|Testimonial For Rabbi
Tobias Geffen and Mrs. Geffen with their children and grandson
the Dean of Southern Rabbis"
Tobias Geffen is an 86-year old scholar who has devoted his
long life to the Jewish people of Atlanta and Georgia and
By William Hammack
From The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine
May 5, 1957
This article ws provided by Rabbi M. David Geffen
|Sitting on the auditorium stage
at the new Atlanta Jewish Center was a white bearded patriarch
who looked as if he had stepped from the pages of the Old Testament.
An overflow crowd of Atlanta's Jewish citizens and Gentile guests
had gathered at a testimonial dinner to pay tribute to the patriarch
- Rabbi Tobias Geffen, the dean of Orthodox Jewish rabbis in
the South. For almost half a century, the 886-year old scholar
has devoted his life to his congregation, Shearith Israel, and
to the Jewish people of Atlanta and Georgia and the nation.
The word "rabbi" means "learned man," and
Rabbi Geffen is not only a deeply learned man, but he has encouraged
learning among several generations of students, teachers and
Jewish leaders. And as his eight children grew up, he insisted
that they seek what Solomon asked God for - wisdom.
It so happened that this Orthodox Jewish Rabbi sent six children
to a Methodist institution, Atlanta's Emory University.
In 1919, the year that Emory College moved from Oxford, GA.,
to Atlanta, a dignified bearded man in a frock coat, accompanied
by his son, paid a call on Bishop Warren A. Candler, that stalwart
of Methodism and, at the time, chancellor of Emory University.
The bearded man, Rabbi Geffen, introduced his eldest son, Joel,
and said he would like Joel to enroll at Emory. But, continued
the rabbi, a problem existed. In those days, classed at the
university were held from Tuesdays through Saturdays. The rabbi
then pointed out that his family was Orthodox Jewish, and their
religion forbade them to write on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Could there be found a way, the rabbi inquired, for Joel to
attend Saturday classes without having to write anything?
Joel Geffen says today, "Bishop Candler told my father
that he would be happy to work out the problem so that my classwork
would not interfere with my religious beliefs. It was remarkable
to see the understanding between my father and the bishop. I
entered Emory that fall."
Young Joel attended classes on Saturdays, but he took no notes.
He remembered all he could of the lectures, and classmates were
glad to furnish their notes when he needed them. If written
examinations were scheduled on Saturdays, instructors made arrangements
to give Joel those tests on other days of the week.
"I went to chapel, too," Joel Geffen said. "And
to Bible classes. I recall one of the first questions asked
me in Bible class was, 'Do you believe in sprinkling or immersion?'"
He chuckled. "I have to admit I couldn't answer that."
"I found a wonderful spirit of understanding and cooperation
at Emory." Joel Geffen went on. After my experience at
the university had been such a pleasant one, I was followed
at Emory by my brother, Louis."
Louis Geffen observed, "There was one other problem connected
with our going to Emory. Members of Orthodox Jewish families
not only do not write on Saturdays, they don't ride or drive
on Saturdays, either. And when we were going to college, we
lived six miles from the campus. However," Louis grinned,
"we solved that problem too. We walked. Twelve miles a
Joel and Louis were followed by a procession of young Geffens
- from the old Fair Street School (now Ed S. Cook Elementary
School) and the old Boys High and Girls High - to Emory University.
From the year the institution opened its doors in Atlanta until
1937 - a period of 18 years - there was at least one child of
Rabbi and Mrs. Geffen enrolled at the university - an Emory
attendance record that few, if any families have approached.
But although the crop of the rabbi's children ran out in '37,
as Emory President Goodrich C. White commented, there is today
a Geffen at Emory, a grandson of the rabbi, the son of Louis
- David Geffen, who is a sophomore this year.
How did Tobias Geffen, on a rabbi's slender salary, manage to
send his eight children to college? Rabbi Geffen's answer to
this question reveals one of the qualities of the man - he has
always believed that study and learning are vastly more importance
material things. To educate his sons and daughters, he nursed,
not just nickels, but pennies. Mrs. Geffen scrimped and saved
and did without and made things do. The children helped; they
worked to lighten the educational load. Some of them won scholarships
and several of them shortened their college days by taking summer
Was the long, arduous effort by the rabbi and his wife to educate
their children worth the self denial they subjected themselves
to? What became of the Geffen children after they left college?
Here they are today...
||Rabbi Joel Geffen
of the Emory class of 1922, wears three hats. He is director
of the department of field activity and community education
of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York; he
is director of the Metropolitan New York Council of United Synagogues
of America, and he is national spiritual adviser for the National
Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs.
||Louis Geffen, Emory class of
'23, is an Atlanta attorney who heads his own law firm. As a
member of the judge advocate general's corps in the Army during
World War II, he was chief prosecutor of the first Japanese
war criminal suspects to appear before Allied courts in Japan.
||Rabbi Samuel Geffen, Emory class
of 1926, who won his Emory law degree in 1931, is rabbi of the
Jewish center of Forest Hills West, Long Island.
||Dr. Abraham Geffen, Emory '37,
is chief radiologist at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.
||Mrs. Abe Simon (Lottie Geffen)
attended several summer courses at Emory, received a certificate
from the old Atlanta Normal Training School, and studied at
Columbia University in New York. She was a schoolteacher in
Atlanta, and is now president of her late husband's business
firm in Spartanburg, S.C.
||Mrs. M. Carl Wilensky (Bessie
Geffen), Emory class of 1929, was an Atlanta schoolteacher.
Her doctor husband (also an Emory graduate) is an ophthalmologist
in New Orleans, La.
||Mrs. Ralph Raskas (Annette Geffen)
obtained her A.B. degree at Emory in 1933, her M.A. in 1934.
A former Atlanta schoolteacher, she is now the wife of a businessman
in St. Louis, Mo
||Mrs. Sam Ziff (Helen Geffen)
received a scholarship to the University of Georgia in Athens,
won her degree there, earned her master's degree at Columbia,
and was working on her Ph.D. when she married. Her husband is
a businessman of Minneapolis, Minn.
|The father of these successful
people, a man who believed that religion and education should
be the chief interests in a person's life, was born in Lithuania.
So was his wife, the former Hene Rabinowitz. Tobias Geffen earned
his rabbinical degree in that country, and he and Hene were
married in 1898. as the terrible pogroms directed by the Russians
against the Jewish people of Lithuania grew in violence, Tobias
Geffen finally made a soul-shaking decision: he resolved to
leave his native land and his people, because he was, and is,a
man who loves liberty, and he was determined to bring up his
children in a climate of freedom. So in 1903, he and his wife
and their first two children, Lottie and Joel, arrived in New
York. Louis is the first native-born American in the rabbi's
family; he was born in New York's East Side. In 1910 Rabbi Geffen
and his increasing family came to Atlanta where he became rabbi
of Congregation Shearith Israel. His three youngest children
were born in Atlanta. For almost two score and 10 years he has
conducted services at Shearith Israel, and he constantly studied
and wrote. The author of six books of sermons and other works,
he is recognized today as one of the foremost Talmudic and Biblical
scholars in the nation.
But Rabbi Geffen did not confine his energies to scholarly pursuits
alone - he entered with zeal into the life of his adopted city
and state and nation. He organized the first Hebrew school in
Atlanta; he started the first effort in the city to collect
funds for the aid of needy families in European countries after
World War I; he was directly and indirectly responsible for
the support of many charitable institutions.
As the fame of the rabbi and his deeds spread, his home became
the first port of call in Atlanta for traveling rabbis, Jewish
scholars and other visitors from all over the world.
"Frequently," remembers Louis Geffen, "the Rebetzin,
my mother, would have to use the limited supply of food which
she had prepared for her children for these Orchim, or visitors.
And many times, we children would have to give up our beds for
these guests. But we learned the principle of sharing from our
father and mother. They set for us an example of unselfish living
and of concern for the welfare of others. I suppose," Louis
Geffen said thoughtfully, "that was one of the finest lessons
of the many which were taught to us in our home."
While Tobias Geffen taught and studied and wrote, he did not
shirk his routine duties as rabbi. In his life of service to
Atlanta, he has married more than 3,000 couples. He still enjoys
performing this happy task, and these days he is marrying the
grandchildren of couples he joined in wedlock during his early
days in Georgia. He has, of course, officiated at the weddings
of numberless children of couples he married. For example, not
long after he came to Atlanta, one of the original members of
his congregation, Samuel Goldstein, asked the rabbi to perform
the ceremony at the wedding of Mr. Goldstein's daughter, Minnie,
to Joseph Weiss. Some 28 years later, the rabbi officiated at
the wedding of the son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Weiss, Arthur,
an Atlanta businessman and retired Marine major who won the
Silver Star at Guadalcanal during World War II. Arthur Weiss
and his wife, the former Edith Lempert, were among the some
550 persons who attended the testimonial dinner for Rabbi Geffen
at the Jewish Community Center.
rabbi's eight children were on hand, the first time the far
flung clan had gathered together in 18 years, and so were many
of his 16 grandchildren. Rabbi and Mrs. Geffen also have two
great-grandchildren. All the rabbis of the Atlanta area were
present, and among the Gentile guests were Dr. James P. Wesberry,
pastor of Atlanta's Morningside Baptist Church, and his wife.
The toastmaster at the event, Dr. Irving Greenberg, introduced
Atlanta's Mayor William B. Hartsfield, and Dr. Goodrich C. White,
president of Emory University, who paid tributes to the rabbi.
David Geffen read a poem he had written in honor of his grandfather;
Sidney S. Gulden, president of Congregation Shearith Israel,
presented Rabbi Geffen with a testimonial scroll; Barney Medintz
unveiled a portrait of the rabbi, a splendid painting by Atlanta
artist, Leiber Freedenthal. This portrait, presented by Meyer
Balser, president of the Atlanta Jewish Community Center, and
a group of friends, will hang in the library of the new synagogue
which will soon be built by Congregation Shearith Israel. And
then in further, and especially appropriate tribute to the scholarly
Rabbi Geffen, the library itself was formally dedicated to him
by his younger colleague at Congregation Shearith Israel, Rabbi
Sydney K. Mossman
The testimonial dinner was a fitting tribute to Tobias Geffen
who is, as Rabbi Mossman said, "a revered rabbi and a distinguished
scholar. But more important than these, he is a man whose whole
life has been spent in doing justly, loving mercy and walking
humbly with the Lord our God.