VENTNOR – An estimated 200 people paid tribute to the man who led them by example in religion and life Monday afternoon at Shirat Hayam. Although they were mourning the loss of Reform Congregation Rabbi Emeritus Gordon L. Geller, there was plenty of laughter, too, as they celebrated contributions to his family, community and to humanity.

The opening song for what is often a sad and solemn occasion was “Young at Heart” along with a passage in Hebrew that recalled, “a great man of Israel has died.”

Words used by those who provided eulogies were repeated numerous times during the service: love, compassion, kindness, social justice, humility, wisdom and strength.

“He brought mankind closer to the Torah,” Cantor Jacqueline Menaker said. “May his humanity continue to inspire.”

Those paying tribute included public officials, fellow rabbis and members of the Conservative and Reform Congregations at Shirat Hayam.

NJ Assemblyman Don Guardian said he attended to celebrate his friend’s life.

“He was always the voice of reason and compassion for more than 30 years,” Guardian said. “When back in the early 1980s when AIDS was considered just a gay man’s disease, he was there to help those who were afflicted and their families. He was very supportive of the gay community, and it was great to be able to call him my friend.”

Longport Mayor Nicholas Russo fondly recalled several stories about Rabbi Geller’s efforts to raise money for a Boardwalk Holocaust memorial.

“He was one of the most spiritual people I have ever met,” Russo said. “He was truly a holy man.”

Rabbi Gordon Geller of Shirat Hayam in Ventnor conducts the Sukkot service at Seashore Gardens Living Center in Galloway Township.

Rabbi Jonathan Kremer who leads the Conservative Congregation at Shirat Hayam said when the two movements were joined under one roof, “It was a marriage of consequence, where each congregation filled what the other needed. He was a supportive, sweet and gentle soul. He was generous and he was witty. He was a quiet, effective human.”

Rabbi Geller once said becoming “cross-denominational” was a matter of necessity in a world often divided and that uniting congregations would become the norm for future generations.

During the service Rabbi Kremer recited a short but profound poem by Emily Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” which speaks to death and immortality. Those listening nodded that his countless actions to bring peace to the world would be Rabbi Geller’s lasting legacy.

A voice for the voiceless, Rabbi Geller worked all his life for all of the important things and he embraced the Civil Rights Movement. Taking inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, he even visited the Ebeneezer Baptist Church where he preached.

Rabbi Geller recently lamented to a friend that he feared people were still being described by the color of their skin and not the content of their character, and that America had defaulted on King’s promissory note.

He grew up in Milwaukee, studied alongside Golda Meir, and was ordained more than 50 years ago. He held advanced degrees in Divinity, law, and philosophy, and was a fellow of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He traveled the country ministering to other congregations before landing at Temple Emeth Shalom in Margate.

All three of Rabbi Gordon’s children gave poignant and sometimes humorous talks about their dad, and his love for people, the Torah, Israel, politics and the most important thing in life, his family. He ministered to soldiers and prisoners, visited the elderly. He encouraged his Jewish History students at Stockton University, where he taught for more than 30 years, awarding only A’s because he wanted them all to be successful.

“If you’re in this room, he probably cared for you,” his eldest son Eliot said. “But he didn’t just care – he was a man of action.”

Rabbi Geller died on May 3, 37 years to the day then-Margate Mayor William H. Ross declared Gordon Geller Day in Margate, his son said.

Atlantic County Democrat Chairman Michael Suleiman said he was a “great soul.”

“He bridged the faiths,” Sulieman said, which was evidenced by the Christians and Muslims in the room, some of whom served with him on the Interfaith Area Clergy of Greater Atlantic City. He also served for 20 years on the board of the National Conference of Diversity, formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Suleiman said the Rabbi and his “helpmate and soulmate” Elaine, whom on first introduction more than 53 years ago stole his heart, were planning a special meeting at their home for members of the Democrat party, and the two had spoken earlier in the week.

“He knew that democracy is at stake,” Suleiman said.

One speaker said Rabbi Geller was extremely proud of his wife’s accomplishments in education and of his children and grandchildren.

Rabbi Gordon Geller stands before a model of the Boardwalk Holocaust memorial.

Rabbi Geller had worked for years on his dream to bring a Holocaust memorial to the Atlantic City Boardwalk where tens of thousands of people would pass by each year. A friend recently remarked that another gift or two would make it happen, which would be a crowning achievement and a lasting legacy.

His daughter Claire said her father was her inspiration, and his concern about people of all pursuasions led her to become a civil rights lawyer “because of what he instilled in me.”

His youngest son Marc said if all goes right in life, “your father should be your hero.”

He was able to share his love for his dad in a letter that conveyed his message that “my world is a better place because of you.”

In a final telephone call the day before he died, Marc told his dad, “I love you.”

Rabbi Geller’s response was one his children heard often, “I love you twice.”

Contributions in his memory can be made to the Rabbi Gordon Geller Fund at Shirat Hayam, 700 N. Swarthmore Ave., Ventnor, NJ 08406.


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Categories: Ventnor

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.