths and salaries of women and men ordained at the same time reflected more than personal choice. She argued that Reform Judaism had to confront the structural factors that favored men and impeded women. Taking up her own challenge, Geller in 1994 became the first female HUC-JIR graduate to lead a major metropolitan synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, California.
Geller’s career has been shaped by a deepening spirituality and personal relationship to God. She sees herself as part of a growing embrace of tradition within the Reform movement that women rabbis have helped to shape by encouraging all Jews to think about their lives in the context of Jewish tradition, text, and ritual. Geller has also been a pioneer in negotiating the distinctive challenges that women rabbis have faced in integrating their personal and professional lives. Her son Joshua was born in 1982 and a daughter, Elana, was born in 1988. Both her 1978 and 1994 marriages ended in divorce. She married again in 2003.
The fourth decade of leadership by Reform women rabbis has begun with Geller’s appointment to the HUC-JIR Board of Governors and with her direction of a committee that selected Rabbi Janet Marder (b. 1954) to become president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2003, making Marder the first woman to lead one of the movement’s governing bodies. As Reform Judaism moves toward incorporating a generation of women leaders in a meaningful way, Laura Geller will continue to articulate the questions and meet the challenges growing out of this new era in Jewish life.
“Encountering the Divine Presence.” In Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook, edited by Ellen Umansky and Dianne Ashton, 242–247. Boston: 1992; “From Equality to Transformation.” In Gender and Judaism, edited by T. M. Rudavsky, 246–251. New York: 1995; “My Search for God,” “Reactions to a Woman Rabbi.” In On Being a Jewish Feminist, edited by Susannah Heschel, 210–213. New York: 1983; “The Torah of Our Lives.” In Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, 258–264. New York: 1997.