Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Laura Geller: Seeing Everyone in the Image of the Holy One – Jewish Journal

Posted By on September 2, 2022

The beginning of Bereshit teaches us a very powerful lesson: And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

This is the Torah teaching that guides Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Laura Geller in all of her work. A longtime social justice advocate, Judaisms emphasis on treating others with respect and dignity is what drew her to the rabbinate in the first place.

Born just outside of Boston in Brookline, Mass., Geller grew up going to a Reform synagogue. Becoming a member of a synagogue was just sort of what you did, she said. But I never went to Jewish day school or summer camp. I didnt have the kind of religious background that many rabbis have.

At Brown University, Gellers alma mater, she studied religion and became formally involved in social justice causes. I began in 1967, she said. That was a time of great change in the world and I was very curious to try to understand the connection between politics and social justice and spirituality. I had never seen those come together.

Geller was part of the feminist and anti-war movements and, at the end of her senior year, she had a light bulb moment when she went to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference convention in Nashville. It was the year after Martin Luther King Jr., one of the groups leaders, had been assassinated.

I remember vividly feeling like I didnt belong, she said. I sat outside under a tree, and a wonderful Black community organizer came out to see how I was doing. I told him I felt that I didnt belong. He said, Youre right. You dont. You should be organizing within your own community. I realized I needed to bring my social justice and Jewish commitments together.

Geller spent six months on a kibbutz in Israel and tried to understand what being Jewish meant. She took a college class in Jewish studies and then was part of a committee to search for Browns next Hillel director. We interviewed candidates and I thought, This would be an interesting job: To be a Hillel director and work with young people at this stage of their life, she said.

In 1971, Geller enrolled in rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She was the third woman in the Reform movement to become a rabbi. From 1976 to 1990, she was director of Hillel of University of Southern California, and she served as the Pacific Southwest Regions executive director of the American Jewish Congress for four years.

During this time, she was interviewed for a prestigious job to lead Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Though Geller hadnt intended to work at a synagogue, the opportunity seemed appealing.

For the first time, I imagined myself at a congregation, she said. I had two kids, I was divorced, and I wanted a synagogue that met my needs until then. I decided to throw my hat into the ring.

In 1990, she made history: Temple Emanuel hired her, and she became the first woman selected to lead a major metropolitan synagogue.

I took a chance with Temple Emanuel and it turned out to be a really good ride. They were brave to hire me. The news stories said, Rabbi Breaks Stained Glass Ceiling.

I took a chance with Temple Emanuel and it turned out to be a really good ride, she said. They were brave to hire me. The news stories said, Rabbi Breaks Stained Glass Ceiling.

At Temple Emanuel, Geller continued to be involved in social justice causes such as womens rights and advocating for a two-state solution. Today, she is passionate about senior issues and co-founded ChaiVillageLA, a synagogue-based senior village. She also co-wrote the book Getting Good at Getting Older with her late husband, Richard Siegel, of blessed memory.

With ChaiVillageLA, we want people to stay in their homes as long as possible, Geller said. We figure out what it means to grow older with joy, energy and purpose.

The rabbis main joy comes from doing her part in making the world a better place whether shes working with her community, improving the lives of seniors or simply being kind to a stranger she meets.

Since all human beings are created in the image of God, that means everyone is equal and has the opportunity to become the best versions of themselves they can, she said. There should be equal opportunity and inclusion. The goal of Judaism is to help people create a world where that is true. We need to make it real.

Jewish Journal: What is your favorite Jewish food?Laura Geller: Challah. Really good challah. I often pick it up from Got Kosher.

JJ: Whats your favorite spot in LA?

LG: My garden. Its a meditation space thats very peaceful and restorative.

JJ: What do you like to do with your grandkids?

LG: I spend as much time as I can with each of them in different parts of the country. Its hard on Facetime, but its wonderful to see them in person.

JJ: Whats your perfect Shabbat look like?

LG: Having friends for dinner on Friday night and going to shul on Saturday. Studying Torah with my friends every Shabbos afternoon in my garden.


Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Laura Geller: Seeing Everyone in the Image of the Holy One - Jewish Journal

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