Jewish Federation meeting community needs amidst COVID struggles

The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati has been in existence for 124 years, making it the longest continually running federation of its kind in the country. Its mission is to help people in need, create an engaged community, and support the Jewish people in Cincinnati, Israel, and the world.

That experience, and mission, makes the Jewish Federation uniquely qualified to be of service in what can only be described as a lousy year – marked by a global pandemic and a cratering economy. 

In 2019, the federation allocated $14 million locally and globally from dollars raised from its annual campaign and other funding sources. The money allocated supports four priorities: help the most vulnerable, protect and energize Jewish life, connect with Jewish communities in Israel and around the world, and strengthen agencies and congregations. The money is raised and disbursed in a similar fashion to how things work at United Way and ArtsWave, although to be fair it was happening at the federation’s predecessor organization first. 

Shep Englander is CEO of the Jewish Federation. He came to the organization in 2004 after serving with comparable federations in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. He lives with his wife in Blue Ash, and they have three adult children. 

Debbie Brant is incoming president of the board of trustees, and has volunteered at more organizations than seems humanly possible, typically in leadership positions. She lives with her husband and children in Amberley Village. 

Debbie Brant

The two of them recently sat down to answer some questions about how their organization can help during these strange days. 

Faherty: With the economy and COVID-19, many people are hurting. Have you seen more acute needs?

Brant: We set up a hotline right away. People had very basic needs, like food and making rent, which we are accustomed to on a regular basis, but we have seen the needs increase steadily. 

Englander: Meals on Wheels has seen an 87 percent increase in meals delivered during the first three months of this crisis. We have seen a nearly 100 percent increase in requests for cash assistance to help pay for rent, mortgages, and medical needs. You know, a lot of people who are generally doing just fine, are suddenly without work. 

Faherty: And how have you been able to meet those needs while so many have less to give?

Englander: It’s been very moving that we have gotten gifts from people who are going through their own hardships. 

Brant: There is always somebody worse off than you and me. 

Englander: We were created for this very purpose. When the Jews first came to Cincinnati, they continued traditions from Europe, which included creating a benevolent association for the needy, including widows, the disabled, and the infirm. We have always played this role of assessing needs, raising funds, and distributing those funds from the very beginning. And each year we reassess. 

Brant: The scope has changed, but not the goals. We are in constant contact with the organizations that serve the Jewish community. We’ve been able to pivot really well. And not just the Jewish community, the greater community as well. 

Shep Englander

Faherty: How hard has it been to not be able to congregate?

Englander: Difficult. Very difficult. We really crave community, and for us community means being physically together.

Brant: It is hard. The Mayerson JCC is the heart of the organized community. We have 27,000 visits per month. Just seeing people, and running into them in your normal life, really matters. We miss those connections badly. 

Englander: Fortunately, the community has been really agile and innovative in moving things online. In many of our congregations, on a weekly basis, we have more people participating in services now than we did before because now they can do it in their pajamas with a glass of wine. 

Brant: I attended a bar mitzvah like that where I was in my comfy clothes eating snacks. 

Mayerson JCC

Faherty: And still, you feel terrible for these kids…

Brant: I was crying. It was heartbreaking, but they did such a great job. 

Englander: So many of them are being robbed of what they spent years working for. So, people are staying connected, but it’s not the same.

Faherty: Is there a way to grow from this year. To emerge stronger than when we entered it?

Brant: Yes. We have heard from our Jewish community that they want to help. The hard part is that we always have hands-on projects, things we are doing with the elderly, or the Jewish Family Service food pantry, but it is hard because you cannot physically do some of those things right now. But people are finding ways because they just want to be helpful. Small things, all the way up to large things. And it’s not just your usual suspects. We are seeing new people anxious to help.

Englander: It’s true. Adversity often brings out the best in people. The most moving conversations I’ve had are with people who have supported the community through our annual campaign in the past, and themselves have had financial reversals, but they are still making financial commitments. We’ve gotten gifts from people who have lost their jobs or who are now underemployed. 

Faherty: Can you give us a specific example of how the federation has helped during the pandemic?

Brant: There are many. We support the Jewish Family Service food pantry, which is of course stepping up to provide more right now. And we support JVS Career Services, which is offering career counseling for free to people who’ve lost their jobs due to COVID. And Jewish Family Service’s social workers are finding safe ways to help isolated seniors, understanding that isolation itself can be a terrible health risk. 

Englander: One of the roles that the federation plays is to help its partner agencies if they have a crisis. We lend them whatever capacity is needed including overall crisis management, financial management, government relations, security, and communications. At the end of March, our community residence for developmentally disabled adults discovered that one of the older residents had COVID-19. This was much earlier and less was known about the protocols, particularly for a special population living in a group residence. The director let us know what she was dealing with. She quickly had all eight residents tested; nearly all of them were positive. The agency worked closely with the Ohio Department of Health and all other authorities. But the situation required many quick medical and operational decisions at a time when some of their staff couldn’t come in because of their own health issues. I was able to recruit a few doctors who provided free medical consultation. We asked one of our other agencies to provide meals for the residents. And we mobilized volunteers to write and deliver get-well cards. I spoke with the executive director every day and served as a sounding board. Most important, all of the residents recovered quickly and fully. The agency was recognized by the State for the exemplary way they managed.  

Faherty: It seems like the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati has a century-long history of giving and helping in times of need, even one as big as this. Has that helped?

Englander: We have invested a lot of time and energy into our organizational capacity.

Brant: When something like this happens, you say ‘Thank God’ we made those investments to help more people. We can, so we will. 

If interested in donating, visit

Charity Navigator, which assesses foundations like this, gives the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati a 4-star rating, its highest possible score. 

This article was made possible in part by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati.

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