JTS Alumna Nehama Gleiberman Teller at 100: Still a Gitte Neshumah

April  07, 2011, The Jewish Theological Seminary

The Jewish Theological Seminary

Nehama Gleiberman Teller's connection to The Jewish Theological Seminary spans almost a century. As her son-in-law, Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, recently prepared to celebrate her 100th birthday in Israel, he was moved by Ms. Gleiberman Teller's life, her spirit, and her family's legacy at JTS.

According to her two children, six grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren, Nehama is a pioneer. Born on March 6, 1911, she was raised in Peekskill, New York, and connected with her Jewish identity at a young age. As a teenager, she was inspired by her rabbi to continue studying Judaism after Hebrew school. Throughout her high school years, she commuted back and forth to Manhattan several times a week to study Judaism at JTS. At a time when it was unheard of for a girl to receive that kind of education, Nehama was willing to travel long distances to acquire it.

As a young adult in the early 1930s, Ms. Gleiberman Teller became a member of the first class of women to earn a joint degree from JTS and Teachers College, Columbia University. She had previously attended Hunter College, but did not find the tight-knit community and challenging curriculum she desired. She quickly adapted to life at JTS and became a leader among her peers. At that time, JTS had just built a new dorm for men, but there was no housing for women. This presented a particularly acute inequality, because it was the middle of the Depression and the men got to eat for free in their dorms. The young Nehama, who remembers buying five-cent bags of peanuts for her subway rides, successfully agitated the administration to allocate money for female student housing and moved into an apartment with several of her JTS friends.

Rabbi Morris Teller, Nehama's brother-in-law, was the first of her family to attend JTS, and he was ordained in 1916 . Then Ms. Gleiberman Teller and her husband, Rabbi Benjamin Teller, graduated in the 1930s, followed by their son-in-law, Gilbert Rosenthal, who was ordained in 1957 and earned his doctorate in 1960. Rabbi Rosenthal taught at the Women's Institute in the 1960s and then in The Rabbinical School in the 1980s. His experience at JTS was in some ways different from his mother-in-law's: the smaller, more intimate campus Nehama had known had, by the 1950s, expanded into a much larger community with more students and faculty, and was a considerably greater influence in the expanding Conservative Movement. However, son-in-law Gilbert Rosenthal and Ms. Gleiberman Teller shared some fascinating experiences and respected teachers, including JTS's Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Halkan.

When Rabbi Rosenthal was a senior, his class was invited to Mordecai Kaplan's home for a social evening. Rabbi Kaplan began talking about journals he had been keeping and took one out to show the students. When he opened the book at random, he landed on a page that included a reference to Rabbi Morris Teller, Nehama's brother-in-law. Rabbi Rosenthal believes that the experiences of all three family members at JTS strongly influenced the way his family identifies with Judaism.

After she graduated from JTS in 1934, Ms. Gleiberman Teller and her husband moved to Chicago to what she called the "Jewish wilderness." She taught Hebrew there for many years and was influential in the 1947 launch of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Nehama loved the Hebrew language and was delighted to inspire young people to learn it. Recently, Rabbi Rosenthal was giving a lecture in the Chicago area when a man came up to him and exclaimed, "I remember Rebbitzen Teller! She was my Hebrew teacher in the Aleph class at my synagogue." All of these years later, Ms. Gleiberman Teller's students still remember her powerful influence.

In 1977, Nehama and her husband retired to Israel. Today, as she turns 100 years old, Ms. Gleiberman Teller remains the gitte neshumah she has always been, and continues to display the same pioneering spirit she exhibited as an eager Jewish child in Peekskill.

JTS, 2011