Ethical wills leave behind sense of self, soul for survivors


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — After Joyce Garver Keller died last month, her husband, Steven, was sifting through the files on her computer when he came across a document that revealed just the type of person she was, in her own words.

“To Izzy, Harry and Simon: I leave you a love of family, a love of learning and a commitment to your faith,” it began.

Written as a letter to her loved ones, it was an “ethical will,” a place where Mrs. Keller recorded all the nonmaterial things she wanted to pass on to her loved ones.

“After I read it the first time, I was just blown away,” Mr. Keller said. “Because it’s everything, all the things, she would have wanted our grandchildren to know about.”

An ethical will is “a love letter to the next generation,” said Rabbi Jack Riemer, co-editor of “So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them.” Their writers, he said, use them to tell who they are, what they stand for, what they tried to accomplish in life and what they want for and from their children and grandchildren.

Mrs. Keller, the recently retired director of Ohio Jewish Communities, died on May 2 from a heart attack. She was 68.

Her husband had not seen the ethical will until her death. She likely wrote it about 10 years ago, after the couple had written their legal will. She had wanted to add some personal things to guide her son and grandchildren, but a lawyer suggested that those kinds of things didn’t belong in a legal will.

“This is the kind of person she was,” Mr. Keller said. “She had in her mind certain things she wanted her grandchildren and her son to think about and to live with at the moment, and this brought all those items to the top.”

Jackie Jacobs, chief executive officer of the Columbus Jewish Foundation, reprinted Keller’s ethical will in his May 19 column for the “Ohio Jewish Chronicle.” He refers to ethical wills as a Jewish custom with roots in the Bible.

“In modern times,” he wrote in the column, “parents still write 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.”

Though they’re Jewish tradition, he said, anyone can write an ethical will. One of the most famous came from tennis great Arthur Ashe, a Christian, whose letter to his daughter Camera is the final, 13-page chapter of his “Days of Grace” memoir.

Riemer’s book includes ethical wills from both well-known and ordinary people, from the Holocaust, from Israel and from contemporary American Jews.

They are not always extensive: One woman, who watched her in-laws fight for years over an estate, wrote a letter that was six sentences long and asked her children to “Be good to each other. Help one another if ‘God forbid’ in need.”

Though many might struggle with where to begin, Riemer suggests that writers contemplate their important life lessons, people who have influenced them, their definitions of true success and specific Jewish teachings that have moved them.

Jacobs said there is growing interest in such wills as more people learn about them. Some people write down their wisdom; others might record it on audio or video.

In the 1990s, Jacobs said, the foundation introduced a similar concept, the Endowment Book of Life, in which donors explained their motives for leaving charitable bequests to benefit future generations.

Keller’s ethical will of about 700 words was read at her funeral. Her husband said the words meant a lot to their grandchildren, ages 18, 16 and 14.

She wrote of their great-great grandfather, David Gershowitz, who came to America with his wife, Eva, to flee persecution in Russia.

“Hitler tried to wipe out Judaism. All Jews who live today and practice their faith are survivors,” she wrote to her grandsons. “Carry out the tradition — be a proud Jew.”

To her son she wrote: “I have accomplished many things in my career — but my greatest success in life is you. … 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.”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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