Senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel, the Beverly Hills Reform congregation, the first woman rabbi to hold such a position in a major metropolitan city. Rabbi Laura Geller did not ascend to the position step by step, moving up the ladder from smaller congregations. In 1994, she shattered the “stained-glass ceiling”—the de facto barrier to a woman serving a congregation of more than a thousand—suddenly and surprisingly. After twenty years as rabbi of the University of Southern California Hillel, the Jewish college organization, and director of the Southwest American Jewish Congress, a civil rights group, Geller became rabbi of this prized pulpit.
“Issues of gender have been on the table from the minute I arrived. We have families from more traditional backgrounds than Reform, and some of them have resistance to women in religious leadership positions. Many people said that they were glad that I was here, they respected me, but personally they weren’t comfortable with a woman rabbi.
“I was middle-aged when I came to Temple Emanuel, thank God. I came with a strong sense of who I was; I am exactly the same person I was before I took this position. So, at this stage of my life, I hear criticism differently from the way a newly ordained twenty-six-year-old might. When people say that they don’t believe in women rabbis, I understand that they’re telling me something about themselves, not me. I don’t fret, I don’t have low self-esteem, but I think if I’d taken this job right out of school, it would have killed me.
“Not everyone likes everything, but everybody knows that they can come and talk to me. After my first High Holidays here, I told the head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations that I was sending out a survey to see what people thought of the holidays. The response was, ‘Are you crazy? You don’t want that feedback.’ We did it anyway and got a stunning percentage of respondents; and every ear now we send out a High Holiday survey. It’s about continuing to grow and get better. The message is, I care what you think.’ This has to do with gender. I don’t think people necessarily talk to their male rabbis the way they talk to me; they are comfortable criticizing me, and I find that to be an advantage. I’m thick skinned, and I don’t personalize what I’m hearing. That gives people a sense of involvement and safety with their feelings.
“When I took this job, it was a news story, because until I took this position, no woman had broken the stained-glass ceiling. But the real news story was you can get to be the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel by starting as a Hillel director. There al story is if you follow your dreams, if you do what makes you happy, you’re going to end up in surprising places.”