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Tikkun olam: Deborah Howard Jacob

Deborah Howard Jacob

Deborah Howard Jacob keeps a relatively low profile. For someone so involved in the Tucson community, her name doesn’t ring a lot of bells with Google. But to the people she helps and to those who know her work, Jacob’s name looms large.

“She is kindness and caring personified!,” says local author and columnist Amy Lederman. “She is so modest and would never even think of herself as being as generous of spirit as she truly is!”

Shay Beider, executive director of local nonprofit Integrative Touch for Kids, describes her as an all-around blessing who does everything from spearheading major gifts campaigns to making snacks for 100 people attending a family retreat: “She is a true gift to our organization!”

In addition to being secretary of the board of ITK, the unassuming Jacob is an active fundraising volunteer for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. She has been on the Arizona Foster Care Review Board, where she reviews 15 cases a month, for 20 years. At the same time, she has been serving meals once a month to families living in the Primavera Foundation’s Five Points transitional housing project. All this is in addition to other projects she’s committed to, like being a reading tutor at schools, along with spending time with her family. And she has her eye on another, nascent non-profit offering pro-bono legal services. “I’m just starting to get involved,” she says. “I’m just helping raise money, and I’m having a house party and telling them I’ll do whatever I can.” You could say that Jacob is a professional volunteer — or, as her LinkedIn profile puts it, an independent philanthropy professional.

The description is apt. With a good education and an impressive resume, Jacob could have continued pursuing her successful paid career working for the state government or local non-profits right through retirement. But after giving birth to her daughter at the age of 46, Jacob stopped working. At least for pay.

Devoting her time to unpaid work was an arrangement that made sense to both Jacob and her husband, Jeff. “It’s a value that we hold very dear,” she explains, “We’re an interfaith family so it comes from a foundation from both of us. We always give back, no matter what. Just to be of service is a big piece of who we all are. And I’m the one who has the flexibility in life, so I get to take the lead on it, but everybody else has been a big part.”

“Everybody else” means her husband and daughter, now a freshman in college, whom the Jacobs have involved in their philanthropic activities from the beginning. Jacob’s emphasis on family and children is reflected in much of her work, such as foster care. Seeing that a foster child you have interacted with is “finally at a place that is good for them is one of the best feelings in the whole wide world,” she says.

In the last few years, much of Jacob’s time has been occupied by ITK, which supports families in a way that is often overlooked: by providing integrative healing therapies such as massage, sound healing, and meditation to families that have children with special health or medical needs. ITK is unique not only for its emphasis on integrative techniques but also for its “whole child, whole family, whole community” approach. The group brings community members together to care for children and their family members. “They have so much stress in their lives. They might have someone with cancer and someone with diabetes and, you know, cystic fibrosis, they might be terminal children . . .  there’s so many issues that are facing these families and it’s how to help them move through life a little easier.”

This holistic approach and the emphasis on compassionate support for families chimes perfectly with Jacob’s concerns and values. “Working with those families that just come up afterwards and hug you and are so grateful for what they’ve received, and I feel so grateful because it changed my life. And that’s the biggest piece of why I do what I do. It changes my life every time I interact with someone. And makes me sad and joyful all at the same time.”

Faith has always been a motivator for her voluntarism. “That’s the value system I grew up with: always giving back. And that’s the Judeo-Christian ethic.” Both her parents were Jewish, and although her mother’s Conservatism contrasted with her father’s more secular approach, both modeled service as a way of life when Jacob was growing up in Los Angeles, whether by working in a homeless shelter, volunteering in a hospital or by simple, personal acts. “They were always just helpful; they liked being part of a community and being of service, so I guess it got ingrained in me!”

One memory stands out. Jacob’s father had a small business in the Watts area. He was among the first to hire African-Americans, and he felt responsible for his employees when they encountered hardship. “I used to work in the office and I was in there helping and all of a sudden there was a bed in there. And I said, ‘Dad, why’d you bring a bed into the office?’ ‘Oh, because Sandy’s pregnant and she doesn’t have any place to go.’ He was always taking care of those who were less fortunate. He just had a deep heart.”

Service is just as important in Jacob’s own marriage, and she and her husband bolster each other’s commitments. “It’s interesting being in an interfaith marriage, because I have a husband [who] has a deep sense of value in his faith and in mine. Because he understands Judaism as the framework from which he lives.” Jeff’s family are Lebanese Catholics, and the extended family includes Filipino and Hispanic members. Jacob takes positive pleasure from sharing her faith in this diverse context, saying it “makes for a very interesting conversation. They love the joy that I can bring into it. Ours is a family-based, home-based, Torah-based faith, so it’s kind of interesting to share all that.”

But talking to Jacob, one gets the sense that the impulse to do good for others is simpler, more fundamental, than culture, tradition, or religion — it’s part of the structure of being human. “Recognizing that we’re all the same — because, take away all the color, religion, anything — and we are all human beings. Knowing that we have to take care of one another — that’s the motivator. We are not in this world alone; we cannot survive alone. A baby needs its milk.”

John Cafiero is a freelance writer in Tucson.