(JTA) — Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen, the former president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a sociologist whose pioneering studies explored the expanding roles of women in Jewish life as well as the complexities of the modern Jewish family, died on Feb. 3 of heart failure at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. She was 75.
A native of Troy, N.Y., who grew up in Manhattan, Geffen served as the sixth president of BHU — now known as Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University — from 2000 to 2007, and was a professor emerita of sociology. Geffen taught sociology at Gratz College in Philadelphia for many years, coordinated its program in Jewish communal service and served five years as dean for academic affairs.
“Rela was an old friend of mine from Camp Ramah in the Poconos,” said Dr. Robert O. Freedman, former president of BHU. “I thought she did a very solid job as president of BHU.”
Geffen’s major fields of interest were sociology of religion, the family and gender roles, and often focused on the Conservative movement. At the time of her death, she was working on a qualitative study of Jewish grandparenting.
Geffen published more than 40 articles and book chapters, and authored or edited four books including “Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism” and “Freedom and Responsibility — Exploring the Challenges of Jewish Continuity,” which was the Centennial Volume of Gratz College, co-edited with Marsha Bryan Edelman.
Another book, “Conservative Judaism: Dilemmas and Challenges,” was co-authored with the late Daniel Elazar.
Geffen came from a line of distinguished rabbis. Her father, Rabbi Joel Geffen, served for some four decades as director of field activities and communities education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her grandfather, Tobias Geffen, was the longtime rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, and is credited with certifying a version of Coca-Cola that is kosher for Passover.
Geffen received her bachelor’s degree in religious education from JTS and her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Columbia University. She earned her doctorate in sociology from the University of Florida.
She frequently urged leaders and planners in the Jewish community to acknowledge the growing diversity among Jews, and the complexity of blended families, interfaith families, same-sex marriages and couples who were having children later in life. Her 1978 survey, “The Evolving Role of Women in the Ritual of the American Synagogue,” conducted with Elazar, showed the extent to which egalitarian principles were taking hold at Reform and Conservative synagogues.
In a 1987 study, she showed how Jewish women were successfully “juggling” marriage, career and childrearing but often without support from their Jewish communities.
”Jewish women are committed to the Jewish community, but the Jewish community is not committed to them,” she told The New York Times. ”This is an alienation that I think we cannot afford.”
Geffen served as president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry and co-editor, with Egon Mayer, of its journal Contemporary Jewry. She was also program and membership vice president of the Association for Jewish Studies, the major organization of professors of Jewish studies in North America.
Geffen, who was divorced, is survived by her sons, Uri Monson and Amiel Monson; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Jmore staff contributed to this report.