Geffen University — Otherwise Known as Emory!

As a new academic year at Emory begins, I take delight in sharing blog posts created by some of the students in my history of Emory course from the fall of 2018. These undergraduates dug into the University archives in Rose Library to write research papers, which they pared down to create the posts. I hope you enjoy their work. The first is by Isabella Cantor, who was a freshman in Emory College when she took the course.

Gary Hauk

The entwinement of the Geffen family with Emory formally began in the fall of 1919, with the enrollment of Joel Geffen 22C, the eldest son of Rabbi Tobias Geffen and Sara Hene Geffen. Emory had only recently established itself as a new university in Atlanta — perfect timing for Joel, who had just graduated from Boys’ High School.

As the story goes, Rabbi Geffen approached Chancellor Warren Candler regarding the admission of his son. He told Candler that he would like to send Joel to Emory University, but that Saturday classes would be a problem for the family. Until 1929, Emory held classes Tuesday through Saturday in order to give Christian students a Monday break after church on Sunday.[1] Because the Geffens were Orthodox Jews, the laws of Shabbat prevented them from riding buses or streetcars to Saturday classes, and prohibited them from taking notes and exams on Saturdays. The Chancellor, a Methodist bishop, promised Rabbi Geffen that not only would Emory be happy to accommodate Joel’s observance of Shabbat, but Joel would receive reduced tuition as the son of a clergy member. It did not seem to matter to Candler that Geffen was an Orthodox rabbi and not a Methodist minister.

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Cartoon from a 1954 article about the Geffen-Emory story in The Atlanta Journal

After Joel’s enrollment, five more children of Tobias and Sara Geffen would find their way to Emory. Despite the break in cost, it was nothing short of a miracle that a rabbi’s salary in 1920 could afford private university tuition for six children.

One of Tobias and Sara’s grandchildren, Peter Geffen, is the son of Rabbi Samuel Geffen 26C 31L (the third Geffen at Emory). For Peter, what was most impressive about his grandfather’s decision to send his children to college was that he did not limit the education to his sons. Despite his strong Litvak (Lithuanian) Jewish background, Rabbi Geffen firmly believed in women’s equality in education. Just as the Geffen sons studied the Talmud (a book of Jewish law) with their father, so did his daughters. To Rabbi Geffen, there was no distinction.

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Of eight Geffen children, six graduated from Emory University.

When Bessie Geffen graduated from Girls’ High School in 1926, she wanted to attend Emory just as her three older brothers had done. In addition to the issue of classes on Shabbat, however, another roadblock was in the way. Until 1953, Emory College enrolled few women, and no College undergraduate female students lived on campus. Rabbi Geffen spoke with the administration once again, and Bessie was admitted to the college’s education program, which did enroll female commuting students. Thus Bessie joined the class of 1929.[2]

The subject of Bessie’s admission to Emory was a frequent topic in the Geffen family newspaper, The Geffen Household. The family called the morning streetcar from South Atlanta to Druid Hills the “Emory Special,” which welcomed Bessie aboard. When she finally started school in the fall of 1926, the family joked that “[Emory does] not seem to ever get rid of the Geffens.”[3]

Rabbi Geffen raised his children with strong Jewish backgrounds, so when he sent his children off to a Methodist university, there was no concern that they would lose their Judaism. In fact, the Geffen family’s connection with Methodism turned into a bit of a running joke within the family. When Sam graduated from college, he was not able to march in the Commencement processional because he had to conduct the hymns from the platform. In an article about Bessie’s acceptance to Emory titled “Good Old Methodism,” the writer jokes that “John Wesley, noble as he is, has again saved a soul from damnation. The Geffen Household will again fill its seat in chapel with Bessie singing the stirring hymns.”[4]

An article published in 1954 in the Emory Alumnus tallies up the sixteen grandchildren of Tobias and Sarah Geffen and muses that “this adds up to a lot of prospective Emory Students.”[5] Of the sixteen, however, only one — Rabbi David Geffen 59C — ended up an Emory student. There are plenty of great-great-grandchildren, however, so perhaps a few more Geffens will enter our ranks soon.

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Louis Geffen 23C standing in front of Alabama Hall in Commencement regalia

Isabella Cantor

[1] “The Rabbi’s Children.” The Emory Alumnus.

[2] Jane Wilensky Ravid, email communications with author, November 11, 2018

[3] “Abie, Last Member to Attend Fair St. School Begins Final Year at Latter Institution,” The Geffen Household.

[4] “Good Old Methodism,” The Geffen Household.

[5] “The Rabbi’s Children.” The Emory Alumnus.

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7 thoughts on “Geffen University — Otherwise Known as Emory!”

  1. Rabbi Tobias was my great, great Uncle and rescued my father, a Holocaust survivor from Berlin, and his great nephew. My father was in a DP camp and was located by Rabbi Geffen when he was combing the lists of survivors for his nephew, my grandfather. I went to Emory, as did my son and daughter. I have also worked for Emory for 36 years. I guess you could say we’re an Emory family!!

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      1. Thank you, my father’s papers are also at Emory in Special Collections, Bert Lewyn. I forgot to add my mother got her M.Ed. at Emory in 1951 and my niece just graduated from the College! Her mother, my sister-in-law is also a graduate, it runs deep!!

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