Brian Jaffee On Jewish Foundation’s Evolution and Staff Expansion

Earlier this year, we sat down with Brian Jaffee, CEO of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, to discuss new initiatives, the Foundation’s new structure, and the operating philosophy that Jaffee hopes will help keep Cincinnati a vibrant Jewish community through this century. 

At the most recent public meeting, the Foundation announced they’re expanding their staff. This is so the foundation can become a more agile grant partner to partner organizations and better respond to community needs. 

“With our staff expanding, it gives us the opportunity to go to the next level in our relationship with our grantee partners,” said Jaffee. “Those relationships are like gardens–when you tend to them they grow and contribute to creating beautiful, welcoming environments. In our case, those environments are all kinds of meaningful Jewish experiences.”

This is a continuation of the trust-based philanthropy that the Foundation has been practicing for years. To Jaffee, one of the most important things the Foundation can do is make sure they are helping their partners in the best way possible, and this means doubling down on what the foundation already does: providing not just one-year but multi-year grants. 

“Our approach, for years, is that our partner organizations know how to use their funds better than we do,” Jaffee said.

The Foundation is bringing a particular focus to real-world challenges like the youth mental health crisis – a situation U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy highlighted as a significant concern in 2020. 

“We’re not just reading studies showing that young people are going through unprecedented high need of mental health support, we’re seeing it with our own eyes” in Cincinnati, Jaffee said. 

Jaffee and the Foundation view the support of young families as a crucial aspect of enhancing community mental health, guided by findings from previous community surveys.

“A lot of respondents to the community study are very proud of being Jewish and want to do more in Cincinnati. But for whatever reason, they’re not totally satisfied with what’s on the menu,” he said. 

Improving that situation means working with one of the Foundation’s largest grant partners: Cincinnati synagogues, which Jaffee sees as important partners that often get wrongfully maligned. Synagogues have seen a decline in membership, as have most religious institutions in the U.S.

“The generalization about synagogues is that they have their heads buried in the sand, and I don’t think they do, they are just as clear-eyed about the challenges [of engaging today’s Jews] as we are,” Jaffee said.

That is why Jaffee wants to make Cincinnati a place that not only supports its Jewish community but also supports high-quality Jewish professionals who will help it keep growing. 

“I don’t think Jews are any different than their non-Jewish peers who work in institutions, where they want to believe in the mission and feel like there’s a sense of purpose, and they feel that they are being cared for in their careers,” Jaffee said.

“Maybe, with the extraordinary resources that we have as a community, we can go above and beyond in terms of benefits – not just professional development, but with other ways we can help professionals achieve the quality of life they want for themselves and their families. So these are the kinds of things that are really exciting for us to focus on.”

The Foundation’s new structure hopes to bolster the Jewish community by funding projects and programs that foster unity among Jewish Cincinnatians through immersive experiences. This includes supporting Cincy Journeys, a federation program offering grants for young people to travel to Israel, and attend overnight camps. 

Among those efforts is the Reflect Cincy grant. The grant was inspired by the 2019 Cincinnati Jewish Community Study, which revealed many Jews in Cincinnati were eager for deeper involvement in the community but faced various barriers to traditional institutions. The Reflect Cincy grants are funding six programs that aim to engage young families, young adults, and marginalized members of the community. 

Editor’s note: Cincy Jewfolk is funded by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati through a Reflect Cincy grant. 

The Foundation is working with their Reflect Cincy grant partners to make sure they are set up for success, and to Jaffee, that is one of the many things that makes the new structure of the foundation exciting. 

“Part of the fun is having this learning mindset, focusing on individual needs, being intentional about testing and experimentation and the cycle that happens from testing, learning and pivoting,” Jaffe said.