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Ethical Wills

By Jackie Jacobs

Something nearly as old as civilization itself can add an extremely human touch to the cold legalese of wills and trusts.

Ethical wills are non-legal documents that complement legal wills, living wills and estate plans by passing on heartfelt wisdom to future generations. Traditionally, these messages have been written (or sometimes spoken and even recorded) by elder family members and directed toward their heirs.

The concept has a long and rich tradition in Jewish history. The template for the ethical will traces back to Jacob in the Bible more than 3,000 years ago. On his deathbed, Jacob gathered his 12 sons to offer them his blessings, moral directives and burial instructions – requesting that he be buried not in Egypt but in Canaan with his ancestors. He also told them stories, predicted their futures and imparted some life lessons.

Written ethical wills date back to the 12th century, according to Eric L. Weiner, author of a delightful guide to writing ethical wills.  Entitled Words from the Heart, its name is a reference to this Jewish proverb: “Words from the heart enter the heart.” That’s the essence and opportunity of an ethical will.

Trust documents are simply the bare bones mechanism for dispersing assets to heirs. An ethical will adds the richness of humanity, conveying who that person was and what he or she will always stand for. It’s what makes a monetary gift meaningful and lasting.

Weiner, who has a doctorate in marriage and family therapy,  offers practical tips and guidelines for compiling ethical wills of their own. The process doesn’t have to be daunting.  Hope for the future is a common theme. Maybe, just maybe, we can illuminate a path for our loved ones to follow, the author writes. “Hope speaks to the yearning we have to lessen the bumps in the road for others. Maybe what we have learned in our lives can make a difference in the lives of others.”

Here at the Foundation, we maintain our own archive of stories and reflections from our donors that are compiled in our Endowment Book of Life. Many are sterling examples of ethical wills. The collection is prominently displayed for all to see and enjoy, with dozens of entries also posted on our website, Endowment Book of Life page.

“To be able to extend the mitzvah of Tzedakah beyond our lifetime is a privilege and a joy,” wrote Judith and Gerald Swedlow. “We send with this gift a message to our grandchildren and to theirs: ‘Share from your blessing, love each other as we would love you, and never break the link of Jewish continuity that our family has protected throughout the generations.’”

“Why would I want to help secure the future of our Jewish community? It is so obvious to me,” wrote DeeDee Glimcher. “I have children and grandchildren. I want to do everything I can to make sure there is a Jewish world for them. … What I wish for our community is tolerance of each other and enough strength that we can find a healthy place in the greater world without total assimilation. The world would be uninteresting if we were all alike, but even more important, our Jewish values are too precious to ever lose.”

And this from my late mother, Jenny Jacobs: “My husband, Ben Jacobs, and I met in May 1948 on Israel’s Day of Independence. So my endowment gift, which will bear his name and mine, is earmarked to help Israel stay strong. Only one of my relatives lived through the Holocaust. Benno and I were survivors, but that chapter of our lives is too difficult to speak or write of. …as a nurse, I have always tried to help others. As a mother, I have always tried to raise good Jews…Our parents’ ashes have no grave, so their names are on Benno’s gravestone next to mine. I am sorrowed for Jews who know so little of their own identity that they deny their Jewishness. In doing so they give victory to those who tried to destroy us.”

In this very personal way, an ethical will serves as a lasting reflection of who the donor is, providing an opportunity to make a statement about his or her values. It’s a little message in a bottle for future generations to preserve and treasure.

Rabbi Jack Reimer, the author of Writing and Reading Ethical Wills, notes that ethical wills are not always easy to write. One must look inward to distill the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, and consider what really counts.  They empower people to confront the ultimate choices that they must make in their lives. “They can make people who are usually too preoccupied with earning a living stop and consider what they are living for,” he notes.

Directing a Jewish Foundation, as I do, in which community members leave charitable legacies for the benefit of future generations, understanding donors’ ethical motives is deeply meaningful and profoundly touching.    If you are inspired to write your own ethical will, please consider sharing a copy.

Jackie Jacobs is the Chief Executive Office of the Columbus Jewish Foundation, the Central Ohio Jewish community’s planned giving and endowment headquarters.

Article appears as originally published in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle Thanksgiving issue.

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