Remembering Rela Geffen

Some of the findings from her work in the late 1980s remain valid today. Sadly, too little has changed. For example, after Rela analyzed data from a survey of “Jewish Women on the Way Up,” drawing on responses from Lilith readers among others, she announced that “the most surprising finding was how alienated most women felt from the organized Jewish community. This was especially unexpected since most of the women responding to the questionnaire were involved with Jewish institutions. Nearly all felt positive about their Jewish identities, but half of the 944 respondents thought the community was neutral at best, and one third considered it unsupportive.” Rela (then known as Rela Geffen Monson) went on to warn that “this finding should send up a red-flag alert to community institutions if they place any value on their pool of talent and leadership for the future.”

Her research also revealed that young Jewish women did not plan to lead their lives ad seriatum, as she put it, anticipating that they’d first have children and then a career, or vice versa. Instead, she found, Jewish women anticipated doing it all at once: marriage, childrearing, and a satisfying career—a more complex “juggling” (her term) than what non-Jewish women at the time had in mind for their future selves. The formal description of the survey concludes: “Rather than being different from other professional women, Jewish women may be in the forefront of a trend, where women no longer feel compelled to choose between career or family but expect to combine the two.”

In a 1980 issue of Lilith magazine, responding to a question from the editors about what the goals of feminism and Jewish life should be for the year 2000, Rela (well before the #MeToo moment) wrote that what’s needed is parenting “which heightens the awareness in sons and daughters of the immorality of sexism. This will be very difficult, because the parents doing the socializing bear the vestiges of their own conditioning. A conscious effort is required to break stereotypes and myths about the way boys and girls and men and women who are Jews behave.”

Rela Geffen’s sharp observations and her dedication to advancing the lives of all Jews—and Jewish women in particular—will be sorely missed.