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The Ethical Will of Joyce Garver Keller

There is a lovely Jewish custom of writing what is referred to as an ethical will.  Originally an oral tradition, ethical wills have been used for centuries to pass on life lessons and ethics, such as the importance of charity. As noted in Ethical Wills: A Modern Treasury , edited by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer, the first ethical wills were in the Bible.  Jacob gathered his children around his bedside to tell them the way in which they should live after his death. Moses made a farewell address, chastising, prophe­sying, and instructing his people before he died. David warned Solomon to be wary of the monarchy, and asked his son to complete his unfinished tasks.  The Apocrypha, the Talmud, medi­eval, and modern Hebrew literature all contain examples of ethical wills parents left their children. 

In modern times, parents still  write a such letters to their children, striving  to sum up all that they have learned in life, hoping that the wisdom they have acquired will be as much a part of their  legacy as their material possessions. 

An ethical will is not an easy thing to write. In doing so, one confronts oneself. One must look inward to see what are the essential truths one has learned in a lifetime, face up to one’s failures, and consider the things that really count. A legal will– the traditional will used to allocate property and assets– is not always enough.  Enter the ethical will.

Joyce Garver Keller was a  much-beloved and highly respected community professional who capably championed the priorities of the Jewish community on the local, state and national levels.  At her funeral, her son, Stuart, read her ethical will aloud to Joyce’s  three grandchildren.  With the family’s permission, it is my honor to publish her ethical will, which was prepared roughly ten years before her untimely passing.   May the wisdom, memory and legacy of Joyce Garver Keller long endure, and may her family draw strength from her values. 

To Izzy, Harry and Simon:   I leave you a love of family, a love of learning and a commitment to your faith. Respect your parents. It is okay to challenge them and other adults, but you must be respectful. Love each other – you are brothers – show kindness to each other. Help each other. Find your passion. If you work at what you love you will find success. It may take some time to find your passion but keep trying and it will come to you. Give your time and your money to charity. In Hebrew Tzedeck is Justice – to give tzedecka is to pursue justice. You have so much – others need your help. Have friends that are as diverse as your interests but remember your faith. Be involved in your synagogue. Observe at a level of comfort for you, but observe. Your great-great grandfather David Gershowitz came to America with his new bride, Eva, to flee persecution in Russia (pogroms). They came to America to live as Jews. Hitler tried to wipe out Judaism. All Jews who live today and practice their faith are survivors. Carry out the tradition – be a proud Jew. Respect people of all faiths. Respect them and enjoy and benefit from their friendship, but when you marry – marry in your faith and raise your children in a Jewish home. A bird and a fish can fall in love – but where will they live?

Be involved in your community. Civic engagement is expected. Always vote. Volunteer to work on campaigns and with organizations that matter. Be thoughtful as to where you stand, but stand up for what you believe. Your grandfather Steve and I protested the war in Vietnam, worked for civil rights and women’s rights, and prisoner rights, and spoke out against the genocide in Darfur and may, before we die, need to remind the world that the war in Iraq seems too much like Vietnam and a waste of the lives of young American men and women.

Go to Israel. Study about Israel. Love Israel. When you go to Israel, you will fall in love with a wonderful country that was given to us by G-d and is a safe haven for Jews. 

Always know that you can be proud of your family and that your family is proud of each of you.  Go to college and graduate. You will never be sorry that you did. If you do not finish college you will always be sorry that you didn’t.

No matter how long you live – may it be to 120 – life is short. Spend it doing good. Read good books – see good movies – go to museums to see great art or learn history – travel to great places – listen to good music (classical or classic rock and roll) – spend time with your family and friends.

Take care of yourselves. Stop eating junk food. Exercise. Invite your Daddy to exercise with you. Live healthy – live longer.  Thank G-d every day for all that you have. Hug your mother and father every day and thank them for all you have. Hug each other every day.  Laugh. See the silliness in life – enjoy the irony. Laugh and have fun.  Know that I love you.

To [my son] Stuart and [my daughter in law] Michelle: Forgive me for all the mistakes I’ve made and interference in your life. Michelle, it’s hard being a mother-in-law. 

Stuart – I made a lot of child-rearing mistakes. But it was no mistake that I never hit you. Find the patience for your wonderful boys. Each is a gift from G-d, or if you prefer, a gift from Michelle. Treat them as such.  Parenting is the hardest thing you will ever do. But your greatest accomplishment in life will be raising good children. I have accomplished many things in my career – but my greatest success in life is you. Stuart, you are such a fine man – with great values – who is loving. I am so proud of you. Always remember where you came from. The people who love you don’t want things from you, they want your love, time, and attention. Don’t worry about money. Dad and I didn’t have much but we always found money for what was important.

Article appears as originally published in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle, Thursday May 19, 2016.

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

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