Emory Jewish Archives Debut Three Important Collections

Emory Jewish Archives Debut Three Important Collections

Author Melissa Faye Greene was among the featured speakers at the program about the university’s historical archives collection.

Rabbi Jacob Rothschild and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. after the 1964 Atlanta dinner honoring King’s Nobel Prize.
Rabbi Jacob Rothschild and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. after the 1964 Atlanta dinner honoring King’s Nobel Prize.

Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manusript, Archives, and Rare Book Library  formally unveiledcelebrated its Southern Jewish archive by unveiling the opening of three important collections of documents at a reception on Oct. 19. The program, held at the Emory library, included an appearance by Emory president Gregory Fenves, who is Emory’s first Jewish president and the son of Holocaust survivors. He praised the role that the archives have played in Jewish history.

“With this archive and a fellowship to support researchers, we’ll get a chance to uncover the distinct tradition, challenges, and the contributions that Jews have made in the South for hundreds of years. This important slice of American history is not as widely known as it should be, and we want to spread this knowledge of the Southern Jewish experience.”

The newly processed collections include the papers of Georgia’s Morris Abram, a noted civil rights attorney and an early president of Brandeis University and, later, the national leader of the American Jewish Committee. Also, the library has completed cataloging the papers of Jack Boozer, an influential Emory professor of religion, and the papers of Bert and Esther Lewyn. Bert was an Atlanta businessman and a survivor of the Holocaust whose memoir, “On The Run In Nazi Berlin,” was written with his daughter-in-law Beverly Salzman Lewyn. It was the story of his 2 1/2-year ordeal hiding out in wartime Germany after escaping capture by the Gestapo, where he was a slave laborer.

The papers of Rabbi Tobias Geffen, his son, Louis Geffen, seen at Emory in 1923, and Bert Lewyn, are in the Southern Jewish archives of the Emory Library.

After the war, he came to America to live with his great uncle, Rabbi Tobias Geffen, who for 60 years was the spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Shearith Israel synagogue.

The Emory president told the story, not generally known, that back in 1919 Rabbi Geffen approached the university about helping his son, an observant Jew who would soon be attending classes there. He asked that the young man who had to attend classes on Saturday not have to take notes then or be given tests on that day. Emory chancellor Warren Candler agreed and soon the observant Jewish students were helped with their note taking and testing. Eventually, Emory dropped Saturday classes.

Rabbi Geffen later was called upon by the Coca-Cola Company to certify a special bottling of their soft drink as kosher for Passover. At the reception, the typewritten letter from the rabbi to the company, that approved the product, was on display.

Rabbi Tobias Geffen was largely responsible for Coca-Cola being declared Kosher for Passover in the mid-1930s”

Both the Geffen and Lewyn families sponsored the program. They have been financial supporters of Emory’s Rose Library and Southern Jewish Collections and have underwritten a new program, the Geffen and Lewyn Family Southern Jewish Collections Research Fellowship.

which was made public at the October event. It will provide financial assistance to scholars who wish to research the archive.

The highlight of the Emory reception was a presentation about another important event in Atlanta Jewish history, the dramatic 1958 bombing at The Temple in Atlanta. The presentation by local author Melissa Fay Greene was based, in part, on extensive research she conducted at the archive. Her book about the blast, “The Temple Bombing,” was a national best seller and a finalist for the National Book Award for non-fiction.

In an illustrated half-hour lecture at the gathering. Greene recounted the events leading up to the bombing, which was a watershed moment in Atlanta history. As she pointed out, the era was a difficult time for Southern Jews and others who spoke out in support of equal rights for African Americans. In the same year as The Temple was attacked, she noted, there were almost four dozen bombings or attempted bombings in the South. Six of them were Jewish buildings. During the 1950s and 60s, 10 percent of the bombs detonated by white supremacists targeted synagogues, rabbis’ homes, and Jewish community centers.

Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield (left) and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild following the 1958 bombing of The Temple by white extremists.

She recounted the role of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild as a leading figure in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. As Greene described it in her lecture, the Atlanta rabbi was fearless.

“Rothschild wrote to a friend in March 1958 that ‘If this is dangerous, then I shall have to live dangerously, because I firmly believe it’s my responsibility as a rabbi. And even if I weren’t a rabbi, it would be my responsibility as a human being. Don’t think that I like endangering the security of our institutions and even my family, G-d forbid. But I’m here and life requires it, and so be it.’”

Author Melissa Faye Greene spoke at Emory University about the career of The Temple’s Rabbi Jacob Rothschild.

Rabbi Rothschild, as Greene pointed out, also played a key role in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after the Atlanta icon won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The celebratory dinner, which was planned to follow Dr. King’s return from the Nobel ceremony, was not initially greeted with enthusiasm by the white business community.

Eventually, the efforts of Rabbi Rothschild and Coca-Cola executive Bob Woodruff paid off. There were over 1,500 guests at the sold-out dinner in the biggest ballroom in Atlanta.

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