Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.
Detail from the cover of Steven Hertzberg’s “Strangers Within the Gate City”
After the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, organized by Theodor Herzl, a Zionist chapter was founded in Atlanta in early 1898 with 50 members, led by Louis Charnason as president.
The next local Zionist organizations founded in the early 20th century were the Ahavath Zion Society and the Daughters of Zion, which joined the Federation of American Zionists, the predecessor to the Zionist Organization of America.
During the next few years, the Atlanta Zionist Society, Dorshei Zion Society and a branch of the Labor Zionist Farband were founded, and in 1914 they participated in the first Southeast Zionist Convention, held in Savannah. They worked to provide a sanctuary for the oppressed.
They even produced plays such as “Promised Land” and invited Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold to Atlanta to speak.
According to historian Steven Hertzberg, prominent personalities Louis J. Levitas, Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Congregation Shearith Israel, Morris Lichtenstein, the Rev. Sholom Clein, Ahavath Achim Synagogue President Joel Dorfan, AA Rabbi Joseph Levin, and Rabbis Julius Loeb and Hyman Solomon of Congregation Beth Israel were the Zionist leaders before 1914.
There was a newspaper called the Jewish Sentiment. The editor, Frank J. Cohen, wrote: “When the Jews learn that in unity only lies their safety will they be able to cope with opposition. To advocate and aid Zionism does not necessarily prove lack of patriotism … or the desire to move to Palestine.”
The beginnings of Zionism in Atlanta were communitywide except for The Temple, whose membership followed the views of Rabbi David Marx, who opposed Zionism in the belief that it was incompatible with the desire of Jews to assimilate as Americans.