Joyce Garver Keller

Joyce Garver Keller, who died May 2, joined architect Daniel Libeskind, Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, and Ohio Sen. Chris Widener in 2013 at the groundbreaking for the Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial in Columbus.

Accolades and praise came from around the state and from Washington, D.C., for Joyce Garver Keller, the longtime former Ohio Jewish Communities executive director, who died in her sleep May 2. She was 68.

Services for Keller, a Bexley resident and a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, will be at 10 a.m. May 4 at Congregation Agudas Achim, 2767 E. Broad St. in Bexley, a suburb of Columbus. She will be buried at Mount Olive Cemetery in Solon at 2:30 p.m. that day.

Her legacy

Keller retired June 30, 2015, but never ceased being an advocate for Ohio’s eight Jewish federations in the state and in Washington.

“She was a tireless and effective advocate for the Jewish community, and she leaves an inspiring legacy about the importance of government and civic advocacy on behalf of our community,” said former Ohio Attorney General and Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher in a statement, joined by his wife, Peggy Zone Fisher, president and CEO of The Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio.

Howie Beigelman, Keller’s successor as executive director of the Ohio Jewish Communities, said, “She was really one of a kind. She was a mentor to so many people in and out of Ohio in the community advocacy field, and a guide to so many public officials in understanding our community.”

William Daroff, a former Clevelander and senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America, recalled Keller advocating throughout her “retirement tour” and beyond. Members of Congress would present Keller with one accolade after another, to which Keller would respond with one policy prescription after another.

“She used it as an opportunity to advocate with elected officials on behalf of Jewish community projects but also as an opportunity to encourage members of the Jewish community to stay and be actively engaged in public policy,” Daroff said.

Keller heeded her own advice, Daroff said, remaining on JFNA’s email list and responding to action alerts by calling various congressional staffers that she knew.

“That’s something she was doing in her retirement,” Daroff said.

That and her frequent Facebook activity made her death a particular surprise.

“When I got word this morning of her passing, it was a total shock,” Daroff said. “Time stopped.”

Thomas Lockshin, executive director for Ohio & Kentucky Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds, said that he was especially surprised given that Keller was to be honored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs May 15 after missing a January Israel Bonds dinner due to caring for her ill husband, Steven.

“I was so happy for her recently because things were improving and she was going to be honored by the JCPA in Cleveland,” Lockshin said. “She was a remarkable person and will be greatly missed.”

Rabbi Mitchell Levine at Congregation Agudas Achim, where Keller frequently brought her grandchildren, said May 2 that the temple was still “processing” Keller’s death.

“Obviously, it comes as a complete shock to me and the community,” Levine said. “None of us were expecting this. Joyce was a relatively young woman and a robust strong spirit and we thought that we had many, many years left to enjoy her passion and her wisdom, but unfortunately, we will be missing that very, very much.”

The ultimate connector

Susan Wolf Turnbull, chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and reared in Cleveland Heights, recalled first meeting Keller at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Keller walked straight up to Turnbull to tell her that she knew Turnbull’s mother-in-law.

“It was a very, very crowded room and she saw my name on my tag and she goes, ‘I know who you are,’” Turnbull said.

Several years later, Turnbull was campaigning for John Kerry in the 2004 election, and Keller made sure that when Turnbull arrived in Columbus, a group of women was waiting to meet with her.

“She was a connector, is probably the best way to describe it,” Turnbull said. “She knew who was with who and who should be with who and what people needed to know each other. She was a facilitator for things like that always.”

Daroff had a similar experience as a 22-year-old staffer in then-Republican Gov. George Voinovich’s office. Despite his youth, Daroff said he was the senior Jewish member of Voinovich’s staff and Keller “attached herself to me because as someone in the governor’s office, she knew that I could get things done.” It wasn’t always about front-page issues. It might just be about arranging a meeting room for Yom Hashoah or discussing Soviet Jewry.

Their relationship changed Daroff’s life, immersing him in Judaism.

“To a great extent, she has put me on the path that I’m on now,” Daroff said. “If she had looked at me as some 22 year-old snot-nose kid and hadn’t connected with me, I’m pretty certain that I would not be working in the Jewish community and would not be living a Jewishly engaged life. It really opened a door to a whole side of myself that I didn’t know existed.”

Keller’s ability to connect turned her into a celebrity of sorts.

“When you walked with her in the halls of the statehouse, everyone knew her,” Daroff said.

Woman of many achievements

Keller wasn’t there to simply shake hands, according to Daroff. When she wanted something done, she would firmly plant herself in the capital, whether in a committee hearing room or in the office of a key legislator.

“She would cajole and twist arms and pass out matzah ball soup and would be very much fully engaged in making sure that she got the votes she needed to push forward the Jewish community’s agenda,” Daroff said.

While Keller was fond of saying that Israel was her “No. 1” priority at Ohio Jewish Communities, she worked on a wide variety of issues, including support for the elderly, health care and Holocaust education.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, said in a statement that he relied on Keller’s advice on everything from the U.S.-Israel relationship to combating human trafficking.

“She was a special leader,” Portman said.

During her tenure, Keller helped secure tens of millions of dollars in state and federal funds for Jewish agencies in Ohio. Lockshin added that Keller helped spur more than $300 million in Israel bond purchases.

“Everything we do each day is based on the foundation she laid,” Beigelman said. “She reached across the aisle to both parties and worked with everyone. Really, anything we do is a testament to the foundation she laid here, and the organization’s credibility and access starts with that foundation.”

Daroff noted that Keller worked alongside Democrats and Republicans, reaching out to legislators from all over the state, far beyond the “Interstate 71 corridor.” In some cases, she extended a hand to legislators for whom she might be “the only Jew that they knew.”

“Joyce was really the ambassador of the Jewish people to legislators from all 88 counties,” Daroff said. “For a lot of members of Congress from Steubenville or Lima or Athens or the West Virginia border, Joyce might be the only Jew that they knew and she recognized that she wasn’t just representing herself but she was representing all of the Jewish people and that was an important role that she played and one that she played with finesse and with great success.”

One of Keller’s greatest achievements was her role in the creation of the Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial, as noted by Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John R. Kasich in a statement.

“The passing of Joyce Garver Keller is a deep personal loss for me and for so many others in Ohio who valued her friendship and have long admired her leadership,” Kasich said. “I will forever be grateful for her essential role in helping make the Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial a reality. Her dedication to the Jewish community, as well as her understanding of the importance of leading lives of commitment to values larger than ourselves, is a model for us all.”

Kasich’s predecessor, Ted Strickland, also cited the Holocaust memorial.

“Joyce was a wonderful woman and someone I’ve known for a very long time,” Strickland said in a statement. “She was a tireless advocate for the Jewish community in Ohio and worked hard for years to secure funding for the Holocaust memorial at the Statehouse grounds. I feel that I have lost a good friend.”

Bipartisan appeal

Given the range of her career, it was no surprise that reaction poured in from all over the state and from both political parties.

“Joyce dedicated her career to strengthening families and their communities,” U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, said in a statement. “Her commitment to advocacy and justice was unwavering and, through her work with Ohio Jewish Communities, she touched many lives.”

In 1990, Keller was honored by Brown, who was Secretary of State, with the “Keeper of the Flame Award,” for outstanding dedication to the democratic process, on the anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Joyce Garver Keller was a strong leader for the Ohio Jewish Communities and I’m saddened by her passing,” Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Beachwood resident, said. “Her work played an important role in Columbus and throughout the state. She will be greatly missed and I send my deepest condolences to her family.”

Portman said, “Joyce was a true friend and a tireless advocate for the Jewish community, our state and our country. She was wise, compassionate and personified the beautiful Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, to repair the world. My condolences to everyone whose life she touched. She will be missed. May her memory be a blessing.”

Her family

Keller, who was born on Sept. 28, 1947, is survived by her husband, Steven Keller; son and daughter-in-law, Stuart Keller and Michelle Dubrow; grandsons, Izadore, Harry and Simon Keller; sister, Holly Beth Garver; brother-in-law, Donald (Gail) Keller and sister-in-law, Barbara (Mark) Waters.

She was preceded in death by her fathers, Sanford Landis and John Garver and mother, Zelda Garver. Landis died when Keller was 3.

Shiva will be observed at the home of Steven Keller from 6 to 9 p.m. May 4, 5, 8, 9 and 10. In lieu of flowers, donations are preferred to the charity of donor’s choice.

Arrangements are being handled by Epstein Memorial Chapel in Columbus.

Ed Wittenberg contributed to this article.

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Jonah Rosenblum is a freelance writer from Cleveland Heights.

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