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Earning to give, yearning to give more

Joyce Eisenberg Keefer is improving lives through science

People behind the science

Date: November 11, 2020

As a child growing up in Chicago and then Los Angeles, Joyce Goodman made do with $3 per week for lunch. Her father drove a cab; her mother was a housewife. Her parents couldn’t afford to join a synagogue, though she wanted to, and she was curious about her Jewish heritage.

Fast forward to today, and Joyce Eisenberg Keefer, 85, says she has spent the last four decades “earning money so that I can give it all away.” Deeply affected by her sister’s ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis, the loss of her brother from brain cancer at 53, and the early passing of her first husband, Ben, from melanoma—with whom she  established a foundation before his death—Joyce has dedicated her life to philanthropy, largely in education, science and medicine, and elderly care.

The Weizmann Institute has benefited greatly from her generosity, which has spanned a wide array of areas starting in 1984. Her most recent gift was visionary support for the Weizmann Coronavirus Response Fund. At the Institute, she has supported research on breast cancer, MS, alternative energy, personalized medicine, neuroscience, and three chairs; all of the incumbents are women—and that’s no coincidence, as she is a major proponent of advancing women in science.

Building and giving

At a young age, Joyce entered a career in real estate, working with developers and lawyers in commercial property management. When she was 25, she met Ben Eisenberg. Ben had also grown up with modest means, and peddled clothes on the street in New York as a young man. He then moved to Los Angeles where he purchased two sewing machines and began to manufacture women’s clothing.  When he retired from the clothing trade in the 1970s, he made a smart gamble on the future of the LA fashion district and bought several buildings including a 12-story building in the heart of the city.

Together, as heads of Ben B. Eisenberg Properties, they began transforming the building, which they renamed New Mart (from the Harris Newmark Building), from a manufacturing facility into a gallery of apparel showrooms. The duo had a keen eye for properties with potential, and had a special faith in the fashion district (known as the garment district until 1996). In the 1970s, this district was comprised of a handful of city blocks and today spans more than 100 blocks consisting of more than 4,000 independently operated wholesale businesses, in apparel, footwear, accessories, and fabrics.

Shortly after the purchase of the New Mart, Ben was diagnosed with cancer, and he started thinking about his legacy beyond real estate. “Ben was the biggest possible believer in philanthropy, and my first lessons were from him,” says Joyce. He established the Ben B. and Joyce E. Eisenberg Foundation, and indicated to his wife that he wished for the great majority of their earnings to go to charity. She cared for him during his illness, and after his death in 1986, Joyce became head of the foundation and continued to advance both his business and his philanthropic vision—and made it hers.

By the following year, she fully transformed the New Mart building from a manufacturing facility into a gallery of apparel showrooms. It soon became one of the most preeminent showplaces for fashion designers from around the world, with nearly 1,000 collections on display.

In 1990, she married Mel Keefer, a design illustrator well known for his golf strip “MacDivot,” syndicated in over 250 newspapers for more than 20 years, and they settled in the lively beachside city of Santa Monica. Together with her longtime property manager, Ethan Eller, she has generated substantial profits in a booming city where the fashion industry continues to thrive. To this day, all of the company’s net proceeds go to the foundation for charitable giving. Joyce determines the long list of beneficiaries—some  250 organizations in all—according to her philosophy of “cradle to grave” giving (from the very young  to the very old).

“I earn in order to give,” says Joyce. “I have a singular purpose in life and I’m lucky that I can live out my dream.” Though well past retirement age, she works five days a week, carving out as much time as possible to execute her philanthropy and active engagement on the boards of a range of organizations.

Through her foundation, she is a major supporter of elder care in LA through the non-profit Los Angeles Jewish Home, which serves thousands of seniors throughout the area. She also founded the California Oncology Research Institute, among other organizations.

During Ben’s illness, she came to know his UCLA oncologist, Dr. Donald Morton, who became chief of the melanoma program at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, and a world-renowned surgical oncologist. Weizmann immunologist and former President Prof. Michael Sela and Dr. Morton were colleagues at one point, recalls Joyce, “and although Ben already knew about the Weizmann Institute, Ben’s friendship with Michael solidified and deepened our commitment to Weizmann which has only grown and blossomed through my relationship with Janis Rabin,” National Vice President and Executive Director, Southern California, for the American Committee.

Joyce went on to fund Dr. Morton’s research, including a breast cancer center he led at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, named the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Breast Center.  In Israel, she has supported a range of beneficiaries, including a pediatric wing, a chest trauma care unit, and a cardiothoracic care unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. She is also one of the major supporters of the Israel Tennis and Education Centers, and of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. She is an actively engaged board member of many of the organizations she supports.

The people behind the science

Among her many gifts to the Weizmann Institute, Joyce says she especially loves to fund people, “because Weizmann is filled with extraordinary people and it is the people that drive the results.” One is Prof. Sima Lev, the incumbent of the Joyce and Ben B. Eisenberg Professorial Chair of Molecular Endocrinology and Cancer Research. More recently, Joyce established the Ben B. and Joyce Eisenberg Foundation Research Fellow Chair, with its first incumbent staff scientist Dr. Liora Las in the lab of Prof. Nachum Ulanovsky in the Department of Neurobiology. (See sidebars).

Major gifts to alternative energy research, under the guidance of Prof. Ron Milo of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, have helped the Weizmann Institute become a leader in this field, while her generosity has driven the science underway at the Nancy and Stephen Grand Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Joyce was among the first Weizmann supporters to contribute to its 60-plus projects tackling the virus. “It didn’t take much consideration—I was asked and within an hour the gift was made,” she says. “I can make decisions this way because of the faith I have in Weizmann that has developed over the course of my life, and the results and the relationships I have built. And so I am pleased to do it without hesitation.”