Ethical Wills as Tools for the Interfaith Movement, By Joshua Stanton and Hedy Peyser

Posted on February 28th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit

This article is dedicated to Andy Siegel and Orly Farber, two remarkable youth whom we have the pleasure of working with and learning from.

In 2006, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life detailed a profound change that has been taking place within America, according to a number of national surveys. Longstanding prejudice against Jews and Catholics has largely dissipated (approximately three-quarters of those surveyed viewed both groups positively), while negative feelings towards other groups – notably Muslims – had increased. Though the paper offered hope that mistrust of Muslims could subside in time, it presented a clear challenge to the interfaith youth movement: to increase the pace at which religious communities become tolerated and respected in America. For Jews and Catholics it took generations to become accepted into mainstream society. It need not do so for Muslims or other religious groups that continue to face discrimination. A key question, however, is how to increase tolerance between members of different religious groups. Lessons of a Lifetime™: The Ethical Will Project of the Hebrew Home is poised to help answer the challenge of improving interfaith relations through education, youth leadership development, and research aimed at uncovering values that are shared between religious communities.

Originally, the program was designed to improve intergenerational relations. More often than not, senior citizens live apart from their children and grandchildren. Many feel a lack of purpose or, worse still, like a burden to their families. Such feelings are demonstrated in the alarming statistic that the elderly have high rates of severe depression and the highest suicide rates of any age group in the United States. In March of 2006, we founded Lessons of a Lifetime™ at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities (CESLC), a large senior residence in Rockville, Maryland in order to create a greater understanding between youth and seniors and tap the stores of wisdom that all seniors hold.

The core piece of the project is a document called an ethical will. As opposed to an oral history, an ethical will does not simply recount one’s most life-changing and memorable experiences but what one learned from those events. It contains all of the hopes and dreams that a person wants to share and is an ethical (as opposed to material) legacy that can be passed down for generations, enabling one’s posterity to lead more fulfilling lives. The concept of an ethical will originated over 3,000 years ago, when Jacob expresses his hopes for each of his children in the book of Genesis, though the practice of writing an ethical will, rather than transmitting it orally, may only have taken root in the twelfth century, C.E.

Ethical wills are known to have held a place in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As Israel Abrahams explains in his well-known book, Hebrew Ethical Wills, while

the ethical testament has a long and continuous history in Jewish literature… that literature did not monopolize the genre. The  Arabs [or, perhaps more aptly, Muslims] held the ethical will (included under the general title ‘Wasaya’) in such high esteem   that they would ascribe documents of the kind to revered sages like Lokman. In Christian circles, too, we find similar phenomena.

Yet following the Renaissance, there appears to have been a lull in the use of ethical wills, particularly in Christendom. Only recently have ethical wills come to the fore once again in the West. Many scholars credit Dr. Barry K. Baines, Chief Medical Officer of UCare Minnesota and Associate Director for Hospice of the Twin Cities, with popularizing them and performing preliminary studies of their therapeutic effects. His book, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper is now in its second edition, and he has begun a formal regimen of training sessions for people who want to record their life’s lessons.

Despite Dr. Baines’ notable contributions, we observed that there was still a great deal of room for innovation in the field of ethical wills and ethical will studies. While Baines’ work enabled middle-aged people to record their ethical wills, there was no clear mechanism for helping seniors living in residences transmit their wisdom to posterity. Furthermore, no study (to the best of our knowledge) had ever examined the content of the ethical wills themselves. Those that had been carried out merely analyzed the reactions of people who had completed them – most notably those in hospice care.

When planning Lessons of a Lifetime™, we sought to help seniors compose their ethical wills in an easy and comfortable format and also study their responses. We composed a set of 22 Questions for Ethical Wills© as a general format that people could then personalize, either answering additional questions or overlooking some that would be too difficult to answer. The questions were broken into categories, including values and education, thoughts, life experiences, and regrets and gratitude.

It also quickly became clear that we could add an additional – and equally meaningful – aspect to the program if we trained student leaders (12 to 25 years of age) to record the ethical wills of seniors. The students, we reasoned, would benefit immensely from the incredible stores of knowledge that the seniors possessed, while the seniors would feel gratified to have a willing recipient for their insights. Lessons of a Lifetime™ could therefore be more than just a means to gather the wisdom of a generation and actually a program to improve relations between generations. Our move to promote tolerance through the program had begun. We developed a Volunteer’s Guide to Recording Oral Histories and Ethical Wills© to prepare students to work with seniors in this personal – and potentially emotional – setting.

Much to our delight (and, admittedly, to our surprise as well), Lessons of a Lifetime™ was greeted with immediate recognition. After its pilot run in the summer of 2006, with only eleven student and fifteen seniors, it was featured in the “ideas and innovations” section of FutureAge, the official publication of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging and a number of local and regional publications. We also jointly authored an article and had it accepted for publication by Nursing Homes magazine. Before we knew it, we had begun receiving requests for our materials from as far away as Papua New Guinea.

But it was not the acclaim that Lessons of a Lifetime™ received that was most exciting. Rather, it was the incredible reactions that we received from both student and senior participants in the program. As a rising college junior put it, “Being able to take a peek at what someone with many years of living has experienced and learning what is important to them is precious.” A retired college professor many years older echoed his appreciation for the program, noting, “These are the most meaningful questions that anyone has ever asked me.” Aside from the testimonials and words of thanks that we received from both student and senior participants, a number of friendships between students and seniors, which were established during the program, continued long afterwards. Lessons of a Lifetime™ did more than simply enable seniors to record their ethical wills: it broke through the platitudes that so often encumber unstructured dialogue and enabled people over fifty years apart in age to connect on a deeper level. Ethical wills freed up topics of conversation that might otherwise seem ‘impolite’ or ‘taboo’ and convinced students of the incredible wisdom that seniors hold and seniors of the insight and patience that youth hold. In short, Lessons of a Lifetime™ was empowering two groups in society that are often ignored and giving them a voice and a purpose.

The following summer (2007), after another successful session of Lessons of a Lifetime™, it became clear that the program could and should expand to other sites in the area. With a great deal of help and support from administrators at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, we held an inaugural conference for Lessons of a Lifetime™ and invited community leaders from around the area to attend. The consensus among attendees was that the program was one of a kind and worth replicating at sites around the Washington, D.C. area. We began working with “Site Directors” at the various institutions that expressed interest and started “Training the Trainer” sessions to avoid having to train all of the volunteers ourselves. Before we knew it, we were operating at least half a dozen franchises, with more and more joining by the month.

The summer of 2007 also proved to be pivotal in a second dimension: research. Having partnered with the Research Institute on Aging at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities the previous fall, we had embarked upon a study of ethical wills to determine how their content and form varied based on the demographics of the person writing one. The research was then far enough along that it would be possible to compose a set of articles about the similarities and differences in ethical wills based on age was within six month’s time.

The methodology of the research was both straightforward and groundbreaking. During the volunteer training sessions, we had asked all of the students to record each other’s ethical wills as a sort of practice for working with the senior. In the process, we effectively collected a comparison sample of the documents. In addition, as a kind of warm-up to the more emotionally taxing ethical will questions, we had developed a simple demographic questionnaire so that the student-senior partners could get used to working with each other. As a result, we now could correlate the responses given within the ethical wills to at least fifteen demographic characteristics, with the ultimate aim of determining shared values across groups. Once shared values were uncovered, we reasoned, it would be far easier to improve relations between them.

The following fall, we enlisted a second research team at Connecticut College to study the variation (or lack thereof) in ethical wills based on both gender and age. This would certainly expand the scope of the ethical will project. However, it was a direction that we were comfortable going in, particularly given the recent interest in the so-called ‘gender gap.’ Furthermore, if ethical wills could help explain similarities and differences in preferences and behavior that occur due to gender, they might also be able to do so for religion.

Interreligious conflict and intolerance appears to be caused by differences in beliefs and worldview – the oft-touted “clash of civilizations” – and the desire for one group to impose its views upon another. But what if people of different religious traditions had more in common than they realized? Or, alternatively, what if they had different things in common than they realized but were just focusing on the wrong issues? Given how difficult it is to ascertain the values of an individual – much less a group of people – we sensed that Lessons of a Lifetime™ might be in a unique position to study the question by way of ethical wills. Yet this was an entirely new area of work for us. First we wanted to see what others thought of the idea.

At the October 2007 biennial conference of the Interfaith Youth Core, Joshua Stanton (one of the authors of this paper) presented at a session entitled “Lessons of a Lifetime™: The Ethical Will Project.” In addition to explaining the program and its initial goal of improving intergenerational relations and collecting the wisdom of the aged, he went with a simple question: how can the program be adapted to the interfaith setting? He received a number of answers, from the potential use of ethical wills to facilitate dialogue between religious school students to their use in training future leaders to be tolerant and mindful of the values that others may hold. Most importantly, however, many of the audience members at the session seemed very excited by the idea of ethical wills and the hope that they held for interfaith mediation and leadership development.

Taking the audience’s ideas to heart – particularly their suggestions and wonderfully probing questions – we returned to work more excitedly than ever. In addition to overseeing the participating sites, the now two research teams, and the sessions of Lessons of a Lifetime™ that go year-round, we are working to compose two leadership development curriculums for high school students as the way to integrate many aspects of the program: student leadership, caring for the aged, learning about oneself, and having meaningful conversations with a very different person.

The first curriculum is intended for use within the Jewish community, namely to provide students with the communication and organizational skills necessary to be successful – and ethical – leaders. The second is specifically designed for use between religious communities. Entitled the “Lessons of a Lifetime™ Guide to One Thousand Voices for Peace©,” it combines dialogue and leadership techniques into a meaningful seminar for youth groups of different religious traditions.

The ultimate goal of the training – following a pilot program to test its efficacy – is to give 1,000 high school students the chance to pair up with young person from a different religious group, record that person’s ethical will, and then in turn have their own recorded. After doing so, the students may then have the chance record the ethical will of a senior in keeping with the common religious precept of honoring the aged – and in doing so receive at least 25 hours of community service credit and a credential as a student interfaith leader.

Aside from the direct benefits of bringing together youth from different backgrounds in such a meaningful leadership development and community service activity, the project may be able to enhance interfaith programming in the future. The current success of many interfaith initiatives is due to the remarkable insight and intuition that non-profit and religious leaders have about the outlook of youth. Yet with little research available about the values that students hold, the interfaith youth movement may be systematically underperforming. For rather than relying on the intuition of the movement’s leaders, programs could be specifically tailored to draw out or emphasize the common values that youth of different backgrounds hold based on systematic research to identify those values. Given the results that we have already seen through the analysis of ethical wills written by students and seniors (one study is set to be published in The Gerontologist later this year), we feel that Lessons of a Lifetime™ is ideally suited to further the interfaith youth movement and provide ‘radar’ for those who lead it.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life identified education as significantly and directly correlated to a more positive view of Islam in the United States. Given the clear benefits of learning, it behooves the leaders of the interfaith movement to spend as much time teaching themselves about religious American youth as they do teaching religious American youth about each other. And we believe that Lessons of a Lifetime™ has the potential to become their favorite textbook.

About the Authors:

In addition to co-Directing Lessons of a Lifetime™ and co-Editing The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™, Joshua Stanton is a first-year student in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College. He is a recent graduate of Amherst College, where he served as founding president of the Amherst College Multifaith Council, co-President of Amherst College Hillel, and a Fellow of the Interfaith Youth Core. He is the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Outstanding Student Award from the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Communal Service.

Hedy Peyser serves as Director of Volunteers at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities and chairperson of its Institutional Review Board. She is responsible for a volunteer corps of over 1,600 and has been recognized for her outstanding contribution to volunteer programming with a Pyramid Award for professional leadership, AJASA Outstanding Program Award, and a seat on the Governor’s Commission on Volunteerism. She has also been featured in the Who’s Who Among Human Service Professions, Who’s Who of American Women, and the Who’s Who in the East.

“Prospects for Inter-religious Understanding: Will Views Towards Muslims and Islam Follow Historical Trends?” March, 2006: pages 1-2. <>:

The study also lists Evangelical Christians as a group that is looked upon unfavorably in the United States.

Diana S. Woodruff-Pak. The Neuropsychology of Aging. New York: Blackwell, 1997:pages 134-135.

The Charles E. Smith Life Communities of Rockville, Maryland is home to approximately 1,100 senior citizens.

Israel Abrahams. Introduction. Hebrew Ethical Wills. Philadelphia: JPS, 1976: page xix.

Ibid, page xxii.

Ibid and inferences there from.

“About” <>.

See, for example, “Ethical Wills and Suffering in Patients with Cancer,” which was written by Charles E. Gessert, Barry K. Baines, Steven A. Kuross, Cinda Clark, and Irina V. Haller and published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in August, 2004.

For a more detailed description of the project, please feel free to see our article, “Sharing Wisdom and Building Community: The Ethical Will Project.” Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management. February 2007: pages 29-32.

Please note that we make of our materials available to many non-profit organizations, provided that they sign a letter of agreement regarding their use. For more information, please see the section on “Ethical Wills” at:

We would particularly like to express our gratitude to Warren Slavin, Nicholas Simmonds, Marilyn Feldman, and Emily Tipermas at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities and Sam Rosenbaum and Judie Fein-Helfman at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for their support.

The research team included Dr. Jiska Cohen-Mansfield, Dr. Marcia Marx, and Natalie Regier.

This research team included Professor Jefferson Singer and Amy Reiniger.

The term was coined by Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington and served as the title of his best-selling book.

Our deep gratitude goes to Megan Hughes of the Interfaith Youth Core and Andy Siegel and Orly Farber, who continue to help us refine the Guide to One Thousand Voices for Peace©.

“Prospects for Inter-religious Understanding: Will Views Towards Muslims and Islam Follow Historical Trends?” Page 7.

2 Responses to “Ethical Wills as Tools for the Interfaith Movement, By Joshua Stanton and Hedy Peyser”

  1. […] Stanton, Joshua and Hedy Peyser “Ethical Wills as Tools for the Interfaith Movement.” February 2009. The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue.… […]

  2. BRO.T.AMALAN,FSC says:

    I found this work very useful to have view of Interreligious dialogue. My sincere appreciation for the authors.

    I am a Ph.D. Research Scholar from Mdras University.