Peter Geffen was on a teen tour of Israel in June 1964 when he heard that fellow Queens College student Andrew Goodman had been murdered, along with two other civil rights workers, in the infamous “Mississippi burning” case.
“I came home and told my father that I wanted to take Andy’s place,” said Geffen. His father, Rabbi Samuel Geffen, “was a very liberal Conservative rabbi, but he grew up in Atlanta and knew very well what the Ku Klux Klan was capable of. He said, ‘You’re not going.’”
Geffen went anyway. During the following two summers, he traveled to South Carolina to join the civil rights struggle, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During his time in the South, he also got to know Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a civil rights leader whom King affectionately referred to as “my rabbi.” Heschel would have such a profound influence on the young volunteer that when Geffen founded a pluralistic Jewish school in 1983 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he named it the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. The school, which offers early childhood classes through high school, now has 1,000 students from across the denominational spectrum.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, which occurred on April 4, 1968, Geffen will kick off Marlboro Jewish Center’s fourth annual “A Potpourri of Jewish Interest” lecture series, to be held on four successive Tuesdays beginning March 6.
Program chair Allan Sugarman said he chose topics that will draw attendees with a wide range of ages and interests. All the programs were given movie titles, he said, to make them easy to remember.
Geffen’s presentation, “The Defiant Ones,” will explore the Jewish community’s involvement in the civil rights movement.
When considering the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, Sugarman said, he immediately thought of Geffen, whom he has known since Geffen was his counselor at Camp Ramah in the Poconos.
“To me one of the acts of being a Jew is standing up for the oppressed,” said Sugarman, and Geffen fit the bill.
Geffen told NJJN that he and another Freedom Rider, Mickey Shur — now Rabbi Moshe Shur, the retired Hillel director at Queens College — were among the large number of young Jews who traveled to the Deep South to register African-Americans to vote.
Geffen estimated that as many as 40 percent of the Freedom Riders were young Jews.
As the first generation to come of age after the Holocaust, many of them were motivated by their sense of obligation to stand up for other oppressed people.
“Back then we believed there were good Germans who just looked away — and we weren’t going to do that,” he said.
That pursuit of justice as a mandate of Judaism was deepened through his association with Heschel, who taught him that “the Torah teaches we all descend from one man and one woman, and there are no differences between human beings. Every time we make a differentiation between people of different races, religions, and ethnicities, we violate the Torah’s basic teaching that came before even ‘Love thy neighbor’ — ‘B’tzelem Elohim’: All men and women are created in the image of God.”
In fact, Geffen said, former Southern Christian Leadership Conference director Andrew Young, who would later serve as mayor of Atlanta and the U.S. representative to the United Nations, told him civil rights workers carried only two books in their backpacks: the Bible and Heschel’s “The Prophets.”
Geffen said that after he and Shur worked closely with King, he autographed a photo taken with the two young men, thanking them “for all your work.”
Three years later, the two would play a small but pivotal role in King’s funeral. The civil rights leader had told his followers that should he die during the struggles, he wanted a “poor black sharecropper’s funeral,” with the caisson bearing his body pulled by mules, rather than horses.
Unfortunately, one of the mules had not arrived by the morning of the funeral and Shur and Geffen were sent to retrieve it from a farm.
Later, they would march with Heschel and Sen. Robert Kennedy, then a leading Democratic candidate for president, who himself would be assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel two months later.