In a move that is being hailed as a first, a large Westside synagogue has chosen a woman to be its senior rabbi.
Rabbi Laura Geller, who has spoken out against racism, joined in a women’s interfaith coalition to help rape victims in Bosnia and campaigned for abortion rights, will be the first woman to head Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
Her appointment, which begins Aug. 1, would make Temple Emanuel the largest urban congregation in the country to be served by a woman, said Rabbi Lennard R. Thal, regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Until now, the largest Reform synagogue to be led by a woman rabbi has been a 600-member Boston congregation, Thal said. Temple Emanuel has 800 to 850 families. (The largest congregation locally is Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with about 2,500 families.)
“This is a significant development,” Thal said. “There are some who have said there is a glass ceiling for women clergy in the synagogue world. I’m not sure I agree. But if there has been a glass ceiling, I’d guess she’ll need some bandages because she just broke it.”
Geller, 44, was the third woman to be ordained in Reform Judaism, in 1976. She has been executive director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the American Jewish Congress.
Bruce Corwin, president-elect of the temple, called the selection of its first woman rabbi a “historic moment for Judaism in this country.”
Corwin acknowledged that Geller faces a formidable task. “The recent past of Temple Emanuel has been a fractious one,” he said. “We need somebody to come in fast to heal us and make us feel good about the place and to help us grow.”
Earlier this year, Rabbi Stephen M. Robbins resigned as senior rabbi after 10 years of service when disputes arose between him and members of the congregation.
One dispute involved a proposal to merge the financially troubled congregation with Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It was rejected by Temple Emanuel congregants, 269 to 243.
Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, who favored the merger, called Geller’s unanimous selection a good sign for the congregation. “I think Laura is a very able rabbi. She has a past of fine leadership and has been particularly a leader in the area of women’s issues and has been socially active in the area of communal concerns,” Fields said.
As director of the Westside office of the American Jewish Committee, she joined with the Muslim Women’s League and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to form the Women’s Coalition Against Ethnic Cleansing to aid rape victims and send relief supplies and volunteers to Bosnia.
Geller also was active in a coalition of Hollywood abortion-rights activists.