2017-08-30 / Voice at the Shore

Shirat Hayam celebrates Rabbi Geller’s 50th year in rabbinate

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

Rabbi Gordon Geller in his new office at Shirat Hayam. Rabbi Gordon Geller in his new office at Shirat Hayam. What does Rabbi Gordon Geller, the Reform rabbi of Shirat Hayam and formerly of Temple Emeth Shalom, have in common with former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir?

Both were once Jewish kids who grew up in Milwaukee, WI. Geller grew up when Meir was already Prime Minister, and Milwaukee’s Jewish community was passionately Zionist. “I grew up going to Zionist youth groups, not temple youth groups,” he recalled. Geller also grew up dreaming of becoming a psychiatrist—not a rabbi— and was so disruptive as a teen that he got kicked out of Hebrew school and almost did not have a bar mitzvah.

Geller, who is now something of a community icon after spending 30 years as the much-loved rabbi of Temple Emeth Shalom, will be honored at Shirat Hayam on Sunday, September 10, at 11 a.m., with a “Golden Jubilee” tribute brunch celebrating his 50th year in the rabbinate.

Rabbi Geller, upon first arriving at Emeth Shalom, with outgoing Rabbi Rosen. Rabbi Geller, upon first arriving at Emeth Shalom, with outgoing Rabbi Rosen. “It is an exciting milestone,” said Geller, who agreed to the celebration at the urging of synagogue leaders. “To ignore it would not be a Jewish way of looking at things. I am thankful to have been provided with a joyful, meaningful life occupation. It makes this blink of a lifetime significant to me,” said the rabbi, noting he was one of the few of his Hebrew Union College classmates “to still have a pulpit.”

Geller, who has spent much of his life creating and sharing meaning with his congregants, also surrounds himself with it. After Emeth Shalom merged with Congregation Beth Judah to become Shirat Hayam last year, Geller settled into his new office in the Ventnor building by filling it with a collection of meaningful mementos, including diplomas from rabbinical school and law school, paintings and tapestries given to him by Emeth Shalom congregants, and quotes from great thinkers like Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The new office also features an enormous bulletin board—moved exactly as it was from his office at Emeth Shalom—covered with important press clippings as well as photos of his wife, Elaine; their grandchildren and children, Eliot, Clare and Marc (“these are our jewels, our treasures,” he stresses); congregants, and others, including former Emeth Shalom Rabbi Seymour Rosen.

One of the most meaningful mementos in his office is a nameplate—inscribed with his Hebrew name, Eliezer—which was also the name of his great grandfather, the rabbi of a Russian shtetl. According to Geller, the Chabad Rebbe Menachem Schneerson was one of his great-grandfather’s congregants, although he moved away when he was 5 years old. “So I have pedigree with the Chabad,” laughed Geller.

Indeed, Geller celebrated his bar mitzvah at a Chabad shul— even though his family belonged to a Conservative synagogue.

“I was expelled from a couple of Hebrew schools as a teen,” he said, for disrupting class by asking ridiculous questions. “I obviously wasn’t focused on what the teacher was saying!” That all changed when he found the right teacher, Harry Garfinkel, a man from a very traditional Jewish background who aligned himself with the “Haskalah movement,” a European Jewish enlightenment movement associated with Zionism and humanism.

“He had a very profound effect on me. He managed to corral this obstreperous youngster and channel and focus his energies,” said Geller. The Chabad rabbi who conducted his bar mitzvah was Rabbi Abraham Twerski, who later went on to become a world-famous psychiatrist known for his treatment of alcoholism.

For Geller, who initially planned to become a psychiatrist, this rabbi’s career path is relatable; being a rabbi and being a psychiatrist “are not that distant,” he stressed. Geller himself studied psychology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison but ultimately opted out of psychiatry due to his discomfort with electric shock therapy, lobotomy and other psychiatric treatments commonly used 50- plus years ago. Nevertheless, he has drawn on his psychology background throughout his rabbinic career, especially when dealing with congregants who are ill or have lost loved ones.

Geller credited his grandmother, whom he adored, with his decision to ultimately become a rabbi like her father Rabbi Eliezer. Her influence was “subtle but important.” Yet unlike his Orthodox great-grandfather, he chose to become a Reform rabbi.

Even among Reform rabbis, Geller is somewhat of a liberal. “I was one of the earliest to do interfaith weddings. When I started, almost none of the pulpit rabbis did them.” Why did he break ranks? “I didn’t want to send people away and have a priest or minister do it. It didn’t help Jewish continuity to do this. I asked that [the couple] pledge to give their children a Jewish education. The vast majority kept their pledge.”

Geller met his wife of 46 years, Elaine, his “helpmate and soulmate,” while serving as a rabbi in Long Island, NY. “I married the girl next door,” laughed Geller, explaining they both lived in the same apartment building. Elaine was a teacher at the time, and both have shared a lifelong passion for teaching. “The good Lord has provided me with a helpmate and soulmate who has been with me my entire rabbinic career. I would never have been able to enjoy this Golden Jubilee without her assistance.”

After their wedding, the couple moved around the country. Geller served as rabbi for Temple Shalom in Levittown, Pa., working with famed cantor and Holocaust survivor David Wisnia, but soon sought out a younger congregation for his young and growing family. After serving as a rabbi at Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, Ala., for three years, the Gellers decided to move back up north. The Central Conference of American Rabbis arranged the shidduch between Geller and Emeth Shalom in Margate, which sought to replace their beloved Rabbi Seymour Rosen, whose eyesight was failing, said Geller.

For the past 30 years, the Gellers have thrived in this beachside community, raising their family while bringing meaning to the lives of their congregants. For Geller, one of his greatest life accomplishments has been “providing Jewish meaning in the lives of congregants” through sharing in lifecycle events such as weddings, baby namings, bar mitzvahs and funerals.

Geller has also been active in the local community, serving as president of the Interfaith Area Clergy of Greater Atlantic City for 10 years and on many other local and national boards. He has also received humanitarian awards from the National Council of Christians and Jews and several other organizations.

One of his greatest joys since moving to the shore has been teaching at Stockton. There, where “95 percent of students are not Jewish,” he has relished the opportunity of “spreading a Jewish message to the world.” This has been especially meaningful for Geller, who early on considered becoming an academic rather than a rabbi; during the 30 years he has lived at the shore, he has been able to live both of those dreams.

To RSVP for the Golden Jubilee tribute to Rabbi Geller, please call Shirat Hayam at (609) 822-7116. s

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