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Excerpts From Lev Tuviah "On the Life and Works of Rabbi Tobias Geffen"
Edited by Joel Ziff
Rabbi Tobias Geffen Memorial Fund, Newton, Massachusetts 1988

Excerpts from the Lev Tuvia chapter "Biography of Tobias Geffen" by Louis Geffen

"Rabbi Tobias Geffen was a pioneer among Southern Jewry in the United States. His kindness, compassion and intellect helped him shape his own Jewish community. His influence was even more far-reaching through his books, letters and responsa.

Of his almost one-hundred years of life, Rabbi Tobias Geffen spent his first 33 years in Lithuania and the remainder in the United States.

While Joseph Geffen a lumber merchant, residing in Kovno, Lithuania, was away from his home during the summer of 1870, his wife Kuna Rela, gave birth to a son on the eve of Tisha b'Av, in the year 5630, corresponding to the first day of August, 1870. The parents named this son Tuviah, which means "goodness of God," an appropriate choice. Altogether Joseph and Kuna Rela had a family of nine children, six sons and three daughters.

Tuviah Geffen completed most of his studies in Kovno. As a young boy he attended the cheder, which was under the direction of Reb Isheye. By the age of ten, young Tuviah was already advanced in his studies of Torah, Rashi, and the prophets. Because of his thorough application to his studies, the Rebbe asked him to assist older students in the reading of the Torah and the chanting of the Haftarah. For a year, while Tuviah was still in his teens, he studied at the yeshivah in Grodno. Tuviah was granted his semicha (traditional Rabbinical ordination) by the Ga'om Rabbi Tzvi Rabinowitz of Kovno and also by Rabbi Moses Danishevsky of the Slobodka Yeshivah.

On the 14th day of August, 1898, he married Sara Hene Rabinowitz, the daughter of Aryeh Lieb and Gitel Rabinowitz, of Kovno.

Tuviah became dissatisfied with the living conditions in Kovno and other Jewish communities in Lithuania and Russia. There were waves of anti-semitic riots and pogroms. After the Kishinev pogroms in 1903 when Jews were maimed and killed, Tuviah decided to leave Kovno and immigrated to the United States. Tuviah hoped to raise his family in a traditional Jewish way in a country where his people were treated as equal citizens with their neighbors. So, in the month of Iyar, 5633 (May 1903) with his wife, Hene, their two young children, and his wife's sister and brother, Tuviah set sail from Hamburg in the steerage, and after a rough trip of three weeks on the Atlantic, arrived in New York City.

Starting a new life in the United States was not easy. It was impossible for a rabbi to earn an adequate livelihood from his profession. However, Rabbi Geffen, faced with the problem of providing for the maintenance of his family, was persuaded by his wife's older brother, a successful clothing manufacturer, to operate a small retail men's clothing shop. He was given a partner to assist him. The venture was unsuccessful, and this was the end of his business career.

He was selected to serve as Rabbi of a synagogue, located at the corner of Division and Montgomery Streets on the East Side of New York. Rabbi Geffen served this congregation until 1907. Rabbi Geffen and his family resided in crowded East-side apartments. As the family increased, the Rabbi realized that he would have to seek another position. There was neither sunshine or fresh air in their apartment. There was no place for the children to play; the environment was not conducive to the proper rearing of children.

In the fall of the year 1907, Rabbi Geffen mada a drastic decision to leave New York and to take the position of Rabbi at a Canton, Ohio synagogue.

There was a great change in their physical living conditions. Instead of a third floor apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City, with its noise, dirt and other pollution, the family resided in a large two-story house with spacious rooms, plenty of fresh air and pleasant neighbors in a quiet residential area.

There were two synagogues in Canton, but only one had engaged him. The two synagogues were located on the same street, and represented two different groups who had separated because of dissension and disagreement. Rabbi Geffen used his influence to bring peace to these quarreling neighbors. Through his dedicated and persistent efforts, he succeeded in eradicating the animosity between the factions and effected a merger of the two synagogues.

Rabbi Geffen continued his personal studies; he engaged in intensive study of the Talmud and poskim, writing treatises on various subjects for publication in rabbinic literary magazines. However, the climate in Canton was too cold; his health suffered. A doctor suggested that he move to a warmer climate if he wished to prolong his life.

Far from the thickly-populated Jewish centers in the North, Atlanta and its neighboring communities needed a spiritual leader who was willing to dedicate his life to the establishment of a traditional Orthodox Jewish community.

In the fall of 1910 Rabbi Geffen was unanimously elected as Rabbi of Shearith Israel in Atlanta, Georgia.

He discovered that Jewish education in Atlanta was quite unsatisfactory. Congregation Shearith Israel did not have the finances to have its own school. So Rabbi Geffen, with his own children as a nucleus, conducted a school at his home. Fifteen of his students became rabbis, spiritual leaders, teachers, and scholars.

During the years of his rabbinate, Rabbi Geffen's home was known as a haven for visitors to Atlanta. Sometimes these strangers were poor individuals seeking charity for their families; at times, they were prominent rabbis, national leaders, or great scholars. All were treated with the same grace and hospitality. No one was ever turned away from the Geffen home empty-handed.

Rabbi Geffen followed the injunction of the Torah, in Chapter 6 of Deuteronomy, 'Thou shalt teach them diligently into they children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thy house, when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.' He took responsibility for teaching each of his eight children.

Rabbi Geffen initiated the first organized effort in Atlanta to collect funds for the aid of the many needy Jewish families in the war-ravaged countries of Europe after World War I. In the year 1935, the Rabbi, with other community leaders joined to unify the various fund-raising projects of the Jewish organizations in the city of Atlanta into one campaign to be known as the United Jewish Welfare Fund.

Congregation Shearith Israel continued to grow in membership under Rabbi Geffen's leadership until the middle 1920's when the neighborhood began to change and many of the members moved to another section of the city. Rabbi Geffen began a campaign for a new synagogue. Through his efforts, with the aid of some laymen, he succeeded in having a new synagogue constructed on Washington Street, which had become the Jewish residential area.

One of the great ambitions of Rabbi Geffen was to publish scholarly writings. In spite of his busy schedule, he found time to write eight books by 1963. Rabbi Geffen resisted receiving honors or awards for his service to his synagogue or to the community. However, when the Congregation built another synagogue in 1956, and he was told that a library in his name was to be established in the new synagogue, he consented to a testimonial dinner to be given in his honor.

During the latter part of the year 1960 and the month of January 1961, Sara Hene became ill and suffered several heart attacks. After the first attack, she was taken to the hospital. She recovered sufficiently to come home, but she had to remain in bed. She wanted to spend her last days in her own bed at home. In the early hours of February 1, 1961, she passed away.

During the last decade of Rabbi Geffen's life, in addition to his studies, teaching and writings, he participated in many rallies and assemblies for the State of Israel. From the days of his youth, he ended every sermon he delivered with a prayer to the Almighty that the Jews be returned to Zion.

At the age of 95, Rabbi Geffen was invited by Dr. Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, to participate in the graduation exercises held at Hunter College in New York on June 13, 1965. Rabbi Geffen offered the benediction for the newly-graduating rabbis and teachers; two of his grandchildren were among the graduates.

Rabbi Tobias Geffen lived a very simple life. He ate sparingly. His life was discipline for study and dedication to his fellow man. He was granted a long healthy life, exemplifying kindness and compassion. Not until the summer of 1969 did his health begin to fail.

The last Sabbath he attended was the last one in December, 1969. His health continued to decline. On the afternoon of February 10, 1970, corresponding to the fourth day of Adar I, 5730, he died in his hundredth year.

Excerpts From Lev Tuvia About Joseph Geffen by Louis Geffen
"When Joseph was growing up, his parents lived in a small village. There was no cheder or yeshivah in this community, so Joseph had to walk a distance of eight miles every day to attend cheder.

As Joseph grew older, he studied at the Slobodka Yeshivah. While a student there, at the age of 20, he married Kuna Rela Strauss, the 17-year old daughter of Rabbi Mane Strauss (of blessed memory), who at that time was a prominent Rabbi and Rosh Yeshivah in Kovno.

Joseph was one of a group of young scholars in the Kovno-Slobdka area who were destined to become famous rabbis. However, Joseph did not want to use the study of Torah for material gain. He decided to use his knowledge in forestry for his livelihood. Joseph had gained this knowledge during his long walks to cheder. As he walked through the woods day-after-day, he became acquainted with the trees that grew in that vicinity, estimating their height and diameter and speculating on the purpose for which they could be used.

During the course of his business activity, Joseph conducted his home in the spirit of Jewish tradition. He exemplified in his personal life the Talmudic saying 'He who loves scholars will have children who are scholars, he who honors scholars will have sons-in-law who are scholars.'
Joseph Geffen passed away in Kovno on the morning after Yom Kippur in the year 5650 (1889) at the age of 57".
#1..The Geffen Family 1929
#2..Rabbi Tobias and Mrs. Sara Hene Geffen at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration 1948
#3..The Geffen Family 1953
#4..Congreation Shearith Israel on Washington Street in Atlanta
#5..Rabbi Tobias Geffen