The Ethical Will, Embodied: American Jewish Museums and the Women Who Created Them

By Ariel Paige Cohen

We are on the precipice of the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in human history. Over the course of the next 10 years alone, at least $4.1 trillion is expected to change hands from American baby boomers to their millennial and Gen Z children. The United States is currently the country with the most ultra-high net worth individuals, and individuals account for four out of every five philanthropic dollars in the United States (foundations and corporations account for the other 20%). Additionally, of all ethnic groups in North America, Jews give the most to charity per capita as of 2016 reports by Giving USA.[1] As a result, many of those who will be giving wealth to and receiving wealth from their loved ones over the course of the coming decades are, or might become, Jewish philanthropists – that is, self-identifying Jews who are donors, and/or people who give to Jewish organizations and causes. 

History is informing these donors’ giving practices even if individuals aren’t always aware of it. Some scholars are exploring the ways in which philanthropy has defined the twentieth-century evolution of the American Jewish community, including Lila Corwin Berman in her new book, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex. These important studies show us the processes from history that created the present giving landscape. But the “ethical will” concept and the legacy of cultural philanthropy are both largely ignored in American Jewish studies, and both are vital keys to understanding the history of American Jewish philanthropy as a whole. This article offers two American Jewish museums as case studies for the ways in which the built environment can serve as an embodied version of the ethical will. Perhaps with a greater understanding of the history of American Jewish philanthropy, complete with intergenerational transfers of ethical values and the history of American Jewish museums, the next generation of donors will be empowered to lean on the tools and traditions of Jewish history in their own giving. Further, because Jewish cultural philanthropy was first envisioned by women, this history urges a move toward gender equity in the narrative of Jewish philanthropy. Let us examine what these intertwined histories of Jewish ethical wills and American Jewish museums have to offer us. 

The first Jewish museums in our country with their own independent addresses were created by women in New York and in Boston. Through their visionary writings and donations, these two philanthropists, one a wealthy German Jewish heiress and the other an educated middle-class rebbetzin, promoted a vision that left an indelible mark on American Jewish identity and that shaped the earliest Jewish museums in North America. By creating the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue (famously still extant today) and the historical Jewish Museum of Boston, Frieda Schiff Warburg and Mignon Levine Rubenovitz wrote their own ethical wills, reclaiming and reinventing a masculinized practice from medieval Judaism.

Left: Entrance hall of the Warburg mansion, as it was originally furnished. Right: the entrance as it appears today as the Jewish Museum’s Skirball Lobby; installation view from the exhibition Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Valeska Soares, November 6, 2015-April 25, 2016. Photo by: David Heald.

The ethical will hails from the men of medieval Jewish communities primarily residing in France and Germany. Leaning on biblical precedent, the first medieval writers of ethical wills used Genesis 48 as a template for their own writings and cited it as a binding decree for fathers to write “moral exhortations” for their children.[2] In Genesis, Jacob gathers his sons and grandchildren before his death and says: 

May the G-d before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the G-d who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm – may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly on the earth. (Genesis 48:16).

In medieval Europe, ethical wills were written exclusively by Jewish fathers to their children. Designed for private, familial use and written in informal language, they revealed the emotional composition – fears, hopes, dreams, frailties – of the author. As Stefanie Siegmund has shown, some ethical wills hailing from the Spanish inquisition commanded readers to do business honestly, wear special clothes on the Sabbath and other occasions, honor one’s body, and practice sexual modesty. As Jacob Marcus has uncovered, some from fourteenth century Germany discuss charity, refraining from speaking out of turn, reciting blessings, and living in primarily Jewish neighborhoods. As Israel Abrams has demonstrated, some ethical wills even enter into Jewish philosophical debates and command children to adhere to one leader or another (for example, Maimonides).

The ethical will was scantly present in the later early modern Jewish communities but has not disappeared from the Western world. During industrialization in the 1880s, wealthy Americans, Christian and Jewish, revived the concept, writing ethical wills as detailed estate plans to be used by their families after their deaths. In the early 20thcentury, chaplains and caretakers for patients in hospice began to help men and women compose ethical wills orally or in writing as a comfort to the dying and an offering to the living. American celebrity physician Dr. Andrew Weil now defines ethical wills as documents of intergenerational spiritual healing, bridging gaps between parents and their sons and daughters. 

In 1926, the first-ever compilation of Hebrew ethical wills was published in the United States by the Jewish Publication Society.[3] During this interwar period, as many American Jews became middle-class, they confronted massive societal changes and decentralized communities. The immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 dramatically decreased the number of Jewish immigrants, and successful American Jews began searching for the instruments of community that would not only keep Jewish global heritage alive but could creatively remake it with each generation. Frieda Schiff Warburg, named JTS’s first female board member in 1937, began to consider creative ways to commemorate and breathe life into the global Jewish experience of millennia past, and to pass Jewish history and ethics on from her own generation to the next. 

 In January 1944, Frieda Schiff Warburg wrote a seminal letter to the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary announcing her donation of the Warburg family’s three-story Gothic mansion on the corner of 92nd street and Fifth Avenue. She envisioned her home as a museum:

With the consent of my children, I am now ready and glad to offer my former home… to the Jewish Seminary of America to be used as a Museum… I would like my gift to be [remembered as]… my affirmation of my faith in the fundamental principles of our Jewish Traditions, which can be helpful and constructive in the problems of the World Today… It gives me great happiness to think that the house… should now continue to live on to further the ideals of our family traditions.

Schiff Warburg’s correspondences and 1956 memoir reveal that she imagined the Jewish Museum as an ethical will to her own children and grandchildren as well as to the American people. When Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, which is often cited as a second template for the ethical will, he predicted their successes if they adhered to G-d’s ethical code. Similarly, in her writings Frieda Schiff Warburg predicted the open-mindedness and successes of the Jews and Americans who would walk through the halls of her former home. Invoking her children and future grandchildren in her letters and speeches leading up to the opening event, Schiff Warburg clarified her mission: to steer future Americans in the directions of cultural pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and artistic richness. 

 In Boston, there was another American Jewish woman moved to display Jewish objects as pleas to present and future Jews to pass along values from one generation to another. Motivated more by fear, loss and devastation than her distal friend Schiff Warburg, Rebbetzin Mignon Levine Rubenovitz of Boston’s prominent Conservative outpost Temple Mishkan Tefila called upon American Jews to “rescue Jewish history from the broken hands of those who live under the malignant skies of Europe.” Levine Rubenovitz began to collect objects and to write about a future Jewish Museum in Boston when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1940, she founded her museum as a model of the “great responsibility” of American Jews: to liberate Jewish objects from Europe and guard them in the United States on behalf of world Jewry. In other words, her museum was her own version of an ethical will, too, pleading for American Jews to keep Jewish ritual objects safe for future generations. In her founding museum document, she wrote: 

Perhaps I have told you enough to convey our underlying purposes – the quiet, painstaking salvaging of the symbols of Jewish values, of Jewish idealism and dignity, at a time when millions of our innocent and unoffending coreligionists were ground into the dust. Here a precious few of Jewish treasures are treasured: Jewish aspirations made concrete. While the guns roared in Europe where our people, martyred, fed the flames, we unceasingly pursued our peaceful task of succoring, albeit in small measure, the things they wrought to express their belief in the sacredness of human personality and its corollary, the faith that freedom would not, must not, perish from the earth.

Now, in 2020, as Jewish elders prepare to leave our earth, many are concerned with imparting their legacies and inherited Jewish values to the next generation. Several years ago, a group of Jews got together to form the Jewish Future Pledge which calls upon all Jewish donors to give 50% of their philanthropy to Jewish causes. American Jews are increasingly turning to outside organizations for help in facilitating conversations with their children, who they hope will be next-generation givers to Jewish causes. Many fear a looming loss of Jewish history, culture, and practice in next-generation America. Some want to invest in the Jewish non-profits that will serve and maintain community for generations to come.

Some Jews are now also reviving an ancient and medieval Jewish concept to pass along their ethics to their children. The ethical will, filled with spiritual, religious, and ethical significance to the Jewish people specifically, is serving a renewed purpose in families and private spheres as we prepare for the world’s largest-ever transition of intergenerational wealth. One might wonder whether the next Frieda Schiff Warburg or Mignon Rubenovitz is on the horizon to explore the ethical will through an altogether new modality. As more ethical wills are being written in the traditional style – with words on paper – I am curious to see whether more will be written in nontraditional styles that set precedent for future Jewish ventures. I predict that women, again, will imagine them. 


Ariel Paige Cohen was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in the Fall of 2020. She spoke about “Feminine Power in the History of American Jewish Museums” in September, 2020.


[1] https://givingusa.org/just-released-giving-usa-special-report-on-giving-to-religion/

[2] I. Abrahams, “Jewish Ethical Wills,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 3, no. 3 (1891): 436–84, https://doi.org/10.2307/1450009, 448.

[3] Israel Abrahams,צואות גאוני ישראל (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1926).