Rabbi Tobias (Tuvia) Geffen was born in Kovno (then a part of the Russian Empire) on the eve of Tisha B’Av, 1870. His parents were Joseph and Kuna Rela Geffen.
Joseph was a yeshiva student in his youth. His parents lived all their lives in a rural area, the village of Vilkomir, which was a considerable distance from the city. As a boy of ten or eleven, Joseph had to trek seven or eight miles daily, by foot, to attend the cheder (1) in the nearest town. He later told his son how, on the way to cheder, he would walk through dense woods, fields and wealthy estates, often plagued by large dogs who howled as he passed by. Joseph was a young boy, small in stature but was determined to solve this problem by neutralizing the dogs’ anger and becoming their friend. He would leave home at five in the morning as the sun was beginning to rise. In the woods he would find a thin tree branch which served as a rod of protection for his long walk. His mother provided him with a thick slice of home-baked bread, and frequently meat or cheese and butter. This food was to sustain him for an entire day since he returned home only at sundown. Nevertheless, he shared his food with the dogs as he passed through the estates. They gradually became his friends and didn’t harm him.
During these long walks he became familiar with the area and the surrounding woods. Gradually, he recognized the trees that grew there, their height and thickness, as well as the purpose for which they might be used. He utilized this knowledge in later years and became renowned as a lumber merchant in Kovno and its environs. When the trees in the area were harvested, he was able to give expert opinion on their usage and value.
When he grew older he left his home and went to the city where he studied at the Slobodka Yeshiva.(2) Inasmuch as no special yeshiva building existed at that time, houses of worship were utilized for schools of learning, as well as for dormitories for their students. Zealous and blessed with an unusual memory, Joseph pursued his Talmudic studies at the yeshiva and studied the entire Tanach (3) by himself. He was a most pious person; tradition and law were sacred to him.
As a youth, not yet twenty years old, and still a student at Slobodka Yeshiva, he was admired by Rabbi Mane Strauss, the Rosh Yeshiva.(4) Joseph married his 17 year old daughter, Kuna Rela. Subsequently when it became necessary to provide a living for his growing family, he chose not to use his knowledge of Torah (5). He turned to the business world. His knowledge of forestry was valuable, for wood was then being shipped primarily through Kovno to Prussia. His honesty and wisdom in his business dealings won him a fine reputation in the lumber industry and his advice was often sought.
He was dispatched by merchants to Prussia. As their agent, he negotiated with the owners of the German mills about the sale of lumber. While acting in this capacity, he frequently spent several months in Tilsit, Prussia. This city was the chief center of the lumber industry where the leading merchants of Lithuania gathered.
The first few decades of his wedded life were marked by success and prosperity and
his pattern of living remained unchanged. He had complete faith in God and was faithful to tradition. In later years his business suffered, ultimately leading to a complete loss of all his possessions. His excellent reputation remained, however, and with his strong character he adapted himself to this situation. Soon good fortune returned and his lumber business began to improve. Kuna Rela and Joseph raised their family, six sons and three daughters, and all were well versed in Jewish learning.
His great love and admiration for scholars was exemplified by the well known teaching from the Babylonian Talmud (6) “he was one who loved scholars….” (Shabbat 23b). He encouraged his sons to become Torah scholars and sought out learned sons-in-law. One was the famed Gaon (7) Rabbi Chaim Rabinowitz, Rosh Yeshiva of Knesset Beth Yitzhak in Slobodka, who later became the Rosh Yeshiva of Telz. Another son-in-law was Aaron David Hakohen Ish Utian, an outstanding and diligent Torah scholar and master of Hebrew learning.
His son, Tobias, was granted semicha (8) by the famed Gaon Rabbi Zvi Rabinowitz of Kovno and by Rabbi Moses Danishevsky of Slobodka. Another of Joseph’s sons was Rabbi Hirsch Geffen who later became a Rabbi in Richmond, Virginia. He received his semicha from Rabbi Gershon Guttman and Rabbi Israel Rosenson, leading rabbinical authorities who were dayanim (9) in Kovno.
During World War II, many members of Joseph’s immediate family lived in the Slobodka ghetto. These k’doshim (10) were brutally murdered by the Nazi barbarians. Among them was Joseph’s oldest son, Sholom Geffen, a well-known Kovno lumber
merchant, Joseph’s daughter, Osnat Rabinowitz, widow of Rabbi Chaim, Osnat’s son, the Gaon Rabbi Azriel, successor to his father at Telz was also massacred. Rabbi and Mrs Sheinkman, the son-in-law and daughter of Osnat Rabinowitz were also victims of the Holocaust.
Joseph Geffen passed away in Kovno on the day after Yom Kippur, in the year 5650 (1899) at the age of 57.
Rabbi Tobias Geffen completed most of his studies in his hometown, Kovno. For a brief period of nine months he studied in Grodno, where the Gaon Rabbi Eliakim Shapiro was the moreh hora’ah. (11). Although young at the time, Rabbi Geffen was accepted as a member of Rabbi Shapiro’s family and was considered by the Rabbi to be one of his most devoted students. Rabbi Geffen was well known in the Kovno House of Study, particularly in the Naviazer, Secharishen and Katzovishen Centers of learning.
In 5658 (1898) he married Sara Hene, the daughter of a well-known Kovno couple, Rabbi Leib and Gitel Rabinowitz. She operated a paper business in Kovno, even after her marriage. They did not want to earn their livelihood solely from the Rabbinate. They preferred to put into practice the teaching of the rabbis in Pirkei Avot. (12) “It is better to have Torah together with a practical means of livelihood.”
As a result of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom and the wave of anti-semitism which spread through all cities where Jewish communities existed, the young Rabbi and his wife decided to leave Czarist Russia. They sold the paper concern and in the month of Iyar 5663 (May 1903) set out for America with their two small children, a three year old daughter and a nine month old son. Many of their friends criticized them for leaving, for they knew that he was eligible for a fine rabbinical position in Lithuania. However, the rabbi and his wife felt strongly that the future would not be secure for the Jewish people in the Russian Empire. Rabbi Tobias and Sara Hene wanted to raise their family in a country where anti-Jewish pogroms and violent anti-semitism were unknown.
In the United States a new life began for them with additional obstacles to overcome. To adapt himself to this new life and at the same time to continue following the traditional Jewish life posed a major challenge. Adjustment to the housing situation and to the new living conditions, which differed so markedly from those in his hometown, added to their difficulties. Within a few months, Rabbi Geffen secured a rabbinical post at an East Side Synagogue, Beit Haknesseth Ahavath Tzedek Bnai Lebedov, which was located at Division and Montgomery Streets. (This synagogue still stands at the same location today?).
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Orthodox Synagogues compensated their spiritual leaders poorly and it was impossible for a Rabbi to earn a proper livelihood in the profession. The Rabbis, therefore, were compelled to seek additional means of subsistence in order to augment their income, for example, as kashrut (13) supervisors in slaughter houses and in places where meat was sold. Rabbi Geffen had no desire to engage in this type of employment. While his family was small, he managed; but as the family grew, life in New York became more stressful.
A boyhood friend from Kovno, now a New York physician, advised him to settle in a smaller city with better quality of air. Soon afterward, he received a letter from the Chief Rabbi of Kovno, the Gaon Hirsch Rabinowitz, who was the head of the Kollel (14) prushim (15) of Kovno. The Gaon asked Rabbi Geffen to raise funds for the Kollel. Rabbi Geffen agreed and traveled for a few months to various cities, among them, Canton, Ohio. . He was there for Shabbat (16) and delivered a sermon about the Kollel, which made quite an impression. The Jews of Canton were looking for a new Rabbi. Throughout the summer a number of candidates had tried out for the position unsuccessfully. Now it was Elul (17) and Canton still did not have a Rabbi. Rabbi Geffen’s sermon was received favorably, and he was offered a three year contract. The synagogue officers persuaded him to officiate for the High Holidays. He agreed to the offer and returned to New York to prepare his family for their move to the mid-west.
They were now able to leave their cramped third floor Madison Street apartment in the noisy Lower East Side of New York. The Geffen family – the Rabbi, his wife and four children ( 8 months to 8 years ) moved to a spacious two-storey home in Canton which provided more ample living arrangements. The air quality and quality of living in Canton were much better than that in New York.
In 1907, the Canton Jewish community consisted of 200 families, about 800 people, in a city of 50,000. There were two synagogues located on the same block but disagreement on various issues had created a division between them. The entire community was Shabbat observant and kept kosher homes following the traditions of their European origins. Most had immigrated to America from the same town and knew each other well. However, quarrels emerged and there was much enmity between them. When Rabbi Geffen arrived in Canton, he was the only spiritual leader of the Canton Jewish community. Nevertheless he was chosen to be the Rabbi of only one synagogue and this synagogue assumed responsibility for his salary. The city also had two shochtim (shochtim) and two kosher butchers.
Rabbi Geffen’s first task was to bring peace to the strife-torn community. His influence and devotion resulted in the merger of both synagogues. Religious services were held weekly, alternately in each congregation. In order to make peace between the groups binding, Rabbi Geffen formulated an agreement in which both synagogues pledged to obey a set of rules and regulations for a five year period. During his three years in Canton, he engaged in intensive study of the Talmud and poskim (18) He conducted a small yeshiva in which young people devoted themselves toTalmud study.
Rabbi Geffen also studied many secular subjects relating to general issues, in order to do justice to specific problems. These subjects became important to him as he was approached with requests to resolve not only inquiries regarding Halacha, but also to settle various matters pertaining to union issues, modern business disputes and practices. He learned much from these experiences.
Unfortunately the climate in Canton did not agree with Mrs. Geffen and other members of the family. The heavy snows and frost affected them adversely, and the Rabbi began looking for a position in the south. His wish was fulfilled when, as a delegate to the 13th Zionist Convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rabbi Zivitz, in whose home he stayed, showed him an advertisement in the Yiddish daily, the Tageblatt. (July 3, 1910) A synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia was seeking a rabbi. He wrote a letter to the group, spelling out his credentials and indicated that he would not be able visit Atlanta until after the High Holidays. (19) In the meantime the Canton community asked him to stay on for another term and he was very honored by their request.
He traveled to Atlanta in November, and it was the first time that he had undertaken such a long trip by train. Leaving Canton on a Tuesday evening, he was to arrive in Atlanta late Wednesday night. There were many delays along the way and his train arrived two hours late. The synagogue’s welcoming committee, although wearied by the long wait, received him warmly. They took him by horse-drawn carriage to the home where he was to be hosted. When they arrived the occupants were asleep. They tried to arouse the family but were not successful. By chance, a baby’s cry (Max Robkin) woke the parents, and they heard the knocking on the door.
The Atlanta Orthodox community was, at the time, young and consisted of two orthodox synagogues. The older of the two had a membership of about 250 families whereas the second, in a newer section of the city, had about 75 families. While the members of the second congregation were people of less means, more of them were learned, Sabbath observant and traditionally devoted Jews. There were also a Conservative synagogue and a Reform Temple. The Conservative synagogue was established by wealthy Jews who originally came from Lithuania. The Temple had refused to admit them for membership, and they considered the Orthodox synagogues too old-fashioned for them. They established a synagogue designating it Conservative, a title new at that time in the south. Fifteen years later the synagogue disbanded.
The Reform community was led by a Rabbi who had been trained at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College. He was well known as a fine speaker, even among the non-Jews throughout the state of Georgia.
Rabbi Geffen’s synagogue was the poorest of the Atlanta congregations. Its building, a wooden structure, had been reconstructed from a Methodist church. Due to heavy debts of the congregation, Rabbi Geffen could not anticipate a proper salary. Despite this fact, he remained in Atlanta for a two week trial period, during which time he impressed the congregation and was elected unanimously as its Rabbi. He returned to Canton and made preparations to move his family to his new pulpit. . The two orthodox synagogues in Canton united together to honor him with a beautiful farewell banquet. The family left Canton, Ohio on December 26, 1910, the second night of Chanukah. It was a 1200 mile journey to Atlanta, the principal city of the south, with a population of approximately 150,000 people.
When the train passed through Columbus, Ohio, the family was met by the spiritual leader of that city who was a close friend of Rabbi Geffen. As the trip continued the climate gradually grew warmer and the snow disappeared. The Geffen family arrived at noon and were taken to their new home, which had been prepared with the necessities to make it comfortable for the young family.
Atlanta, the capitol of Georgia, is located more than one thousand feet above sea level and is blessed with dry, healthy air. There are no rivers flowing through the city creating a significant opportunity for development. .Most of the city’s streets were wide and there was ample space for homes. Highways passed through the city east, west, north and south. More important, the city was located at the crossroads of major railroad lines, and this influenced the rapid growth and development of industry.
Most of the Jews in the community were peddlers selling to the blacks. Peddling was suitable for Shabbat (20) observers. Jewish merchants maintained shops selling dry goods, ready-to-wear clothing, furniture and other items. Some sold wholesale groceries and others operated junk shops.
When the Rabbi arrived in Atlanta there were four shochtim and four kosher butchers, each butcher engaging his own shochet. The shochtim were not employed by the community. Although the slaughterhouses were owned by non-Jews, the animals were killed according to Jewish laws of kashrut. (21) In this way, wholesale meat merchants could sell kosher meat to the butchers. The Jewish community lacked a central authority to have jurisdiction over all matters relating to kashrut and other religious affairs. Instead, the Rabbi of each orthodox synagogue was only responsible to his congregation. Rabbi Geffen was not satisfied with the level of kashrut observance. He was reluctant to eat the kosher meat available in the city. His membership in the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of America greatly increased his influence with Atlanta Jewry. At the request of the leaders of both orthodox synagogues, he examined the shochtims’ knives, visited the kosher meat markets and delicatessens and drafted the necessary kashrut regulations. He enforced the halachic (22) principles pertaining to the operation of the mikve. (23) The older Atlanta Jews, especially the Shabbat observers, greatly assisted the Rabbi in all his efforts to strengthen Jewish practice.
The status of Jewish education in Atlanta was sub-standard. There was no Hebrew school. A small number of parents instructed their own children; others were taught by private tutors. For the most part, Jewish education was sorely neglected. Rabbi Geffen discussed the need for a Hebrew school with the leaders of the community and was told there had formerly been one, but, for various reasons it closed. Every plan the Rabbi presented was rejected. Therefore, Rabbi Geffen taught his own children himself, and by so doing, he motivated others to join with him. Thus, a small yeshiva gradually emerged. It comprised an advanced class engaged in Talmud study and a lower class in which Hebrew and the Bible were studied. This small yeshiva produced ten young American rabbis, two of which were the Rabbi’s own sons. Other students became professors, physicians and lawyers. Eventually, with the aid of a few members of his congregation, Rabbi Geffen was able to establish a Hebrew School in a rented house, independent of the synagogue. This served as the foundation of Atlanta’s Jewish educational system.
It is important to understand Judaism in the south at this time in order to recognize the position of the orthodox Rabbis in this section of the country. Orthodox Rabbis often became the target for attacks because of their conscientious attempts to maintain the fundamental principles of Jewish tradition. The presence of orthodox Rabbis was almost non-existent since six or seven southern states had none at all. Therefore, in some communities, shochtim performed cantorial duties and tutored students. Others became kosher meat merchants. A few even acted as semi-Rabbis and answered halachic questions.
Every city in the south, no matter what their size, had a Reform Rabbi and a temple. Under these circumstances, shochtim without certification (24) were asked to perform functions of which they had no knowledge. As a consequence, disputes arose within the community. When there was no means of resolution for such conflicts, a Rabbi who possessed proper authority was requested to resolve the issues. Inasmuch as Rabbi Geffen was the only European-trained orthodox Rabbi within a four state area, he was often required to travel in order to remedy these problems. They included family or business matter as well as controversies in Jewish communal life.
One of the first interesting cases with which Rabbi Geffen dealt, was that of a deserted wife, an agunah.(25) Such a matter is a very delicate problem and evokes pity for the woman. She cannot re-marry until her husband is located and gives her a “get” thereby initiating a divorce according to Jewish law. One day Rabbi Geffen received a letter from a Rabbi in Missouri describing a young woman whose husband had deserted her a few years previously. The Missouri Rabbi knew that the individual in question was in Atlanta but did not know where he lived in the city. In the letter his occupation was identified and a small photograph was included. It was not an easy task to locate such a person with so little information, but at every opportunity Rabbi Geffen showed the photo and asked if anyone recognized the person. One morning at services, one of the congregants said he recognized the man being sought and transmitted his business address.
Rabbi Geffen sent a messenger to verify that indeed this was the person being sought. He was identified as the individual but had changed his name. A Deputy Sheriff accompanied the Rabbi and they visited the man at work. After a short conversation the Rabbi confronted the man with the photo. The Sheriff then displayed his badge and informed the man that his failure to comply with the Rabbi’s request would result in his immediate arrest. The “discovered” man cooperated fully; the get was written and forwarded to the Rabbi in Missouri.
A second agunah incident occurred when the Rabbi was asked to attend a circumcision at the Henry Grady Hospital, the municipal hospital in Atlanta. It was apparent that the family of the newborn was of limited means as this hospital was used primarily by the needy. When he arrived at the hospital, the Rabbi inquired about the child’s father. He was told the parents had not been married but the father was in Atlanta and was aware that the circumcision was to be performed that day. Rabbi Geffen was the sandek (26) but the family and guests were upset that the father was not there. The unanswered question seemed to be why they had not married before the child’s birth. When the mother recuperated and was about to leave the hospital, the question arose as to who would take care of the agunah and the new-born child. Everyone knew that the father was an employee of a top business firm with a fine salary. He was surely able to support them. Rabbi Geffen undertook to solve this dilemma in the spirit of Jewish law as stated in the Babylonian Talmud. Under such circumstances, “pressure is exerted upon him until he says: ‘I will’”. (Yevamoth 10b). (27)
With proper proof, the Rabbi was able to attain from the police a warrant specifying the immediate arrest of the father of the child. One evening just before business closed, Rabbi Geffen and the deserted woman’s friend went there together to confront the father. They discussed the matter and tried to convince him to take responsibility. When he sought to evade the issue by requesting more time, Rabbi Geffen showed him the police warrant which would result in his immediate arrest. He agreed at once to a marriage ceremony. The three proceeded to the Court House to obtain a civil marriage license, but since the courts were closed for the day this was impossible. So the Rabbi, not wanting to delay any further, went to the home of a Judge in order to be given a marriage license at once. With the license secured, he was able to perform the Jewish marriage ceremony that very day.
It seemed that everything was now in order. Apparently, however, love cannot be forced on people. A few months later the husband left for work and never returned. The wife was remained an agunah with a child to care for. Years passed and one day Rabbi Geffen received a letter from a rabbi from the mid-west. He required information for a bride’s family about a prospective groom. It turned out that the groom in question was the very same man who had deserted his wife. Rabbi Geffen revealed all the facts to the rabbi and within a short time a get arrived which freed both the former husband and wife.
Another agunah case was most interesting. Residing in Atlanta was a family, in which the parents were leading a very happy life. The family consisted of a young husband, his wife and three children. One day, without warning, the husband disappeared. He left his home one morning for work, as was his custom, and then dropped out of sight not returning to his family. At first the wife made little ado about his disappearance and apparently was grateful that he had left.
Subsequently, however, it came to light that he had committed a number of crimes, and she was actually happy that he had removed himself from the scene. Very often, it was revealed, police would come to the man’s home, during late hours of the night, and take him to the police station or arrest him to be placed in jail. At such times the woman and her family would need funds for his bail and release which were provided by the community.
After two years had passed, with no word from her husband, the wife became very much concerned lest she remain forever an agunah. It was at this time that she visited Rabbi Geffen tearfully pleading with him that he aid her in securing her release from the terrible status caused by her husband’s desertion. The Rabbi questioned her regarding their mode of life, particularly raising questions about locales which her husband would frequently visit. It occurred to Rabbi Geffen that perhaps the husband might continue to return to the same sites even now.
One of his questions produced a clue as to the place where the husband had traveled when he first left home. The wife mentioned a certain city in response to the information which the Rabbi was seeking. When Rabbi Geffen made inquiry at this particular city about the missing husband, various leaders of the community responded that the man had indeed been there a few years back, working in the city for a few weeks. In this period, he was apprehended for check forgery and was released from jail through the efforts of members of the Jewish community. Very soon thereafter, he left the city after receiving strong suggestions to do so from those who had compensated the victims of the crime for their loss. Now the question was where did the man go?
As a result of continuing inquiry, new evidence focused on a specific locale. However, in response to information sought, the Rabbi was informed that the man had already abandoned the second community and was to be found in a third one. When Rabbi Geffen made contact there, the Rabbi, he contacted, replied affirmatively that a young man, with that description, was a resident of the community. As with other locales, this individual had been jailed for having swindled another victim for a substantial amount of money. He was sentenced to a two-year term. A photograph of the wanted man was sent by Rabbi Geffen to confirm the swindler’s identification. Once this had been accomplished with certainty, the search for the missing husband was now over. All that was required now was to have him authorize the preparation of a get.
After much deliberation, it was decided that Rabbi Geffen would travel to the city where the man was incarcerated. Hopefully, a face-to-face visitation with the prisoner would persuade him to free his wife through the issuance of a get. However, Rabbi Geffen took no chances. Armed with a number of necessary documents including letters of introduction from the Mayor of Atlanta to the Mayor of the city where the prison was located, the Rabbi also brought with him a member of the local Jewish community.
They were received by the warden who reviewed all of the documents and discussed the matter fully with Rabbi Geffen. Then the warden granted permission for the prisoner to be brought from his cell into the prison office for further discussion of this inquiry. After a long wait, an unshaven man, in prison attire with legs chained, appeared and sat down with them. His face was haggard and filled with fatigue. He kept his eyes cast downward, and he was ashamed even to look at the Rabbi whom he knew. Rabbi Geffen greeted him with “Shalom Aleichem” and gave him a package of food.
Quickly, the man was drawn into conversation pointing directly at his granting his wife a get. The prisoner would not hear of it resisting the arguments put forward. Rabbi Geffen was fully prepared. He produced a document issued by the Governor of Georgia directing the sheriff of this prison that as soon as the prisoner completed his sentence he was to be brought to Atlanta. There he would be placed under arrest to answer charges for other crimes he had committed. When this prisoner-husband realized his fate, he softened his approach, acquiescing to the preparation of a get for his wife. With this intense effort, Rabbi Geffen succeeded in liberating this Jewish woman from continued suffering and misfortune.
Many unusual requests were brought to the attention of the Rabbi. During the Prohibition era, some dealers bought and sold wine, liquor and beer in violation of Federal law. One rainy October night on quiet Hunter Street, just past nine o’clock, a taxi stopped near the Rabbi’s home and a strange man approached the house. When the Rabbi opened the door, he tried to shut it immediately and not admit the stranger, whose facial features and dress suggested that he was a suspicious character. He was afraid to let him come in, but on the other hand, how could he leave him stranded in the rain. After he extended a greeting of shalom aleichem (28) to the Rabbi, the man confided that he was in great difficulty. He was scheduled to be admitted the following day to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He strongly hoped that the Rabbi would assist him. Invited into the house, the man sat down and it was evident that he was hungry. He was served supper and afterward he related why he was being incarcerated. Although he felt he was innocent, the man stated that he had been given a year and a day term in prison. He was out on bond, but had to begin serving his sentence the following morning. The prisoner had traveled thirty hours from his home in Detroit to reach Atlanta. He wore ragged clothes since he felt that whatever he wore would be taken away from him. This stranger implored Rabbi Geffen to serve as an intermediary between himself and his wife during the difficult year. He wished to leave his personal documents and other important papers with the Rabbi. The hour grew very late as the stranger continued his tale of woe. No other arrangements could be made at that hour so the Rabbi gave him a place in his own home to stay for the night. Rabbi and Mrs. Geffen with their children were not able to sleep that night. Who knew what kind of person was sleeping under their roof? Perhaps he was a murderer, a thief or another type of criminal.
Fortunately, the night passed peacefully. After breakfast the Rabbi escorted him to the streetcar which went directly to the prison. It seemed the incident was finished. Two hours later, however, the man returned and informed the Rabbi that official papers from the Court in Michigan had not arrived yet at the prison. Therefore he was permitted to remain free until the documents reached the penitentiary authorities. Each day the Rabbi phoned the prison, but only two weeks later did the papers finally arrive. During those weeks the stranger was Rabbi Geffen’s guest. He became acquainted with the Geffen family and telephoned his own family in Detroit. This was essential for he did not want his relatives to know that he was going to serve a year in prison. The Rabbi received letters from the man’s wife and daughter in which they expressed gratitude for the hospitality extended to their husband and father.
After the guest was imprisoned, the Rabbi and his family visited frequently, bringing fruit and other foods and necessities. Rabbi Geffen would transmit regards from his relatives and would report back to the family about him. Once, when he became ill and was hospitalized, Rabbi Geffen went to visit him. As a model prisoner, he received a reduced sentence and was released from prison after only eight months. A congregant went to the prison and brought him to the Rabbi’s house. He was served dinner and taken to the train station to return to his family in Detroit.
Just before Pesach in 1933 a dramatic incident occurred. Rabbi Geffen received an English hand-written letter from a young Jewish prisoner in the Georgia State Prison in Milledgeville. The prisoner requested matzot (29) for the holiday and a hagaddah (30) for the Seder (30) night. The person did not give any information about himself or his family or from where he came. Rabbi Geffen quickly sent him Pesach (31) supplies and expressed a great interest in knowing more about him.
The prisoner replied, first apologizing for the delay in his response. He had been thrown into solitary confinement for refusing to work during the week of Passover. In his letter he thanked the Rabbi for “the package of Passover food – it was like manna (32) from the Heavens”. He wrote poignantly “some day I pray to God I may be in position to thank you in a more befitting way than in a mere letter.” His case was still pending before the Georgia Pardon Commission located in the state capitol in Atlanta.
Samuel, one of the Rabbi’s sons, a practicing lawyer, (later to become a Rabbi) offered to represent the prisoner. In the records he discovered that the young man, an unemployed bookkeeper, lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with an elderly, ailing mother and a brother. It was during the Depression years in the United States, before the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many people had lost all of their possessions. Particularly hard hit were the white collar workers. Many people from the northeast fled to Florida, believing there would be more opportunities in that southern state. Since he had no money, the bookkeeper turned to hitchhiking. He was picked up by a group of people and subsequently discovered that they were bank robbers from New York. He was forced under gun-point to remain in their car for they were afraid he would report them to the police. A warrant from North Carolina had been issued for their arrest and they were apprehended by the state troopers just north of Savannah, Georgia. The occupants of the car were extradited to North Carolina but the bookkeeper was tried in Savannah as an accomplice to the crime. Despite his denial the Court sentenced him to an 8 year prison term on the Georgia Chain Gang. His brother came from Philadelphia to be at the trial and hired legal counsel from Savannah but to no avail.
Rabbi Tobias Geffen became interested in the plight of the young prisoner. He wrote to Rabbi Bernard Levinthal, chief rabbi of Philadelphia. This Rabbi was acquainted with the young man, knew him to be upright, honest and of good character. He encouraged Rabbi Geffen to assist him in any possible way. It would be a great mitzvah to find means to have the prisoner released. The prisoner’s brother also wrote to Rabbi Geffen seeking assistance in the liberation of his brother. He indicated that he could not afford an outlay of additional funds for further legal assistance. Naturally, Rabbi Geffen’s son, Samuel was aware of the importance of the mitzvah of pidyon shivuim, (32) and thus continued to represent him.
The Pardon Commission met quarterly and once again rejected the appeal. Only one final recourse remained. In the State of Georgia the Governor annually reviewed pending cases. When his aides brought this case to the Governor’s attention, Governor Eugene Talmadge wrote to Rabbi Tobias Geffen asking for information on the case and on the man’s character. The Rabbi’s response was to play a key role in the Governor’s decision.
“From the prisoner’s letter to me seeking Jewish religious items for the Passover holiday, I can readily understand that the boy has a deep religious feeling and also possesses character, sufficient to warrant my recommendation that he be granted clemency.”
Two days after receipt of Rabbi Geffen’s letter, the Governor acted upon it and ordered the prisoner to be released.
The prison authorities gave the young man funds for a train ticket to his home in Philadelphia. On the way, he stopped in Atlanta and visited the Rabbi for about four hours. He spoke about his sufferings in jail as a Jew and showed the chain marks on his legs. How happy he was to be a free man again, to see his ailing mother, his brother, and other family members.
When asked how he knew about Rabbi Geffen, he related that he had become acquainted in jail with another prisoner who was not Jewish but they exchanged accounts of their problems. When the Jewish prisoner referred to the Passover holiday, the non- Jew told him about Rabbi Geffen, who had formerly been a neighbor of his family. Thus, the desire to perform the mitzvah of eating matza caused him to contact Rabbi Geffen. This ultimately led to his freedom. A year later the same young man, accompanied by his wife and his brother, came to Atlanta and visited with Rabbi Geffen, especially to express their gratitude for what he had done.
Rabbi Geffen was once asked to perform a wedding for himself and his fiancee.. On examining the civil marriage license, the Rabbi discovered that the husband-to-be had previously been married and on questioning, learned that there was only a civil divorce. The man wanted to give his ex-wife a get but she had refused to accept it. Rabbi Geffen then wrote to the ex-wife and requested that she get in touch with her local Rabbi. Simultaneously he also wrote to this Rabbi explaining the situation. The local Rabbi replied that the woman wanted to be paid for her time and involvement in receiving the get. The ex-husband refused to comply and turned to a Reform Rabbi to perform the ceremony instead. However, that’s not the end of the story.
Some years later, during World War I, on a Shabbat, the telephone rang. Rabbi Geffen did not answer calls on Shabbat, but since the nation was at war he asked his youngest daughter to take the call. The Atlanta Chief of Police was on the phone and said he had a letter addressed to Rabbi Geffen. Amazingly, the letter was from the woman who had refused to accept the get. Now she had changed her mind, because a wealthy and fine man wanted to marry her. He was religious and would only marry her if she had a get. Rabbi Geffen inquired among his acquaintances, and succeeded in finding her ex-husband who agreed to give her the get.
It was not only family problems with which Rabbi Geffen had to deal but also community matters involving fundamentals of Judaism. Rabbi Geffen was once asked by community leaders of a city near Atlanta to decide on the credibility of the shochet since he also operated a store that was open on Shabbat. Rabbi Geffen visited the city, investigated the situation and substantiated the claims of the leaders. He asked the shochet to discuss the issue with him but he refused. Therefore, Rabbi Geffen advised the community that the shechita (34) was not acceptable and the community engaged a new more reliable shochet.
In another instance, the Rabbi was approached to examine another shochet who was seeking a position in their town. Rabbi Geffen wanted to see how the man functioned. They agreed to meet the following day at the slaughterhouse. However, immediately after the morning prayers, the shochet claimed to have received an urgent request to immediately go to New York. Apparently the man was a shochet ofot (35) and did not have the credentials to be a shochet behamot (36). He wanted to leave town before it was discovered.
In some communities a reverse incident occurred. The shochet was an upright man and reliable, but he had enemies in the community who defamed him. Rabbi Geffen staunchly defended the “shochet” to the maximum of his ability.
Many times when Rabbi Geffen rendered a decision according to Jewish law, many people did not accept it. Some were dissatisfied with his halachic interpretations. The Rabbi, nevertheless, guided himself by the dictates of Jewish legal practices .and moral and ethical principles.
As the “Orthodox Rabbi of the South”, he had to shoulder the problems of the entire region as well as Atlanta. Eventually, when young Orthodox rabbis began to fill pulpits in the south, they were able to ease the burden. The younger rabbis could solve most questions on their own, turning to the elder Rabbi for advice and assistance when necessary.
At the beginning of World War I and the entry of the United States into the conflict, Atlanta became a huge center for mobilized soldiers. Camp Gordon, near Atlanta, sequestered over 60,000 uniformed soldiers including thousands of Jewish young men. Rabbi Geffen’s home became an information center for parents and friends of the soldiers. Parents would often come to Atlanta from distant communities and the Rabbi would aid them in obtaining information concerning their children. He frequently visited Camp Gordon and helped to reunite parents and sons. Wounded soldiers were brought to army hospitals in Atlanta. On Shabbat and holidays many soldiers of all ranks were invited to the Geffen home.
Rabbi Geffen was one of many Rabbis who concerned themselves with Jews suffering in Europe. This occurred long before American Jewry had created special groups for that purpose. He inspired young volunteers to solicit monetary contributions from donors and thus he was able to widen the range and type of assistance.
On several occasions during the War period Rabbi Geffen was required to visit military installations in order to prepare and issue gitten or Jewish divorces for soldiers who were about to leave for overseas. In case these soldiers were missing in action, their wives would automatically be divorced in a Jewish manner. In this way, they would not be considered an agunah and could remarry without any obstacles.
Often he was requested by soldiers to conduct religious services. Rabbi Geffen made many friends during this period. The Jewish military personnel came to know him well and looked upon him as a real father. Through his kindness and good advice he won the hearts of the Jewish fighting men and their parents. Throughout his life Rabbi Geffen received mail from these brave soldiers who had found a second home with him during those critical years of their lives.
RABBI GEFFEN’S FAMILY
Rabbi Joel S. Geffen studied at the Yeshiva Yitzchak Elchanan for one year and later was ordained as a Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Emory University and a Master’s Degree from New York Teachers’ College in Troy. His wife, Sylvia, was a granddaughter on her mother’s side of the Moskovi Rebbe, Rabbi Hayim Jacob Widerwitz. Her father was a member of the well-known Mintz family. They had two daughters, Lisa and Rela. Rabbi Joel S. Geffen’s first position as rabbi was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. From there he went to Troy, New York where he served at Temple Beth El for fifteen years. Afterwards he returned to New York City and was the Director of Field Activities for 40 years at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Louis Geffen received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Emory University and then received a Bachelor of Law degree from Columbia University in New York City. He returned to Atlanta to practice law in 1928 and was the only Sabbath observant attorney in the city at that time. His wife, Anna, was the daughter of the well-known furniture craftsman, Kasriel Birshtein of Norfolk, Virginia and the niece of Rabbi Bernard Birstein, spiritual leader of New York’s Actors’ Temple. During World II Louis served with the Judge Advocate’s Corps in the United States Army, He attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was stationed for a year in Japan and the Philippines and served as one of the official prosecutors at the Japanese war crime trials in Yokohama, Japan. Louis and Anna had one son, M. David.
Rabbi Samuel obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree and law degree from Emory University in Atlanta. Then he received two degrees, Rabbi and Master of Hebrew Literature from the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Samuel was the spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of Forest Hills West, New York for many years. His wife, Ruth, was the daughter of Abner Rosenfeld, a prominent businessman and communal leader in New York City and granddaughter of William Fischman, an outstanding Jewish leader in New York for 50 years. They were blessed with a son, Peter Alan.
Abraham Geffen received his Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors at Emory University in Atlanta. Subsequently, he earned a medical degree from Columbia University in New York City. During World War II Dr. Geffen served for three years in the military. He was with the United States Air Force and was stationed for two years in Iceland and one year in England rising to the rank of Major. Then he did his residency in radiology and became the chief of radiology at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City. His wife, Ethel, was a daughter of the well-known Leon Petegorsky of Ottawa, Canada and a sister of Dr. David Petegorsky who was Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress. They had three children, David, Robert and Sara.
Lottie received certification as a public school teacher at the Normal School of Atlanta. During the 1920’s she taught in Atlanta. She married Abe Simon, a businessman in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Abe fought in the Jewish Legion (37) for two years during World War I and participated in the liberation of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire. Abe passed away at an early age and Lottie operated their ready-to-wear dress shop in Spartanburg for many years. They had two children, Harold and Phyllis.
Bessie received a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Emory University. She taught in Atlanta schools and served as the President of the southern region of Young Judea. She married Dr. Carl Wilensky, an Emory graduate and an ophthalmologist.
He taught at Tulane Medical School for more than 25 years. They lived in New Orleans, Louisiana and had three children, Jane, Jacob, and David.
Annette received a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Science degree in biology from Emory University. She was a junior high school teacher in Atlanta until she married Ralph Raskas, the President of the Raskas Dairy Company in St. Louis, Missouri. In the 1930’s this dairy was one of four kosher dairies in the United States. They had three children, Heschel, Stanley, and Judy.
Helen received a full scholarship to the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and a Master of Science degree from Columbia University in New York. While she was working on her doctorate she met and married Sam Ziff, a successful businessman and Jewish communal leader from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They had three children, Daniel, Ruth, and Joel.
The story of Rabbi Geffen’s eventful career would not be complete without a tribute to his beloved wife, Sara Hene. She was not only his indispensable helpmate, but also his devoted and untiring partner in this wonderful story. She was a proud wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, as well as a selfless and hardworking Rebbetzin (38) of the Shearith Israel Congregation and the general Atlanta Jewish community. Over the half century of her activities, she struggled through suffering and poverty, through trials and tribulations, through happiness and sorrow and lived a life amazing to contemplate. The greatest honor is insufficient to reward her for her dedication to the highest and noblest ideals of womanhood, Americanism, Judaism and humanity.
May this story of an American Jewish family transplanted from the soil of the Old Country to the new land of freedom and democracy serve as an example of inspiring Jewish living with tradition combined with true American idealism as its guiding light, bringing to fruition the beautiful synthesis of the ancient Hebraic faith and culture with scientific civilization of life in the twentieth century. This is the true meaning of the life story of Sara Hene and Tobias Geffen.
It is good to give thanks unto God for all of the blessings He has granted unto us and all our loved ones. May He continue to bless us and all our loved ones in peace and joy forever.