Brown experience led Geller ’71 to rabbinate, Corporation

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Since her arrival at Brown in fall 1967, Rabbi Laura Geller ’71, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees and the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif., has worked as an advocate for educational, religious and social reform. A student during the tumult of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War, Geller developed the leadership and strength of conviction that enabled her to take an active and influential role in her community and at the University.

Geller was an undergraduate during a period of tremendous change at Brown. When she first arrived, the University still had a core curriculum. Two years later, the New Curriculum, which would define Brown for decades to come, was passed.

Despite being an underclassman, Geller immediately became involved in the curricular reform movement, supporting the efforts of Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 and Elliot Maxwell ’68 to create the New Curriculum.

Geller said her ability to take a wide variety of courses had a direct impact on her future. She described her time at Brown as a “wonderful, exciting explosion of ideas and opportunities” as the University embraced the idea that “students really could take their education into their own hands and view faculty both as partners and mentors.”

As a student, Geller took advantage of every opportunity she could to engage in political and social activism. In 1968, she remained at Brown to volunteer for the Summer Project, a program run through the Chaplains’ Office. During the summer, Geller traveled with a group of student civil rights activists to Memphis, Tenn., to attend the Southern Christian Leadership Conference one year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“There I was, a white girl – a Jewish girl – going to this primarily black, Christian conference. It was a very significant experience for me because it made me realize that I needed to do this kind of political work in my own community. It was at that moment that I began to focus my intellectual and political work in the context of the Jewish community,” Geller said.

These experiences inspired Geller to pursue a career as a rabbi. In 1971 she graduated with a degree in religious studies, having written her honors thesis on the interaction of Judaism and Christian ethics.

Geller attended Hebrew Union College, a reform seminary. After completing a five-year graduate program and studying in Israel, Los Angeles and New York City, Geller was ordained a rabbi in 1976.

Within a year, Geller accepted a job as the rabbi at the University of Southern California’s Hillel, largely due to her positive memories from Brown. “My college experience had been so transformative for me that I wanted to work with young people at that same stage in their lives,” Geller said. She remained at USC for 14 years.

For the past 12 years, Geller has served as the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel, a reform synagogue in Beverly Hills. Geller was the first woman to achieve this status in a major metropolitan synagogue.

Geller said several celebrities attend her synagogue, although she refused to divulge their names.

“We have many famous congregants … and many non-famous, but terrific congregants,” she said.

Geller’s commitment to civil activism continued long after her departure from Brown. She has served as a member of the Human Relations Commission of Beverly Hills and as director of the American Jewish Congress’s Southwest region. Geller also received the ACLU of Southern California Award for Fostering Racial and Cultural Harmony.

In 2001, Geller was named one of the hundred most distinguished Brown alums by the Brown Alumni Magazine. Shortly thereafter, she was encouraged to apply for a position as an alum trustee of the Brown Corporation. After winning a place on the board, she began her six-year term, which will end in 2007.

Geller currently serves as vice chair of the residential life committee and has weekly conversations about the quality of campus life with David Greene, vice president of campus life and student services. The committee works to ensure that “undergraduate and graduate student housing promotes personal growth, social responsibility and intellectual development through community-based interactions,” according to the University Web site.

Since accepting the role of alumnae trustee, Geller has enjoyed the opportunity to interact with President Ruth Simmons. Geller said she feels a strong connection to Simmons because of the difficulties they both encountered as pioneers attempting to overcome societal barriers to attain their prestigious positions.

“Growing up, I never had women teachers or role models – when I was ordained, there were hardly any woman rabbis. It has been such a wonderful gift for me to learn about leadership in the presence of Ruth Simmons. I am amazed by the clarity of her vision, her strength and humility. Just watching her, I’ve learned an incredible amount – I never anticipated that,” Geller said.

Despite living in California, Geller is looking for additional ways to stay involved with the University, even after her term on the Corporation ends in two years. Her desire to stay connected to the University stems from the belief that Brown is a school with a truly unique mission and a sense of global responsibility. She said she was very proud to see the University reach out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Above all else, Geller believes that students should recognize and appreciate the amazing privileges available at Brown and to always “keep in mind the possibility of being surprised by the direction your life takes because of the opportunities that are presented to you by being a Brown student.”