A ‘Thank You’for Life

There’s a pretty good reason why the breast cancer center at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica is named after Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer.

“The John Wayne Cancer Institute kept my husband alive for 10 years,” said Eisenberg-Keefer, who established the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Breast Center and has given a total of $3 million toward the facility. “That’s why I got involved. What I do is a ‘thank you’ for life.”

Ben Eisenberg, who had contracted melanoma in the mid-1970s, died in 1986, but his work and generosity of spirit lives on. Not long before he passed away, the couple set up a substantial philanthropic endowment. Since Eisenberg’s death, every cent of profit raised from his properties, now run by Eisenberg-Keefer, has been given to a variety of charities. The Ben B. & Joyce E. Eisenberg Foundation gives millions of dollars every year to many causes, most of them Jewish.

Eisenberg-Keefer has endowed two $1 million chairs for cancer and multiple sclerosis research and for new professors and directors, respectively, at The Weizmann Institute of Science. She has also financed the pediatric wing of Shaare Zedek Hospital. Other recipients of her magnanimity include the Anti-Defamation League, United Jewish Fund, National Diabetes Foundation, UCLA Medical Center, Pacific Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and Jewish Home for the Aging, which renamed its nine-acre Reseda campus Eisenberg Village in recognition of her $3 million gift.

Eisenberg-Keefer also has a special attachment to Israel Children’s Centers (formerly Israel Tennis Centers), an organization with 15 community complexes for teens located throughout Israel. This was a pet charity of Ben Eisenberg. He became involved with the charity through his friendship with Wellness Centers founder Dr. Harold Benjamin. That friendship also led to the funding of 10 Wellness training centers throughout the country. The Santa Monica training center has been renamed after Ben and Joyce Eisenberg.

Eisenberg-Keefer came from very humble beginnings. Originally from Chicago, she graduated from Fairfax High School and then worked a series of secretarial jobs for lawyers and real estate development firms, including Stanley Black and his late partner Arthur Kaplan. When she was 25, she met Ben Eisenberg, an affluent retired entrepreneur with real estate holdings, who was 26 years her senior.

In 1988, shortly after Eisenberg’s death, a mutual friend at the John Wayne Cancer Institute introduced the widow to cartoonist Mel Keefer, creator of the golf gag strip “Mac Divot.” Both lived within blocks of each other in Santa Monica. Keefer had recently lost his wife, Rosanne, to cancer.

It was at the Beau Rivage in Malibu that the couple, through the process of elimination, realized that they had not only grown up in the same part of town, but in the same residence — 2621 Buckingham Road — at different times — his parents had sold the house to her family, freshly arrived from Chicago.

“I thought to myself, I’ll have to see this guy again,” said Eisenberg-Keefer with typical understatement.

The perfect timing which had eluded them during childhood did not slip by this time. The couple married in 1990.

Eisenberg-Keefer has come a long way from the dark decade when she was tending to her dying husband and taking over his business. During that period, Eisenberg-Keefer had no choice but to learn the ropes of running Eisenberg’s properties.

“We hired a whole new staff, and I was running everything from the hospital bed,” said Eisenberg-Keefer, who spent half her days in the office and half her days at her husband’s bedside.

“She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Keefer said. “She’s got a great sense of business.”

Medical, scientific and social charities are not Eisenberg-Keefer’s only philanthropic interests. Arts institutions, such as Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, have also made her short list. This year, she donated 5,000 square feet of the landmark New Mart building in downtown — Los Angeles’ first high-rise, which the Eisenbergs purchased in 1981 and has been leased to fashion designers ever since — to the Fashion Business Incubator, which helps cultivate new fashion designers. The incubator will hold its first fundraiser on June 29.

“She doesn’t have the formal Jewish education, but she’s very Jewish at the core,” Keefer said

For more information about Israel Children’s Centers, call (954) 480-6333.

The Fashion Business Incubator Dinner and Fashion Show Fundraiser will celebrate its new resource and training center on June 29 at New Mart Fashion Theater, 127 E. Ninth St., Los Angeles. To RSVP, call (213) 892-1669.