In front of the temple office's fridge, Rabbi Laura Geller grunts "oy" as she stoops to get something out. "That's how you know you're getting old, you know," the receptionist teases the rabbi, "when you say 'oy' when you bend down."
But at 51, there is nothing remotely old about Laura Geller. After 25 years in the rabbinate, she's as trim as a marathon runner, her face unlined, her voice vibrant. A quarter-century of teaching, sermonizing, writing, leading and crusading apparently has left her ready for at least 50 years more.
Next Thursday, May 31, the day school of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, where Geller has served as senior rabbi since 1994, will honor her as this year's Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valor) at its annual scholarship luncheon. The tribute follows the honorary doctorate she was awarded earlier this month by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) to mark the 25th anniversary of her ordination.
"It's amazing to have it be 25 years," Geller said last week. "It just doesn't feel that long."
Geller, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., and who has spent her entire rabbinical career in Southern California, has held exactly three jobs as a rabbi: director of the Hillel Jewish Center at USC; executive director of the regional office for the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) and senior rabbi at Emanuel.
Much of her work as a rabbi has been devoted to issues of social justice, and it was the fusion of religious values with those issues that helped set her on a path toward Jewish institutional life.
Geller said she was raised in a not-very-observant Reform family and had no thought of becoming a rabbi when she entered Brown University, just as the social and political ferment of the late '60s was reaching its peak. However, she said, "it was the time of identity politics, and a bunch of different things happened that made me realize that my Jewishness was important to me."
For example, in 1969, she attended a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and felt out of place among a largely African American and Christian crowd. When she told an organizer she didn't feel as if she belonged there, he said, "You're right; you don't belong here. You should go back to your own community and organize there."
"It was really a turning point for me," Geller said. "What was my own community? What did it mean to organize there? These kinds of experiences propelled me into what it meant to be Jewish."
She majored in religion and lived in Israel for a while before applying to HUC-JIR. "I went to Hebrew Union College because I wanted to learn to be Jewish," she said.
At home on the Westside, Geller is mom to 18-year-old Joshua, who has finished his first year of college, and Elana, 12, a student in the Los Angeles public schools.
From her first days in rabbinical school, Geller thought about the role of women in Jewish life. She entered HUC-JIR in 1971, at a time when women across the ideological spectrum were questioning the status quo and seeking to expand women's presence as participants in Jewish worship and leadership. When Geller was ordained in 1976, she was only the third woman to become a Reform rabbi.
Geller has published numerous articles and contributed chapters to a number of books designed to raise consciousness about women's role in Judaism. "Years before I met Laura, her essay in the book 'On Being a Jewish Feminist' helped me believe I could become a rabbi," said Lisa Edwards, rabbi of Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles.
Geller spent 14 happy years at USC Hillel, leaving in 1990. "I noticed that I was spending more time on the macro issues of higher education and values and less time with undergraduates," she said. "And I realized, as I turned 40, that it was time for me to have a new challenge."
She loved her work during the early '90s at the AJCongress too, creating the Jewish Feminist Center, which introduced hundreds of women to new rituals and skills, and supervising the Congress' participation in an array of causes from Muslim-Jewish dialogue to Women Against Gun Violence.
"It was a great time to be a community leader -- what an interesting time, such interesting issues," Geller said.
When Geller was chosen for her post at the 900-household Emanuel, she became the first woman to become senior rabbi of a major metropolitan congregation.
As a rabbinical student, Geller was so fixated on a career as a Hillel rabbi and so sure she would never lead a congregation that she talked the leaders of HUC-JIR into permitting her to trade temple internships, a requirement of the rabbinical program, for student work in college organizations. Once she committed herself to becoming a rabbi, she said, "I wanted to work with people at the same stage in their lives that I had been when [Judaism] became important to me."
Taking the helm at Emanuel after not having experienced so much as a student pulpit was "a stretch for the congregation, and it was a stretch for me," Geller said. But the job came open at a time when Geller was realizing that synagogues are as important as national organizations. "If synagogues don't work, there will be a difficulty transmitting Judaism to the next generation," she said. "So it felt to me at that stage of my life that ground zero of the Jewish community was creating compelling synagogues that really make a difference in people's lives.... It seemed to me an important challenge, and I wanted to get involved with it," Geller said. "And I must say, it's been fascinating."
Although women have moved forward in Jewish life, Geller pointed out that there's still a distance to go. "There need to be more women leaders at all levels of the Jewish community," she said. "More women in positions like mine, more women who are in leadership positions across the board, not just in religious institutions." Women are still underrepresented on boards of major Jewish organizations, she added.
"We don't take ourselves seriously enough to realize that we are part of history, shapers of history, makers of history and the recipients of history," Geller said. She's hoping that a new educational project, the Jewish Women's Archive, which will be featured at her tribute luncheon, will focus attention on women's contributions to Jewish scholarship and leadership.
And she is optimistic that what she's helped lay the groundwork for will continue. "When you put women in positions of leadership at all levels, then other women are also singled out for positions of leadership," she said. "And that's happening. We're on a trajectory."
Finally, what she most wants to see happen in Jewish life affects both women and men, "that we continue to educate ourselves so that the Judaism that we are engaged in, living and leading is Judaism that is compelling and meaningful."
Reservations are still open for Temple Emanuel Community Day School's luncheon honoring Rabbi Laura Geller, with Dr. Karla Goldman, historian-in-residence for the Jewish Women's Archive, as featured speaker, at noon Thursday, May 31, at the Beverly Hilton. For information, call Jackie Sharpe at (310) 278-7749 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Jewish Women's Archive is found at www.jwa.org.