Rita Feld Geffen, formerly of Atlanta, died in Jerusalem Aug. 29, having lived 43 years in her eternal city. Born in Brooklyn on Sept. 15, 1941, Rita grew up in Queens, N.Y. In 1950s-era New York, there was great fear of a Soviet attack from the Atlantic Ocean. The children had regular drills in which they would scramble off their chairs and hide under their desks. At Forest Hills High School, Rita was an honor student. There was a duo in her class then known as “Tom and Jerry,” who became far more famous as Simon and Garfunkel.
In 1978, the summer after Rita immigrated to Israel, she was traveling through the country with her sister, also a Forest Hills High School graduate. They visited the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv. Paul Simon, who was appearing in Israel, showed up at the museum with a bodyguard. Rita memorably went up to him and said, “Mr. Simon, I was in the same class with you at Forest Hills High School. My name is Rita Feld, now Geffen.” He looked at her kindly and said,
“Yes, I remember you.”
Rita’s greatest contribution to Israel, in addition to having three children and four grandchildren in the Israel Defense Forces, was related to Sjogren’s syndrome, an auto-immune disease that produces dry eyes and a dry mouth. She had been diagnosed with the syndrome in 1970s and suffered from it up until her death.
No one in Israel – doctors, professors or specialists – knew anything about the syndrome when Rita made aliyah in 1977. Around the beginning of 1978, she asked Judy Siegel of The Jerusalem Post to write an article. When the piece appeared on a Friday with the newspaper’s phone number, nearly 50 people called. “We finally know what we are suffering from,” they said.
Rita formed a support group that lasted 25 years. On her own she visited doctors around Israel, educating them about the syndrome. Now when sufferers go for an examination by a doctor or go to the hospital and state they have Sjogren’s syndrome, it is immediately recognized.
In August 1988, Rita and husband David went to what was then the Soviet Union to visit refuseniks. In Kishinev, Moldova, a female KGB agent confronted Rita. “We know what you are doing with our Jews,” she said. “They are our Jews.” The fearless Rita looked the agent straight in the eye and walked away. No other KGB agent confronted her or her husband in the 12 remaining days of their mission.
She is survived by three children Avie (Orit), Elissa (Chemi) and Tuvia (Keren) and eight grandchildren. She was buried Aug. 30 in the cemetery of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel in Jerusalem.