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Tobias Geffen

GEFFEN, TOBIAS (1870–1970), Lithuanian-born U.S. rabbi, community leader, and activist. Born in Kovno, Lithuania, to Kuna Real Strauss and Yosef Geffe, Geffen studied privately in Kovno, Slobodka, and Grodno. After marrying Sara Hene Rabinowitz in August 1898, he entered the Kovno Kollel, and his wife operated a paper store to support them.

In 1903, a month after the Kishinev pogrom, Geffen left Kovno for the United States with his wife, two children, and his wife's siblings. A few weeks before they left he received semikhah from Rabbi Moshe Danishevsky of Slobodka and the Kovner Rav Shapiro.

After part-time work at a family sweatshop in New York City, Geffen became rabbi of the Beit Knesset Ahavat Tzedek Bnai Lebedove in 1904. Several months later Geffen attended the Agudat ha-Rabbonim convention where he first met his colleagues. In a major authentification initiative, the famous Ridbaz ordained rabbis at the convention. Geffen received his third semikhah from the Ridbaz in July 1904.

While soliciting funds for the Kovno Kollel, Geffen spent a Shabbat in Canton, Ohio. Invited to be the rabbi there, he moved his family, now four children, to Canton in 1907.

After a visit to the Shearith Israel Congregation in Atlanta, Geffen was chosen as rabbi. He served the congregation from 1910 until his death in 1970. As the rabbi of the smaller orthodox synagogue in the city, Geffen, nevertheless, took quick action by creating a religious school, which would try to eliminate all the "melammedim." Most important, he introduced a daily class in Talmud, which soon became occasions to present *hadranim at conclusions of different treatises of the Talmud. The earliest ones delivered in Atlanta were published in the Ha-Meassef halakhic journal in Jerusalem. Later Geffen published his hadranim, his derashot, and a few responsa in the eight books, which he published from 1924 to 1962.

The public highlights of Geffen's career were varied. In 1913, he visited Leo Frank, who had been convicted unjustly of the murder of Mary Phagan, and instituted regular prayers for Frank for the two years of his incarceration. Upon Frank's lynching in 1915, Geffen urged his congregants to remain calm but vigilant and not to leave Atlanta. In the early 1920s Geffen led a campaign calling upon the U.S. Congress not to adopt the new immigration law because it was discriminatory against Jewish refugees. In 1933 he and his son, attorney Samuel Geffen, successfully lobbied the governor for the release of a "Yankee Jew" from a Georgia chain gang prison.

His most famous act involved the drink Coca-Cola, whose home is in Atlanta, Georgia. After rabbis throughout the northeast and midwest gave their hekhsher to Coca-Cola for use on Passover and the entire year without any knowledge of the ingredients, Geffen was requested by the Agudat ha-Rabbonim to see what he could ascertain. Permitted to have access to the highly secret formula, Geffen analyzed the soft drink with the assistance of his daughter Helen Geffen, a food chemist. In a responsum published in 1935, he showed that Coca-Cola was non-kosher and not kosher for Passover. However, since "so many people do drink this product," Geffen identified two substances which could be substituted for the problematic ones in the drink. In 1935 the change was made by the company, and that year for Passover (in Atlanta only), Geffen's hekhsher written by him in Hebrew appeared on the Coca-Cola bottle cap.

Geffen's papers are found in the archival collections of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.