Monday, July 27, 2015 on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, Bill Cohen interviewing Joyce Garver Keller.
INTERVIEWER: Ok, we’re at the home of Joyce Garver Keller in Bexley, Ohio, and the date is Monday, July 27th, something like that…
INTERVIEWER: 2015. Joyce, they always like to get a little bit of family background. Can you just tell us the names of your parents and perhaps just some background on them or your grandparents? Where are your historical roots?
INTERVIEWER: Ok. Well, I was born in Cleveland and my father died when I was three. My mother and I lived first with my grandparents and my uncles and then with my aunt and uncle and her family in Cleveland Heights. My mother remarried when I was thirteen and brought me a year later a sister but because there’s such a big difference in our ages, we really lived separate lives, because by the time she was three, I was out of the house, so it’s kind of like we have siblings but we’re only children if that makes any sense.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s get the names of your parents.
KELLER: Ok, so my grandparents were David and Eva Gershovitz and they came from Latvia in, I think, the 1920’s on a ship in steerage where my grandfather talked about the banging of the anchor made it very difficult to sleep. It’s one of those stories I remember that he told. He was a wonderful storyteller. My mother’s name is Zelda and my father’s name was Landis and my step-father’s name was Garver, and obviously I never knew my dad, Sanford Landis, because like I said, he died when I was three years old so, the only dad that I knew was, I never thought of him as my step-father but rather as my dad because thirteen, you know, you’re a person at thirteen and I think you have a different kind of relationship with your parents then. I went to Cleveland Heights High School as did Steven, my husband, Steven Keller, although we never knew each other in high school because the school was so large. There were four thousand students in the school and we were actually not in the same class. Steven graduated, we had what was called split sessions so I graduated in June and he graduated in January, so, for whatever reason we never really got to know each other. I went to Kent State for a year. I didn’t like it. I got very interested in the beginning of the protest against the War in Viet Nam, left school. That’s when I met my husband, Steven Keller, in Cleveland, actually at Corky’s and Lenny’s, which is a famous sandwich shop in Cleveland where the kids would hang out together. People would go out on dates and then end up at Corky’s and Lenny’s which, I guess, was better than ending up at a bar, so, it was sort of looking back an interesting aspect of us who were apparently, like most Jews not drinkers but rather eaters, fresssers as my bubbe of blessed memory would say. Steven and I got married very quickly.
INTERVIEWER: What year are we talking about? You graduated high school…
KELLER: …1965, and Steven and I met in 1967 and got married in 1968 and Stuart Keller came along at the end of mid-September of 1968 and Steve and I had a little apartment on, off of Coventry Road which was a place where there were old Jewish people, old Jewish people and hippies, so that was kind of an interesting place to live and that’s where we lived and in 1970 we moved to Columbus because Steven decided…he had started at Ohio State and then left and he decided he wanted to come back and finish his education so we came back to Columbus and Steven started part-time at Ohio State and working part-time and keep going?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. What were you doing in 1970?
INTERVIEWER: Well, I was being a mother to Stuart and picking up some part-time jobs and here and there, you know, telephone work or something. The first real job I guess I had in Columbus was working at the American Civil Liberties Union. I met Benson Wolman. There was an opening for some kind of a membership clerk, someone to keep track of, we didn’t have computers back then, when so people sent him dues, you sliced open the envelope and you had a card and you wrote the dollar amount someplace and you stuck the card, and you filed it alphabetically and then the money went in to go to the bank, and I remember there was a lot of push-back because he thought I would be bored that that wasn’t a significant enough job for me, but I was fascinated by the work that they did and so, and I adored Benson. He was a real inspiration to me and we had no family here. I mean our whole family lived in Cleveland, my grandparents and aunts and uncles and my mom and dad and sister, and so, they, you know, whenever there was a holiday, you know, they would always invite us to join their family at their house at the holiday meals and certainly any meal at Benson and Geri Wolman’s house was a meal with extraordinary food and especially great wine.
INTERVIEWER: Now talk a little bit about your work with the ACLU. This interview of course is for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. The ACLU is not a Jewish organization but there is somewhat of a Jewish link. The membership of the ACLU has got to be hugely disproportionately Jewish…
INTERVIEWER: …not the majority perhaps but much more than our two or three percent in the population.
INTERVIEWER: Talk about that. You had mentioned both being Jewish and being very active with that.
KELLER: I mean, it was very interesting. I mean, it became even more interesting when I left the, when I took my job at Ohio Jewish Communities because sometimes what one might call ACLU types would write in and say, “We should be doing x, y, and z,” and I would respond, “We are not the ACLU. That’s a job for them to do, not a job for us to do,” so, I think you’re right. The representation, the membership, and the leadership of the ACLU – I’ll speak to the ACLU of Ohio was very much Jewish, whether it was people from Cleveland or Cincinnati or Columbus, or Toledo, Dayton, whatever community, most of the board members were Jewish and again I think it comes from liberal values that so many of us were raised with and the union activities and organizing and peoples’ rights and labor rights and civil rights that drew us to this kind of organization that was about Constitutional rights and I remember that the sort of personal crisis came when there was a march on Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, by the KKK and the number of Jews who wrote in and said, “ How could you represent those people and sitting and talking to Benson to help understand how could we represent those people.
INTERVIEWER: Represent them in terms of…
KELLER: the Klan
INTERVIEWER: …the legal right to march.
KELLER: That’s right, the right to march, and the fact that in their marching in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, maybe something similar to marching in Bexley where there is a large concentration of Jews and Jewish institutions, that just seeing the Klan with their signs and what they represented was distressing to the Jewish population many of whom were Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors, and coming to understand that sometimes you have to protect the rights of people you hate in order to protect your own rights, but it was certainly challenging at the time because people had such strong feelings. Other issues were easier to deal with, issues like the death penalty, because, I think, again, among the Jewish community there are many who feel that there is something flawed in the system as to whether or not there should be a death penalty on the books or other kinds of issues – books, whether books should be banned in schools and speech and so forth, but working there was very interesting and perhaps the most significant part of my work there was actually Benson taking me over to the Statehouse and having me watch him lobby members of the General Assembly and becoming a lobbyist, I mean, understanding where the bill room was, where the committee hearings were, where the sessions were held, and becoming engaged in that and watching him speak to organizations and I think that that was probably… planted the seeds for my success at Ohio Jewish Communities.
INTERVIEWER: Before we get to your career, your very long and honored career with Ohio Jewish Communities, talk a little bit about in the 1970’s, what do you remember of the Jewish community, what did you have, what institutions did you deal with, what synagogues, what businesses, what are your memories of the 1970’s or 80’s?
KELLER: Well, again, the seventies, well the seventies were very much entrenched in the war in Viet Nam and the conflict between the government and people protesting against the war and people protesting against the protesters who protested against the war. So, Steve and I were very involved in that and in politics, in public officials and candidates for office that were also engaged in that. We were certainly no fans of Richard Nixon, and, although I do remember his coming to Columbus to speak at some, probably some political fundraiser or something and our driving out to the airport and joining people lining the streets with signs, anti-war signs protesting Nixon, but it was very interesting to me. When his, the limousines, his motorcade began to come by, suddenly there was the seal of the President of the United States. I remember thinking very differently about it because suddenly it was the office of the President and not Richard Nixon. It gave me pause for a moment, just a moment because I’d felt so strongly that he was leading America down a very, very bad path. Steven and I joined Temple Israel and we joined Temple Israel because the rabbi at the time, and I’m sad to say I don’t’ remember the rabbi’s name. It was a number of rabbis ago, but he was very politically active. He was someone who gave sermons about the war, gave sermons about civil rights, about women’s rights, about responsibility and very liberal things. We considered ourselves at the time to be very liberal and we were really drawn to him, plus, geographically, it was close. We’d grown up in the Conservative Movement. When I lived in Cleveland I went to what was then called the Temple on the Heights or Heights Temple which now is in Beachwood or Pepper Pike, I think, and is called Bnai Yeshurun and I remember going back to Cleveland from Ohio Jewish Communities and finding the synagogue, actually finding my confirmation picture hanging on the wall and thinking, wow, who knew it had a Hebrew name? So, ‘cause the Movement at the time was Parks Synagogue, Heights Temple and so forth and now all the synagogues go by their Hebrew names or more of them are integrating their…
INTERVIEWER: …which symbolizes, does that symbolize something?
KELLER: I don’t know. It just, I think it’s an interesting observation, so, but we, I’m not sure why we didn’t go to Tifereth. Again, it was so far from where we lived. I know that sounds like a crazy thing, but anyways, we belonged to Temple Israel, and I think, like a lot of parents at the time, we really seriously began thinking about joining a congregation as our son began to get older and we knew we wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, so, I think again, that’s another interesting phenomena. I think sometimes it’s unfortunate that people don’t join a congregation until they need a service from it and then their kids get bar mitzvahed or bat mitzvahed and sometime they walk away because they feel they don’t need those services anymore and that somehow magically the congregation, the building will survive without them, but anyway we went to Temple Israel. That’s where our son had his bar mitzvah. My husband Steven finished his, did not finish at Ohio State because being a part-time student, a university of that size does not lend itself to `people being a night-time student. I mean, not every class is offered so, he left. He went to Franklin University and then to Ohio Dominican and graduated. I remember it was kind of a joke about this nice Jewish boy going to this Catholic school, at that time much smaller than it is now, and with the nuns very visible and very much involved in, more looking like nuns than, I thin, nuns look like today. And then Steven decided he wanted to go to law school so I worked at the ACLU, and Steven had a job working at a small business. He went to Capital at night and you know we had our son. I would feed him dinner and then I would set the table and get everything ready for my husband and drive downtown because we had one car. We had a VW Bug because, you know, that’s just what our life style was at the time, and I would wait with a lot of other women, you know, wives, a few husbands, for their spouses to come out of their law school classes and drive home and have dinner and then he would study and Stuart would go to bed. Yeah, it was, I thought a fabulous life. We were very happy.
INTERVIEWER: So, your memories of Jewish institutions in the seventies was a strong link with politics and civil rights and the anti-war movement.
KELLER: Yes. Yes.
INTERVIEWER: It all went together in your mind.
KELLER: Yes, I mean, it was very important for us to actually have those things be immersed in each other. I remember having a conversation with a friend who was Catholic and her distress over being in a religion in terms of women’s rights and abortions and so forth that was disconnected from how she felt about so many issues and I remember thinking to myself how, gee, how sad that was and how lucky I was to have been born Jewish and not have had that struggle, that I felt my secular life and what I cared about and what I was engaged with connected so strongly to my religious life. Now again, it’s like anything else. It depends on what track you’re in in your religious life and your secular life and how you view things. Again, I’ve come to understand as we pick quotes out of the Torah to use in things, in speeches that we give that like everything else you can pick those words out to comfort people, or to terrorize them depending on your view of things, but anyway, yeah, I felt very much so. I still do.
INTERVIEWER: Any memories of other Jewish institutions in Columbus in the seventies and eighties, businesses, synagogues…
KELLER: When we first came, one of the things we felt was…growing up in Cleveland seemed so Jewish. We lived in Cleveland Heights, University Heights. The majority of kids we went to school with were Jewish. The school closed on the Holidays. You went in to stores, you know, you went in to the local drugstore to buy your Rosh Hashanah cards or your yahrzeit candle. You didn’t have to go Frank’s Book Store which was the Jewish book store but even that was very close. When we moved to Columbus, now we didn’t live in Bexley. We couldn’t have afforded to live in Bexley. We felt, where was the Jewishness? We didn’t see, I mean, there were all the Christmas things, but where were the Hanukah signs? You, I remember going in to a store to ask for a yahrzeit candle and they asked if those were the dripless ones or things like that. I mean, I think it’s changed a lot now. There are a lot more stores with Jewish holiday cards and so forth but at the time it didn’t seem like that, so we went to the JCC because we thought it would be important for our son to go to camp there, that that would be a nice thing for the summer and, but, again, we were very young. I mean, we were in our twenties and working part-time. Our jobs that didn’t pay very well and we had school tuition and so, we were struggling like I think a lot of middle class people struggled. The JCC was incredible. They said, “Absolutely, you know, he can go to camp here for free. You have to be a member and we’ll charge you $25 for your family to join the JCC and then your son can go to camp here for free,” and I was so taken by their generosity that years later when Steven would say when the JCC bill would come for membership and he’d say, “Why do you keep joining the JCC? We never go. The only time you’re there is for a meeting. You know, we’re both busy now and our son is grown and whatever and doesn’t live in the house anymore. Why do you keep paying that JCC membership?” and I said because when we came here and we had nothing, they gave to us and so we give to them so they can give to the next generation of people who come knocking on their door, and I feel very strongly about that. The same thing with the synagogue, when people say to me, you know when they do surveys of the community and people say that they can’t afford to join a synagogue, I think, no, how can that be? We went to a synagogue and said, “Listen, this is what we make, this is what we have, this is how we live but we want to belong,” and they said, “Of course, so you pay what you can afford.” So, yeah, I don’t’ buy that people can’t. Look, yes, we didn’t have kosher home at the time so that wasn’t an expense. When we moved to Bexley, we decided we wanted to have a kosher home, so, things certainly changed in our life as we progressed together but, I think people can participate and have a…in Jewish institutions and the fact that they don’t have money, yeah, I just don’t buy that. I think the institutions, my experience is the institutions have been and continue to be very open, so maybe it’s people’s definition of what poverty is, like “I took the cruise this year so I can’t afford to pay the temple dues.”
INTERVIEWER: So, you lived, when you moved to Columbus, where did you live before you moved to Bexley?
KELLER: Well, when we first moved to Columbus we lived in a complex that doesn’t exist anymore. It was off of James Road. I don’t remember actually what the development was called but, it was referred to as “Uzi Alley.” They’re now building an Afri-Centric High School or something in that area but it was the cheapest place to live on the east side and of course, we’re Jews. We have to live on the east side of town.
INTERVIEWER: This was near the corner of Maryland and James.
KELLER: Correct, yes, sort of in that area, a little farther in but there was a complex. We lived in a basement apartment. Then we decided to buy a house. We were able to save a little money and we bought a house at, near Hamilton and Livingston so we were pretty far out east and that’s when we decided to join Temple Israel.
INTERVIEWER: And then you moved to Bexley what year?
KELLER: Well, interestingly enough we moved to Bexley I would say seventeen years ago, seventeen/eighteen years ago, seventeen years ago, maybe. After, we actually lived in a very small house. We had one child. There was just three of us but, when Stuart got married and began to have children and they lived in Philadelphia and they’d come back and visit, we had no space and we wanted them to stay with us so we could be with our grandchildren so, we actually had to upsize into a larger house so we’d have room for the kids and I very much wanted to live in Bexley. Like I said, we had decided, we had, in 1990, gone to Israel on a mission with the Jewish Federation of Columbus. I had started my job at Ohio Jewish Communities and I was beginning to be more immersed in…there was a lot of growth opportunities that I was taking advantage of in terms of classes, you know, Jewish education classes that rabbis offer here and there around town and so, we decided to buy in Bexley so we could live, we could move back to the shtetl as we had grown up in when we were kids and we did research on synagogues and decided to join Agudas Achim which at that time was affiliated with the Orthodox Movement, although it had family seating. It had a mechitzah minyan and then family seating.
INTERVIEWER: So, you moved from a Reform synagogue, Temple Israel, and moved into an, what was at least then an Orthodox synagogue. Wow.
KELLER: Yes, and continued to maintain relationships, but, mostly I think out of a connection. Rabbi Zinkow had been hired to come there. I had met him, worked with him a little bit when he was at Hillel and I don’t know. I sort of didn’t have the heart to… I mean here’s new rabbi, starts at a temple and then people quit, which is a very bad thing. People might think that’s the reason why so, they have, like an associate membership or something like that.
INTERVIEWER: But, talk just briefly about why did you move from a Reform synagogue to an Orthodox one? That’s a pretty big transition.
KELLER: Well, that’s true. I think a couple reasons. When we made the geographic move we also, and maybe I would say when we upgraded geographically from our little house at Hamilton and Livingston by the fire station and moved to Bexley, we also upgraded religiously. We wanted a kosher home. We wanted to sit down and always make sure we always had Shabbat dinner. We wanted to when we could walk to services or walk to someone else’s home. Again, part of it was, it was just a growth pattern for us including our first visit to Israel. We were very, very moved by that, our first visit to the Kotel, some connection with our ancestors.
INTERVIEWER: What year was that?
KELLER: I think it was in 1990/1991 something like that.
INTERVIEWER: So, that visit to Israel was a spiritual spark.
KELLER: Yes. Yes. I mean, I think the wick of the candle was always there but, yes, I think that, that, that lit it.
INTERVIEWER: Now, talk about your career with Ohio Jewish Communities. That’s the, kind of the coalition of all the Columbus Jewish Federation, the Cleveland Jewish Federation, the big city Federations.
KELLER: So, I came to this job because I worked at the ACLU, and I’m not sure why I left the ACLU but, I think I just felt it was time. There were things, like a lot of jobs, you start to be annoyed at this, that and the other that went on and so, I decided I wanted a change and I went to work for a number of other charities that I worked for – People for the American Way, which was a group started by Norman Lear and again, it had some of the same tones to it. There was a great concern about the censorship movement, you know, people [ the religious?] right who decided that Judy Blume books were evil or Hallowe’en books were evil or other kinds of…Maurice Sendak was evil and that they knew better than you what should be in the libraries of public schools, as well as the televangelists that were very big at that time. Every Sunday you would turn on television and there would be these mega-church broadcasts from ministers who were very political and as it turned out in many cases, very flawed.
INTERVIEWER: Approximately what year are we talking about – early nineties, late eighties?
KELLER: Not the nineties, this would have been probably the eighties. So, they wanted to start a chapter in Ohio and so, I went to work for them. I also worked for a women’s organization during those years ‘cause I worked maybe four years or something for each and they were both funded by the Gund Foundation in Cleveland that I had come to know and so, when they decided to fund something they had actually called me and asked if I wanted to work and help set up the offices. I also did a political campaign. I did the first Dick Celeste – Hugh Dorian campaign. We were not successful in that campaign.
INTERVIEWER: 1978 when Celeste ran first for governor.
KELLER: Maybe that’s why I left the ACLU was to do that campaign. The campaign experience was very interesting. It’s so intense. It just builds and build and builds but the plus side of it is a job that has a beginning and an end. Most things that we do just go on and on. This, you knew you were starting, that the real battle started on Labor Day and it was over on Election Day. After that it was just clean-up so, so, that was very interesting. So, I had a lot of different interesting jobs and when my job with People for the American Way ended, it was just…it was funded as kind of an experiment of how this kind of work would play out on a state level, someone who had sat on, that I had recruited to sit on my local board was a businessman named Bernie Master who owned health clinics that served poor people, people on Medicaid and he offered me a job and I told him I didn’t know anything about health care other than my own or health insurance other than the Blue Cross card I had in my purse, but obviously I was very smart, could learn and he obviously thought so too, and so I went to work for his company for a couple years. They were just…Dick Celeste was governor and he was creating a new kind of health care for people on Medicaid that was a managed care program so, there was a lot of interaction with government and that’s the job he wanted me to have because of my experience, that deal with the regulators and so forth, so, I took that job and again, I think, maybe it was four years or so when they were bought out by a Blue Cross company who didn’t value my work as much as Dr. Master did.
INTERVIEWER: So, we’re talking somewhere around the mid-eighties when Dick Celeste was in his first term as governor, somewhere around there, ok.
KELLER: So, this would have actually been the late eighties. So, my job was over and I had no job and we were talking earlier about being retired and your identity in your job and it was. I mean, every place I went people said, “Oh, so, where do you work?” or “What do you do?” and I had no answer. I had no business card. I had no identity ‘cause I had no job and I couldn’t’ say “homemaker,” ‘cause I had no little kid that I had to take care of, so, that was very distressing so, one day I saw a notice. It could have been in the Cleveland Jewish News which I continued to read even though Steven and I didn’t live there anymore and it was an ad for the Government Affairs Committee of Ohio Jewish Communities and I read the description of it and I thought, oh my gosh, this job has my name on it. This is my job. This is just perfect, so the job was Ohio Jewish Communities represents the eight Jewish Federations in Ohio. It also had other organizations that it worked with like Hadassah and NCJW, the congregations, and so forth, and State of Israel Bonds, etc., and it did government relations and the job involved some research, some writing, lobbying, you know, advocacy, speaking, some traveling around Ohio, to the communities, and, you know, some travel to Washington and so forth and I thought, oh, my, this is my job. I mean, this is, they could just interview me and hire me and I basically told them that. So, I went for an interview, sixteen people or so on this committee that interviewed and I don’t know. It was quite an experience. Cleveland is the largest Jewish community in Ohio and so obviously their say was very important because they wrote a bigger check than the other Jewish communities in funding the organization and the fact, I think, that I knew so much about the Jewish community in Cleveland because I grew up there and I continued to read the Cleveland Jewish News so, I knew that there was a big fight within the community with the Tibor Meat Market which wasn’t kosher enough for some people, and that Bob was having a fight and the need to bring the community together. I mean, it means something to people because everybody wants to be sure that you’re, you understand their needs and their connection, and they hired me to do that job and there were people who thought I’d be there, and the pay was, was embarrassing, but my husband…
INTERVIEWER: …embarrassingly low you’re saying.
KELLER: Right. So, I had come from this corporate job as a vice president of government relations and administration, I don’t know whatever my title was, at a nice salary to suddenly working for this Jewish charity but, my husband reminded me that at the time my income was zero, so, in fact, it was a salary increase and not a decrease, so, it’s always important of how you look at things, and I loved the job. It was amazing. It was everything to me. It was a chance to live out my values, to help Jewish agencies, to help, to have them help Jewish people so that I could help the JCC in Columbus get a grant, a capital grant to expand their childhood section so that more kids could come and they didn’t have to do their own, take their own charitable dollars which meant they could use it to help kids, like they helped my son or, you know, to help when the Friendship Circle, which is now, I think, mostly Lifetown in New Albany, when they were starting to work with special needs kids and they wanted a grant to get money and we couldn’t find any money for kids with special needs for the kind of project and so, I came up with the idea of getting it funded through the Department of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services and [volunteers ?] that you were basically taking kids in high school and college at risk of alcohol and drug abuse and making them mentors to special need kids and therefore they would feel better about themselves and not abuse alcohol and drugs. They…and it was a faith based program, which at that time, Bush was President, it was a very big deal, and they loved the idea and so, we got them their first grant, or Hillel at Kent State University was in a horrible, horrible…remember the year that I went in there. I didn’t even want to go into the Hillel. It was just an awful building and whatever so they had an opportunity to build a brand new Hillel on their campus and I helped get them a capital grant to help pay for part of the building, the first Hillel in the country that ever got a state grant to build their facility. There was funding for our Jewish nursing homes, dealing with Medicaid funding, every time there was a cut sought at the federal or state level to advocate the kind of people that we served, you know, that people come into that home. They spend down all their money and then they have nothing and these are our bubbes and zaydes so, we want them to have the best care. We’re not going to kick them out and we’re not going to cut their care because the Medicaid reimbursement rate goes down, and so we would fight for that. Kosher food is more expensive and we went through a time with kosher home-delivered meals when someone at the Department of Aging came up with the idea that they could save money by no longer paying for the special meal reimbursement for kosher meals and I had to… I got a call from the Cleveland Federation that one of their agencies had been sent this memo telling them that their reimbursement rate was being cut for their kosher meals for the Passport Program and I had to fix it and I did. We got language in a state budget bill, permanent language which continues today that basically identifies these meals as special meals and therefore entitled to a couple dollars more.
INTERVIEWER: So, in other words, the Ohio Jewish Communities, the things you would lobby for, sometimes specific grants of money to Jewish institutions, sometimes…
KELLER: …public policy…
KELLER: …sometimes public policy that dealt with religion and other times just…
KELLER: …just good public policy, so, we would work… I remember being approached early on by the lobbyists for the Catholic Conference of Ohio and the Ohio Council of churches and we called ourselves the “G-d Squad” and we went in to meet together with legislators to talk about poverty issues: food stamps, cash awards, other kinds…job training programs, child-care programs, issues involving mental health or developmental disabilities, what we at the time called mental retardation, now developmental disabilities. We would go in together basically making the argument to people who increasingly identified as religious, as Christian with the Ten Commandments posted on the walls of their offices and reminding them that this was the thing that they should be doing, that they really were religious, that they really believed in the Ten commandments where it says “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother,” that meant not just their own parents but all the older people who had needs and may be subject to elder abuse and there needed to be funding at the county level so that people could go out and investigate that, so, there were a lot of issues that we spoke to that weren’t like anti-Semitism that belonged to us or weren’t like support for Israel which belonged to us, which we had a responsibility. After all, if we don’t speak out for Israel, if we don’t speak out against anti-Semitism, who will, but there was other kind of discrimination. There are other kinds of poverty issues, other kinds of public policy that transcended just the Jewish community but again, came from our faith-based values. I mean, I remember always talking to members of the General Assembly about our Jewish institutions so that the JCC, that the “J” in the JCC was about our mission not about the people we serve because if you go to any Jewish Community Center, you will find lots of people who are sending their kids to the preschool, or sending their kids to camp, or swimming, or working out in the gym, or taking a program, who aren’t Jewish. The kosher congregant meals…in Columbus, for example, you do see people coming in, African-Americans who are coming in from the inner city ‘cause that’s the site of a hot meal, and the fact that it’s a kosher meal, while important to our community, is no negative for them and they enjoy the programming involved as well. Even though there, there is a motzi before the meal, I think, my experience in going to those sites is that people appreciate that fact that that meal is available to them, and having those meals are important. People should, they need home-delivered meals or a congregant meal to not be isolated and get out of their house, so, yes, we had a broad agenda when that comes to that.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned anti-Semitism. In your time in Columbus, did you, have you experienced any what you would call anti-Semitism personally?
KELLER: I think not. Our son did share with us one summer he got a job at the State Fair selling, I think, vacuum cleaners and he came home from that day at work very distressed because a couple had come in and they were looking and had a thousand questions and they were looking and whatever and the man who was in charge of that booth made some kind of comment to Stuart to not pay attention to them because they were Jews and Jews were cheap and they would never end up buying anything or something like that. I think it was probably the first time he had experienced something like that. Obviously the man didn’t know he was Jewish or he wouldn’t have said that and he was distressed because he didn’t know, I mean, he must have been sixteen or seventeen or something at the time, maybe eighteen but, he didn’t know whether he should have confronted him. Should he have…he didn’t say something, and then he felt badly because maybe he should have said something. I think that was probably it. My experiences were more of understanding how people don’t know our community and maybe that’s just true of all religions. Maybe we just have our own ideas in mind because when we dealt with reproductive health issues, most recently, for example, the Heartbeat Bill, something that defines life when the heart beats. Well, our faith, you know, our Jewish law doesn’t define life in the same way that Catholics or Evangelical Christians might define life and when you talk to people about it, they’re like “ Well, you’re such pro-life people. I don’t understand,” or, if you talk about school prayer and why you don’t want it, “Well, but you’re such religious people. You pray all the time.” Yes, but not really in a public school and requiring everybody to say the Shema, or politically, you know, “I don’t understand how Jews can be Democrats,” or, you know, things like that. “I don’t understand why Israel doesn’t just drop a bomb on Gaza and kill everybody.” You know, you try to explain to them that being a light unto the nations is not necessarily the light at the end of a rifle. Sometimes sadly it has to be but I don’t think it’s what G-d had in mind when He gave Israel to us, or why Jews are Democrats and “Why are so many Jews Democrats?” That’s probably the most common question that I would hear as a lobbyist for the Jewish community and again, understanding the history, you know I talked about the liberal values. I mean, I think, we were the people that organized others to get their rights in the Labor Movement. We were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. We were at the forefront of the Women’s Movement. I think all kinds of activities for the rights of people that might be seen as liberal kinds of activities, whether you support them or not, that is very much the history of the Jewish people. I mean, we started out as the workers, I have people point out to me but, today we’re the owners. I’d say, “Well, I hope we haven’t forgotten our history of workers and that we can continue to see life through their eyes.” I did, I actually went to a committee hearing once that was on a bill dealing with workers’ rights and I was with a group of stakeholders. There was somebody from the trial lawyers and somebody from the labor unions and I remember the state senator was chairing the committee and he looked at me and goes, “What are you doing here?” I said, “What do you mean? We’re interested in this bill.” He sais, “But you’re the people who own all the businesses,” and I said, “Well, some of them, but we’re also workers and even as owners we care about the rights of workers,” so, that was very interesting.
INTERVIEWER: Any observations on how the Jewish community in Columbus has changed in the forty-five you’ve been here?
KELLER: Dead silence on the tape while I think how has the community changed. I don’t know. I don’t think there’s…we have more institutions. We now have two Jewish day schools instead of one, but both continue to struggle financially. Jewish Family Services has certainly evolved. When I first came, the doors opened up in the former Soviet Union and Jews were allowed to finally leave and some went to Israel. Many came to the United States and Jewish Family Services was a resettlement agency and so, we had lots of people that came here to Columbus that needed to learn to speak English, needed a place to live, needed to learn how to be part of an American culture that was very different than being a part of the culture that they grew up in in the Soviet Union and so, there was a lot of focus on those kinds of programs. We are not resettling refugees anymore. Most of the Russians that came, many of them have done well, not all of them. I think the focus now has been more on sort of two segments – job training for people who lost their job in the recession and some people continue still to find it difficult to get back on track, and services to seniors. We still have a significant Holocaust population to take care of, many of whom are very poor and have, as they begin to get older and older into their eighties and nineties, to deal with dementia and kind of referred back to living at the time when they grew up, having language issues and memories that aren’t very good and need special care. The growth of Wexner Heritage Village has been significant. Again, we are an aging population. We have people living in to their, you know, hundreds, but again the services we’ve gone in both directions, those that need assisted living that want to be close to their family but don’t need skilled nursing services, as well as the Cottages for people with dementia which is a growing need continuing to add to that. Interest in the JCC, that facility has expanded, not only adding a New Albany site but also expanding the physical campus and its original site. Many of us still mourn the loss of the bowling alley. I never bowled there but I thought it was so cool that the JCC had a bowling alley. It’s true. I mean, the only time I ever get to the JCC is for a meeting of some sort or a rally for Israel or something so, we’ll see how much that changes. So far that hasn’t changed in the two weeks I’ve been retired, but, so, I think institutionally there have been some changes. There’s been a new congregation in Main Street that wasn’t here when we first moved here, a breakaway from Agudas Achim so, but I think the community is strong. I think the rabbis seem to, as they did forty-five years ago, they continue to get along and respect each other. I remember when Temple Israel hired its first woman rabbi and I asked one of the other rabbis, how Rabbi Stavsky, of blessed memory, who was then the leader of the rabbis in Columbus – he was at Beth Jacob Congregation, Orthodox congregation – I said, “ How would, Rabbi Stavsky address this woman rabbi?” and I was told by this other rabbi, I don’t remember who it was a the time but, he said to me we refer to each other by our first names so that does not become an issue for us, and I remember thinking to myself, wow, what a sane Jewish community this is. How smart that is to avoid fighting over something that is so unimportant in terms of the issues that the Board of Rabbis might need to deal with in terms of responding to anti-Semitism and attacks on Israel and so forth, and so, and I think that continues to be the case. I think all the rabbis including the Kollel rabbis. You know, Kollel was not something that existed when we first moved in Columbus and they seem to be…you know, again, everybody struggles. No one will tell you they have too much money or enough money but, everybody seems to be able to be keeping their lights on and it’s fun to see, you know, the brises and the…you know, Jews are still having babies.
INTERVIEWER: This spreading out geographically of the Jewish community has accelerated in the last forty-five years. It used to be Bexley, Berwick, Eastmoor was kind of the heart and there were a few Jews outside there but now, many Jews, as you pointed out, in New Albany and the northwest and everywhere. What’s your analysis of how that has worked positively or negatively?
KELLER: Well, it’s interesting. I feel like New Albany to some extent has become an extension of Bexley, that the people who are there still seem to have a very strong connection to be engaged in the Federation and to be connected to the JCC and institutions. You still see them. In fact, sometimes you get surprised that they live in New Albany because they’re still here. I think there are others who…you know I don’t… again, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland and now live in a Jewish neighborhood in Columbus, so, I haven’t had…I don’t really understand living outside the shtetl. I love being in the shtetl. I love Shabbat and the Holidays with people are walking to the right and to the left going to whatever their shul is. I remember one Shabbat morning when our oldest grandson, Izzy, slept over on a Friday night and we had Shabbat dinner and then Shabbat morning we were going to go to shul together and so this beautiful day and we’re walking to shul and we ran into some people who lived close to Agudas Achim but they were walking to Main Street and we said “Good Shabbos.” “Good Shabbos,” and one of them said, “Joyce, you’re walking in the wrong direction,” and I said, “No, I think any Jew walking toward shul on Shabbos morning is walking in the right direction,” and he said, “How right you are.” So, I like living in the shtetl. I like the…seeing people putting up their sukkahs in their backyards and walking and you know, just even if you don’t know who they are and seeing a sukkah and you know, saying, “ Hey, can I look at your sukkah,” or somebody coming by and saying, “Oh, can I look at your sukkah?” So, I don’t really understand living in Upper Arlington or Hilliard or Pickerington or whatever, but who, what do I know? Who am I to say what, how that person, or somebody living in Victorian village or on campus. I mean, people have to find their own way and maybe, you know, they don’t want to live in the shtetl. Maybe they moved here and didn’t know. I don’t understand why real estate people don’t tell you this is where the Jews live except they’re not allowed to, but it’s a downside I think, if you’re moving here from Chicago and nobody said… but, then I think to myself, well, shouldn’t you have researched where the shuls are? Shouldn’t that have given you a clue that, you know, the kosher food is located here so maybe that’s close to where the Jews lived or the Jewish institutions, but again for some people, it’s the kind of thing of where they’re moving from. I mean, this is, there are people who are lifers. They were born here and they still live here, but there are so many people in Columbus that came from someplace else and so, I don’t know what their experience was in terms of where they grew up and where they might find comfort. If you’re sending your child to private school, then, you know, maybe it doesn’t matter geographically where you’re living.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned Jewish food, so let me ask you, do you have any particular memories of Jewish businesses, for instance, Martin’s?
KELLER: Oh, yes, so, I have a wonderful Martin’s story, so, its, Steven and I go there shopping and it’s before Hanukah and they have like a wall that’s set up with all the, was it Hanukah? They have all the foods set up so I’m looking and I’m shopping and I’m picking out this, that and the other, and some guy walks up to me and he says, “Yiddish? Yiddish?” and I said, “Oh, just really, I really don’t speak Yiddish.” I go and find the young man who was the manager of the store and I ask him if he speaks Yiddish because this man is trying to find something and I tell the man to wait and I bring him over and he says to the guy, you know, “ What are you looking for?” and he says, “Latkes?” Latkes! Latkes, I would have known! I should have asked him what he was looking for! Latkes. Isn’t that a funny story? Yeah. Martin’s was the greatest place because it was like, to me, it was like going back to Corky’s and Lenny’s. So, Corky’s and Lenny’s was the place where Jews went on Sunday to get the corned beef and the this and the that or they went to Davis Bakery and they got the bagels or, you know, Saturday night when Lox and Mandel’s opened up in Cleveland after Shabbos was over and they began baking the breads and the cookies once these people would line up outside Lox and Mandel’s and as soon as Shabbos was over and they began rolling the trays, you know, the carts out with trays on it and you could go in and buy your fresh baked goods from Lox and Mandel’s. I mean, it was a Jewish experience. Martin’s was a Jewish experience. You went in there and you saw Jews. You know, if it was Friday you wished them a “Good Shabbos” or “Shabbat Shalom,” and if it was before Yom Kippur, you wished them an easy fast. You asked them before Pesach what were they doing for seder. Was their family coming here? Were they going to visit their family? How many people are you serving? Now that was it “I’ve got fourteen.” “Fourteen? I’ve got sixteen!” You know. So, yeah it was. I remember when it closed. It was so sad to me, that that part of the experience was lost. Again, maybe other people don’t need that. I thought it was great. I thought it was wonderful but, yeah, you can’t keep your business doors open just on people coming and schmoozing with each other, so…
INTERVIEWER: We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything you’d like to leave us with or any thoughts you have on the Jewish community you haven’t…that the questions haven’t led you into? Anything you want to leave people with?
KELLER: No, I think it’s a wonderful community. Look, one of the things, I spent the last twenty-five years and really longer when you look at the other jobs that I had, of being an advocate and being willing to speak out for things, not just…you know, we’re great at kvetching. I mean, we have, we’re a Jew we have a kvetch gene. We could sit table, we could sit at Starbucks and have coffee and, “Oh, my gosh. What is Obama doing? I don’t know what’s wrong. What was he thinking about this Iran deal? This is really terrible,” and you say, “Did you write a letter?” “No, what would be the point of it?” Well, to me there is a point of it. I think back to Purim and I think back to Queen Esther. She’s my hero. So, Queen Esther was asked by her uncle to speak out on behalf of the Jews, to save her people, at great risk to herself. The king could have killed her. He could have said, “What, you’re a Jew? Off with your head,” but, he responded to her request to save her people. She was one person and she made a difference. Well, I think each of us have the opportunity to make a difference and we should. People say to me, “Well, you know, I don’t know,” same thing at shul on Saturday. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do about this.” “ Well, have you called or written your member of Congress?” “ No,” and I said, “Well, that’s something that you can do.” “You really think it’ll matter?” and I said, “Well, if you don’t speak out, for sure they’ll not hear it. For sure it won’t make a difference. There’s always the chance.” Listen we are people that have to believe in miracles. Any man who does not believe in miracles is not a realist. Could Israel exist if we didn’t believe in miracles? Could Jews still be around? I mean, look. What’s every holiday about, we joke? They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat. I mean, it’s true. We believe in miracles. We are survivors but, we have to be responsible for ourselves and others. We have to put our own mask on first and then help our neighbor.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a good way to end this interview. We’ve been talking with Joyce Garver Keller in her home in Bexley, for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. Thank you very much.
Transcribed by Linda Kalette Schottenstein