Laura Geller ’71
The summer after her freshman year, Laura Leller attended a Memphis convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Although she’d been raised Jewish, in college she’d quickly latched onto the field of Christian ethics, and she’d spent the summer doing community work with the SCLC. Still, in Memphis she felt out of place.
“There were not a lot of white people there, or Jews, and there was a lot of gospel singing—something I wasn’t familiar with,” she told the BAM in 1986. At one point, when she left the convention hall to think, she was joined by her boss, SCLC organizer John Reynolds. “I told him that I felt like I didn’t belong,” Geller recalled. “He said, ‘You’re right. You don’t belong. You should be doing this kind of work in your own community.’"
And so she has. After her sophomore year Geller took time off to live on an Israeli kibbutz, and she continued her studies in Christian ethics. When the University hired Jacob Neusner, one of the world’s preeminent scholars in Judaic studies, she got her “first introduction to an intellectual study of Judaism.”
Geller enrolled at Hebrew Union College in the fall of 1971—the only woman in her class. When she was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1976, she became only the third female rabbi in the United States. In the early years of her career Geller chose to work with young people, serving for fourteen years as director of Hillel at UCLA. In her subsequent role as executive director of the American Jewish Congress’s Pacific Southwest Region, she emerged as a civic leader during the Los Angeles riots. In 1994, at age forty-four, she was named the first female rabbi of a major congregation—Temple Emmanuel, in Beverly Hills. With a membership of 900 families it is one of the largest synagogues in the United States. And to Laura Geller, it’s where she belongs.