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You Can't Govern From the Grave

You Can't Govern From the Grave

Max Feinberg tried to guarantee his family's Jewish lineage by drafting a will with a monetary sanction against intermarriage. It didn't work.


Everyone is familiar with Benjamin Franklin's famous adage that the only things absolute in life are death and taxes. Even though many high-priced trust and estate lawyers claim that they can eliminate one of those items, the certainty of death has assuredly not yet been eliminated.

The only other certain thing in life is uncertainty. We are all trying to control the variables in our lives to the best of our abilities. But as much as we would like to view life through a prism of black and white, we live in the dominant spectrum of gray.

We try to balance life's pressures and navigate a course of action through the tangled labyrinth of our days. The pressures facing us are enormous and multitudinous. We all have financial pressures, medical pressures, family pressures, social pressures and employment pressures. Even the most fortunate among us does not escape insecurity in at least one of these areas.

Religion, belief in God, and its accompanying rituals provide many people with a pillar of steadiness in a shaky world. For many Jews, the Torah provides the detailed blueprint for living our lives.

We will soon be celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, commemorating the Jewish people's 40-year journey in the desert and their entry into the Promised Land.

The dominant symbol of Sukkot is the sukkah, a fragile, temporary dwelling that is constructed without deep, lasting foundations and is easily movable, assembled and disassembled. The symbolism is powerful. Each one of us is on a transient journey in life. No matter how much we think we are in control of events that surround us, we are all subject to the shifts in weather and the economy. The idea that we can control the present, let alone the future, is a delusion.

The futility of trying to control other people and manipulate them into adhering to our belief system has been highlighted in recent months in the news. Ron Grossman, of The Chicago Tribune, and Pauline Dubkin Yearwood, of the Chicago Jewish News, have both written powerful accounts of the events surrounding the plight of the late Max Feinberg, a Chicago dentist who died in September 1986 at the age of 77.

Feinberg was a child of immigrants with a strong work ethic who saw patients seven days a week. He was also a savvy stock investor who made a lot of money. He was proud of his Judaism and hoped that his grandchildren would carry on his Jewish heritage.

Max's life trajectory was not too different from other Jews of his generation. He was a traditional Jew, but made a few compromises in his strict observance (like working on Shabbat) in order to advance in life. Nevertheless, he belonged to several synagogues, socialized with many Jews, and both his son and daughter married within the faith. He probably assumed that Jewish tradition would be transmitted to his children and grandchildren through osmosis. Since his parents, grandparents and great grandparents had a deep connection to Judaism, there was no reason for Max to believe that his grandchildren would be different.

As he grew older and witnessed the impact of rampant assimilation and intermarriage ravaging the Jewish community, he became very frightened. When Max learned that his grandson had taken a non-Jewish girl to his high-school prom, it propelled him to act. It is reported that Max put a provision in his will that explicitly prohibited any of his descendants from receiving their share of his multi-million dollar estate if they married a non-Jewish spouse who had not converted to Judaism.

In the past 20 years, four of Max's five grandchildren have married non-Jews. In a flurry of suits and countersuits within the family that have resulted over the division of the estate, some of Max's grandchildren have attempted to set aside the Jewish marriage provision in Max's will.

Forget the trust fund. Give your descendants a Jewish education.
Max Feinberg made a fundamental error in judgment. He felt that he could control the future and govern from the grave. He felt that he could guarantee his family's Jewish lineage by drafting a will with a monetary sanction. But, after vicious internecine legal battles, an Appellate Court in Illinois recently ruled that the will's marriage provision is "contrary to public policy" and thus invalid.

Appellate Justice Alan Grieman issued a powerful dissent, stating, "Max and Erla [his wife] had a dream with respect to the provisions of their will and if you will it, it is no dream." Other states have upheld such intermarriage provisions. Nevertheless, as it awaits Illinois Supreme Court review, the ruling remains the current law in Illinois. Barring a reversal by the Illinois Supreme Court, the intermarried grandchildren will ultimately receive Max's money.

When young people have no connection with their Jewish spirituality, it's impossible to mandate marriage within the fold. Had Max and others like him invested the bulk of their funds in a meaningful Jewish education and insisted that their grandkids attend a Jewish day school, they would have accomplished the goal of having their Jewish legacy continue.

Love of religion, connection to God, and love of other human beings must be generated internally and projected outwardly. It is not something that one person can tell another to do, but something that each one of us must feel.

It is wonderful to transmit money, social standing, comfort and a good name to our children and our children's children. But sometimes family fortunes are lost and social standing diminishes. Each one of our worlds is as unstable and exposed as a sukkah. Ultimately, the only thing that matters, the thing that will endure beyond the grave and govern future generations, is our Torah and connection to God. Only by transmitting the spiritual teachings of our tradition can we prop up the fragile sukkahs of our own lives and build a deep and enduring foundation for the future.

This article originally appeared in The World Jewish Digest.

October 10, 2008

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 16

(16) Ronni, November 5, 2008 12:05 PM

No Tolerance

In our very tolerant society Jewish parents think it's o.k. to bring home non-Jewish friends and that is just the beginning of a slippery slope so don't be surprised when the inevitable happens since your child knows that eventually you will accept their non-Jewish spouse just like you did everything else (disregarding a couple of weeks of ranting and raving). Beyond that however why should they marry someone Jewish when all you ever celebated was Passover (and that was more about the food than anything spiritual) and made him a bar-mitzvah(which was really all about the dancing and the presents and again without a true understanding of his obligations since you haven't held to them yourself)? Live a real Jewish life as the strictly orthodox do and you won't have these nightmares and stop believing all the ridiculous lies told about how women are treated, sexuality, etc. It would be good to contact a Rabbi from a Torah observant synagogue or Rebbetzin Jungreis from Hineni in NY.

(15) Chana Sharfstein, October 19, 2008 8:29 AM

Our right to distribute our money should be upheld

We work hard all our lives and certainly should have the right to spend our money as we see fit. Personally in my will I have made it very clear that there will be no funds for anyone who marries "out". My grandchildren are aware of that. I want them to know how important it is to me that our beautiful heritage continue through them. I offer them vacations/tours to Israel but my daughter-in-law won't allow that as she is afraid of possible dangers. I have offered to bring them to New York for vacations and the children would love to come but are discouraged by aunts from mother's side. It makes me realize how important it is to guide our children to marry not only Jews, but Jews with strong feelings of heritage. as grandparents we are limited in what we can do. We hope and pray. But I will not allow any grandchild to benefit financially if they do not wish to follow in our ways. That money shall be provided for funds for poor Jewish brides and grooms. Let's fervently hope that Hashem will guide our offspring in the right direction.

(14) JRG, October 18, 2008 11:29 PM

The parents' behavior is the key

My daughter attended a college where there is a high percentage of Jewish students, where she nevertheless ended up in a serious relationship with a non-Jew in their freshman year. As the relationship progressed - and my relationship with my daughter deteriorated as a result - things finally came to a head when she wanted to bring him home with her to meet us, her parents. We allowed it - but his first time here was for Passover. He entered the house and immediately understood why the situation was so tense. Everywhere he looked was Judaica of some sort (and our house has been like that for a long time, this was not a sudden change) and he plainly saw the kitchen "changed over" for Pesach. We involved him in the seder as we took turns reading from the Hagaddah, explaining the unfamiliar as we went along. And I'm sure this young man, who is very bright and acutely aware of his surroundings, noticed the numerous books about Judaism (including one called, "Why Marry Jewish?") on the bookshelf near the pull-out sofabed in the basement where he slept. To make a long story short, he came to us months later and told us he intended to convert - "and not just because of your daughter," he added. His upbringing was only casually Christian, at our home he found the family-centered faith he had apparently been unconsciously looking for. He did indeed study and convert, mikvah and circumcision and all. His family supported his decision. And we adore him and are very proud of him! But the point here is that if the children do not see Judaism in the home, expressed and practiced and cared about by the parents, then the children will not get the message. You can tell them until you're blue in the face, but they smell hypocrisy when it's "do as I say, not as I do." Now my son is in college and knows he will someday marry a Jewish girl - because he remembers what happened in our house and understands the pain and friction it caused. I'd like to add that much is written about how to deal with intermarriage, and much less about how to prevent interdating. Hardly ANYTHING is written about how to deal with a child's boyfriend or girlfriend WHILE they are in the process of converting! It is like walking on thin ice - after distrusting this person vehemently for so long, how do you now relate to him or her honestly? Luckily for us, we gradually, cautiously grew more accepting and ultimately developed a great relationship, but it was not an easy process. (For any of us - we sensed his nervousness as well.) There is no guide for this potential minefield of emotions - perhaps there should be?

(13) Anonymous, October 14, 2008 5:54 PM

There are no guarantees.

Even if one does ensure that there is a connection with one's children's Jewish spirituality, and that one invests in a meaningful Jewish education, and a Jewish day school, there are no guarantees. We did those things, celebrated the holidays, sent each of our sons on a trip to Israel, lived in a Jewish community where most of their friends were Jewish and yet we could not stop our son from marrying a non-Jewish girl although they now observe both cultures. We will try our best to instill Jewish values in our grandkids and make sure that they are aware of their Jewish roots so hopefully the Jewish legacy continues.

(12) michelson, October 14, 2008 9:47 AM

still write your will as you please for this reason

for the most part, the Illinois decision is irrelevant to you the reader except to aware you that you must insist to your attorney he write it as you say or want. If you write "no child or grandchild or offspring may share in my estate if they intermarry to a non Jew", then that is the way the executor must administer it. And from the sounds of this case, that is the way the trustee must administer it, as regards grandchildren, and already did administer it for the children. That is the way the family lawyer must act. So for the excluded Jew who married out, he must take to court the trustee decision to exclude him, and pay for that and the appeal. The unfortunate jest to your article is that you can't write it in your will. Please do write it in your will as an expression of your Jewish heritege and for the write to do as you see fit with your money. For the most part it will be upheld. In this case for the 2 children it was held, and for 4 of 5 grandchildren it was accepted. Now the one has caused a different division, by the appeal. If it were divided only 6 ways before now it will be divided 7. That persons costs will likely be greater than the monies he gets. Important point is if you now do not write it in your will, because your lawyer tells you it is against public policy, you will rob yourself of the right to give your money to whom you say and to preserve your Jewish heritage by what ever means you see fit. Many lawyers will wrongly deter you or will not write it in. Get another lawyer.

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