They’re known as the Gellers: Rabbi Myron S. (Mike) and Eileen, who are being honored at a concert May 7 to endow the Sylvia Cohen Religious School at Gloucester’s historic Temple Ahavat Achim.
The 5 p.m. event at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center will feature acclaimed singer Neshama Carlebach, her band, and a gospel choir singing songs of her late father, the famous “singing rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach.
The Gellers’ leadership of the Temple spans 40 years, from the mid-sixties when Mike accepted a very part-time position at the struggling congregation and Eileen began teaching in the tiny religious school, until his retirement in 2006.
This period saw the synagogue’s transformation from an informal volunteer organization to a structured institution with a full complement of activities. The Gellers oversaw every aspect of temple life, including landscaping and custodial services.
The couple belongs to that vanishing generation of immigrants’ children who grew up in the tenements of Brooklyn, NY. Their parents were hard-working men and women who kept their faith traditional, their homes kosher, and their children yeshiva-educated. Remembers Mike: “My schooling could just as easily have happened in some village in Poland. My teachers were old-world, Yiddish-speaking disciplinarian rabbis who introduced me to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature.”
Mike graduated from Brooklyn College and received a smicha (ordination) from the legendary Mesifta Torah Vodaath. Eileen graduated from Brooklyn’s Bais Yaakov High School. She left Brooklyn College in 1960 to marry Mike. He served as an Army chaplain in France, where two of their children were born. Then they came to Gloucester.
At the time, TAA was a melting pot for native born and immigrants alike, who wanted to learn, worship and make friends with others of their faith. Main Street merchants, physicians, dentists, laborers – religiously observant and those with little knowledge of Jewish customs and traditions – all found a spiritual home at TAA.
They met in private homes and later in a historic converted church building, which was destroyed by fire in 2007. A new building was rededicated in 2011.
Mike’s duties were initially quite limited – Hebrew school on Thursdays and Sundays, services on Friday evenings. Eileen became a leader in the Sisterhood-Hadassah.
In 1966, Mike earned a Master’s degree in Contemporary Jewish Studies from Brandeis University, but four years later, with three children – Jesse, Rebecca, and Deborah – the couple was finding it hard to make ends meet on a part-time salary. When a full-time job opened up at a larger congregation in the area, Mike took it.
But he continued to be active in Gloucester. Remembers Sandie Horwitz, who later served as temple secretary, “On some High Holidays, Mike would race between the two temples to lead services at both places.”
In 1977, a group of Temple leaders made a risky decision. “Their hope was that the right full-time rabbi would attract more members,” continues Sandie Horwitz. Mike returned to Gloucester.
He became known as a scholar, a dynamic teacher, someone who could bring comfort to the worried and the grieving – also a great story-teller and an active participant in communal, regional and national causes.
Congregants turned to Mike in times of trouble. Remembers member Barrie Levine: “All of us were stunned by the attack on 9/11. Rabbi Geller called a meeting at the Temple, and I remember the feeling of having a leader whom we could turn to for insight and guidance in the shadow of frightening events.”
Mike became known as a scholar, a dynamic teacher, someone who could bring comfort to the worried and the grieving – and also as a great story teller and active participant in communal, regional, and national causes.
Eileen started teaching in the school in 1970 and served as principal until 1995, three years before she retired. “It’s not enough to say she taught in the religious school,” remembers former Temple President Marilyn Schlein Kramer. “She was the religious school.”
An important milestone came in the early nineties. “There had been conflict between traditionalists and non-traditionalists, recalls Mike. “We hoped people would realize that either we resolved the tensions or we might have to close the doors.” Remembers member Laila Goodman: “’Rabbi Geller helped us see the temple as a kehillah,” a community of people of diverse views united by a common heritage and sense of purpose.
Today the Gellers remain healthy and active. They spend most of the year in Gloucester, but from Hanukkah to Passover they are in Miami Beach. They are the proud grandparents of seven grandchildren, ages 8 to 22.
Building on the foundation they helped establish, Temple membership is now about 200 families from 20 communities; the school is joyful, and the congregation is enjoying a period of great cohesion, creativity, and optimism.
Temple elder Phil Cutter says, “Mike and Eileen laid the groundwork for what TAA is now: a living, functioning, beautiful kehillah. Their personalities, their intellect, their passion, their faith inspired us to grow and mature. They were so gracious and giving that they created a welcoming warmth that sustains us to this very day.”
The Neshama Carlebach concert is a benefit for the Rabbi Myron and Eileen Geller Endowment Fund for Family Learning at the Sylvia Cohen Religious School of Temple Ahavat Achim. Tickets for the concert are $65, for the concert and reception afterwards, $125, available at rockportmusic.org. For donor opportunities at $500 and above, including ticket and ad packages, contact TAA at 978-281-0739 or Barbara Gold, Endowment Campaign Director at 978-239-7691.