"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
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,
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
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.