Above: Some of the 84 great-great-children of Rabbi Tuvia and Sara Geffen present flowers to President Reuven Rivlin on Jan. 4. Rabbi David Geffen is on the left.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin welcomed 40 Israeli descendants of Rabbi Tobias (Tuvia) Geffen and his wife, Sara Hene Geffen, to the presidential residence Wednesday, Jan. 4, for a ceremony honoring their memory and making a presentation to the president.
Rabbi Geffen, who immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in 1903, arrived in Atlanta in 1910 and served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel for 60 years. Among his other legacies, he persuaded Emory University to accept his sons as the school’s first Jewish undergraduates, and he certified Coca-Cola as kosher after seeing the secret formula, studying the production process and persuading the company to change to a vegetable-based glycerin.
Rabbi Geffen’s interpretations of Jewish law and scientific approach to accommodate modern food production set a standard for kosher supervision.
Thus, one of the two books the Geffen descendants presented to Rivlin was Roger Horowitz’s “Kosher USA,” which explains how and why Rabbi Geffen tackled the issue of Coke’s kosher status.
The other book was “Lev Tuviah,” a collection of Rabbi Geffen’s writings, including the Coca-Cola ruling in Hebrew and English. Joel Ziff, one of Rabbi Geffen’s grandsons, edited the book, which also includes the sermon the rabbi delivered at Shearith Israel on May 15, 1948, after Israel declared independence.
Rabbi David Geffen, one of Rabbi Tobias Geffen’s grandsons, spoke during the formal presentation of the books.
“Why do their descendants take such pride in Rav Tuvia and Sara Hene? Because of their values, including helping others, hachnassat orchim, Jewish learning, love of Am Yisrael, and Medinat Yisrael and Zionut,” the rabbi said.
He said his grandfather, whose scholarly writings in Hebrew appeared in Jerusalem as early as 1909, also “was a man of action: He freed an innocent Jewish man from a Georgia chain gang. He set standards for Jewish education for Atlanta and the South. Twelve rabbis were his students. He maintained the authenticity of kosher slaughterers by checking their knives. He pursued and caught husbands who had abandoned their wives, making sure they requested a get to be written so that their wives would not be agunot.”
He taught his four sons and four daughters Yiddish as well as Torah and Talmud, and he collected letters written in Yiddish from correspondents as close as Spartanburg, S.C., and as far away as Japan.
“President Rivlin, you honor us all by accepting these books,” Rabbi David Geffen said.
The great-great-grandchildren of Rabbi Tuvia Geffen, ranging in age from 5 to 27, presented flowers to Rivlin, who shook hands with everyone present.
Working closely with Rivlin to plan the event was lawyer Harel Toubi, the head of the president’s office. Toubi is married to a great-granddaughter of Rabbi Tuvia Geffen’s, Sharone Wilensky.
David Wilensky, who was born in New Orleans and made aliyah 38 years ago, emceed the ceremony.
Another descendant, Rabbi Etan Geffen, elaborated on the handwritten sermon Rabbi Tuvia Geffen delivered in 1914 at Shearith Israel’s rededication after a fatal fire in the fall of 1913. Those remarks, delivered in front of prominent rabbis, emphasized small cities’ need for scholars to speak, teach, study and write and thus reflected his understanding of the important role Orthodox rabbis could play in the United States.
Photos by Tuvia Geffen