August 20, 2019

A Teacher Whose Class is Eternal

Image courtesy Gratz College

When my grandfather died, our family received an outpouring of letters and cards from his former students. As a high school math teacher and coach for generations, he had inspired countless students with his wisdom, encouragement, and reminder to always have faith in themselves. Twenty-five years later, it is my turn to be “that student,” paying tribute to a beloved educator, whose lessons stay with me to this day. I hope I can do justice to someone who taught me so much and whose lessons stay with me 15 years later.

When I arrived as a student at Baltimore Hebrew University (BHU), I knew I wanted to learn more about Judaism. I also knew I loved the study of sociology. What I was not expecting was Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen. Taking her class “Sociology of the American Jewish Community” was like I had hit the academic jackpot. A required course that fascinated me. Class readings that I could not put down. I was hooked. Not just by the class, but by the scholar behind it.

Essentially, Rela (she let me call her by her first name—a sign of her true humility) had created her own field. She was interested in anything and everything related to modern Jewish life in America. Many Jewish scholars have studied texts, history and philosophy. Rela understood and appreciated those topics, but also what set us apart as Jews living in the United States. Her class felt less like a lecture and more like a talk show of sorts. She had us looking at wedding announcements from The New York Times, “Chrismukkah” cards, Hanukkah stockings and any other props she could find to launch discussions about what made American Jews so unique. Sure I had read NYT many times, but never paid attention to the fact that the occupations of the bride and groom’s parents were mentioned in their wedding announcements. Or the struggles people were having when they merged Hanukkah and Christmas in obscure ways.

Two years after I graduated, I stopped by her office to visit and tell her I was getting married. She asked me if he was Jewish (before seeing the name Goldberg on the save the date card!) and when I told her we met on JDate, she was overjoyed. Of course we had discussed modern Jewish dating in her class and I was now living it. It did not stop there. In my wedding video, there is footage of her greeting my cousins from Philadelphia. I did not know they knew each other and they did not know the other one knew me. Of course, who else but Rela, Jewish sociologist extraordinaire, could live out such a Jewish geography moment?!?!

Rela returned to Philadelphia and Gratz College in 2007 and BHU closed in 2009, its programs and faculty becoming part of Towson University. She died on Super Bowl Sunday, February 3, in Philadelphia at the age of 75. While I do not think she would have been happy with the Patriots win, she no doubt would have had a thing or two to say about the first Jewish MVP of a Super Bowl!

I thought about her as I got ready to go to work on Monday morning. Whether I was aware of it or now, her influence is all around me. From the copy of “Kosher Christmas” in the living room to the Judaism Unbound podcast waiting for me (topic: the Women’s March), I realize that although I have not seen or spoken to her in several years, she gave me a gift. More priceless than the washing cup she brought me from Israel. It is a gift she gave all of her students.  She turned on the lens that caused all of her students to see the world in a different way.  It is the greatest gift an educator can give.

So, I drove to work listening to that podcast with its diverse panel of guests of varying gender identities and expressions. And I must have heard the word “intersectionality” a dozen times. She would have loved it. Then I arrived at my office and looked at her signature on my diploma on my wall.

In the words of Kaddish d’Rabbanan (Kaddish of the Rabbis), beautifully set to song by the late Debbie Friedman, we ask for blessings for teachers, their students and the “students of the students.” I know anyone who has known or studied with Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen has been blessed by her wisdom and friendship. May she be blessed in peace forever.

Lisa Rothstein Goldberg received graduate degrees from Baltimore Hebrew University, when Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen was president. She is a social worker and Jewish educator living in Louisville, Ky., with her husband and their daughters.