Jackie L. Jacobs’ role in shaping the Columbus Jewish community over almost 30 years began with a guy who wouldn’t stop calling him.
At the time, Jacobs was associate director of planned giving and endowments at the UJA-Federation in New York City – a role he had no intention of leaving.
“There was this guy who kept calling me asking me to take over his job when he left,” Jacobs said. “He was a bit of a nuisance. His name was Ben Mandelkorn,” referring to the then-executive director of the Columbus Jewish Foundation.
Mandelkorn had already “retired” from a career leading the Jewish Federation of Columbus, and when in 1990 he started calling Jacobs, whom he had met at national conferences, Mandelkorn was ready to actually retire from his second career as the Foundation’s director. Jacobs said he offered to visit Columbus “once ... so Ben would get off my back.”
Jacobs met with several Central Ohio Jewish community leaders, and by the time he returned to his office in New York, he knew he would take the job. He had to promise his wife, Cheryl, they wouldn’t stay more than three years.
Now, Jacobs himself is “retired” in the sense that he stepped down from his post at the Foundation last year but hasn’t left his role as a community leader. He is a consultant for JewishColumbus, the entity combining the Federation and Foundation, and works to ease the organizational transition, maintain relations with donors and take on new projects.
“If anybody is retiring, I suggest if they have the opportunity to not go cold turkey like I’ve had, they take advantage of it because it makes the transition so much easier and more meaningful,” he said.
That’s easy to say for Jacobs, who has had a career “with no boundary whatsoever” between personal interests and professional responsibilities.
“It doesn’t get any better than that – to tie it all together,” he said.
Growing up in Jewish leadership
Jacobs said being the child of Holocaust survivors and growing up in a “one-synagogue town” in Middletown, N.Y., influenced his early connection to the Jewish world. After graduating from Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., Jacobs took his first job at the United Way. It was the only job he ever had to apply for, as eventually he was solicited to become director of the Jewish Federation of Broome County in New York in his early 30s.
“I became the youngest federation director in the country,” he said, adding it was also one of the country’s smallest federations.
After two years, Jacobs took a role at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford in Stamford, Conn., and within a year, the position at the New York City Federation.
At the Columbus Jewish Foundation, Jacobs saw his role as building community and ensuring it functioned as one.
“We address (the community’s) physical, social, cultural, religious and political needs,” he said. “We tend toward functionality and structure and organization, and strengthen its links and ties to other groups with other constituencies. We reach out and stretch … the community’s boundaries all the time. I think that’s what community organization is and that’s what I viewed as my role.”
Jim Bowman, immediate past board chair of the Foundation, said the community has benefited from having someone with a wealth of community knowledge serve it for so long. More specifically, over Jacobs’ tenure, he led the growth of the Foundation’s endowment from $37 million in gifts and known bequests to more than $135 million.
“Jackie’s got a great sense of humor and a great way with people, but at the end of the day, he also has a tremendous depth of knowledge in endowment-type giving,” Bowman said. “There are plenty of people who understand the basics, but I was always impressed when we’d be meeting with a potential donor and he’d bring up something I really had never heard of or would have never thought of to bring up with them.”
Jacobs also spearheaded community endowments, through which donors have the option to allocate gifts to specific causes, like Jewish arts, social justice or education, Bowman said, which also ensured such community endeavors had future support.
At JewishColumbus, Jacobs is working on the Jewish Columbus Cemetery Association (the entity that now oversees area Jewish cemeteries) and projects related to Shalom House (the former residential center for those with disabilities), among others.
JewishColumbus CEO Joel Marcovitch said in the philanthropy world, Jacobs is second to none. However, he’s given Marcovitch and JewishColumbus staff opportunities to grow and lead in the process of integrating the Foundation and Federation.
“I learn from him on a daily basis,” Marcovitch said. “He’s just great to have around, he’s reinvented himself in this new role. One of the best things about being a great leader, I truly believe, is knowing when to give somebody else an opportunity to step up and lead and be able to take a backseat, and he’s done that.”
The largest issue facing Jewish Columbus is increased need for security at local institutions, Jacobs said.
“I think that we have to find ways of strengthening security at our synagogues and schools and community centers in light of the ongoing wave of anti-Semitic incidents,” he said, citing Anti-Defamation League statistics that 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the United States in 2018. It’s the third highest number of incidents since the ADL began keeping track in 1979.
“It pains me because, unfortunately, we have to raise money based on fear. I’d rather it be done for Jewish education, for positive things to help the needy, etc. But in this particular situation, we are not unlike the Jews in Europe who need armed guards outside of every synagogue. We have to deal with that new reality.”
At the same time, he said it’s important to keep connection to the local secular community, as well as the Jewish national and international community, at the forefront.
“We can’t get so trapped inside our own shtetl that we don’t have a sense of being part of something bigger – that we can have a role in that and we should be a part of that, and not lose sense of our group destiny,” he said. “And that we can be impactful ... in a meaningful, positive way.”
Marcovitch said he will often approach Jacobs with an issue for JewishColumbus to solve, such as finding funding for a community need. He said Jacobs will think about it overnight and “come in the morning with a solution or two to the issue. And it gets done.”
Moreover, Marcovitch said Jacobs’ efforts have likely benefited thousands in the Central Ohio Jewish community who will never know his name. However, that doesn’t really matter.
“For him, it’s not about the name – it’s about the work (and) it’s about the mission for success in our community,” Marcovitch said.