Danielle Minson — How You Help
“Cincinnati is Home”: Community Campaign Co-Chairs Value and Nurture Jewish Community: Interview with Renee Levy and Brooke Guigui
One was born in Panama and has lived in Colombia and Mexico; the other’s family has lived in Cincinnati for five generations. Now both Amberley residents, Renee Levy and Brooke Guigui have each chosen not only to stay in Cincinnati but to support Jewish Cincinnati by volunteering as co-chairs of the 2016 Community Campaign for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. Launched January 1, this part of the Annual Campaign focuses on donors who give in the $1,000 to $10,000 range. They are responsible for inspiring a team of 52 campaign volunteers to help raise $5.45 million in 2016. I met them at the Mayerson JCC to find out their stories. This article was also published in the Israelite.
Danielle Minson: Can you give us some background? Where are you each from?
Renee Levy: I was born in Panama. My mom is Panamanian, my father was Colombian. I grew up partly in Colombia, then we moved to Florida when I was eight, and I lived there until college in Boston. I met my husband, who is also Colombian, back in Florida. He happened to be working in Cincinnati for P&G after college. We got married, and I was dragged to Cincinnati. [laughs] More on that later—
Brooke Guigui: I was born and raised here. My parents and my grandparents were all born here; my great-grandparents on my father’s side immigrated and raised their families here. My mom is from Knoxville Tennessee, and though she hates the cold she moved here with my dad, kicking and screaming [both laugh] as well.
I’ve been here my whole life, I went to college here, my husband is from here, and I had other plans—but I didn’t go anywhere—and that’s okay! [laughs]
Do you both have kids?
Renee: My youngest just started at Walnut Hills this year. But all of my kids went through Rockwern since preschool.
Brooke: My stepson is 17 and my son is 9; they are both at Seven Hills.
So how did you get involved as co-chairs for the Federation’s Community Campaign?
Brooke and Renee [together] We were asked! [laughing]
Brooke: I’ve become more comfortable over the last few years doing solicitations. I still get nauseous but I just push through it because it’s a worthy cause and I like the skill I am gaining. I was pleasantly surprised to be asked.
Renee: I’ve never made a solicitation call before and it definitely is not [Brooke laughs] on the top of my favorite things to do, but you know, I’m gonna try it.
Why is this important to do?
Renee: As I said, I was kind of dragged to Cincinnati. I came with the promise that we’d be here for a couple of years, and now it’s been almost twenty. Yet really now Cincinnati is more home to me than anywhere else has ever been.
Especially when we moved to Mexico for three and a half years, I realized that Cincinnati is home. My husband actually left P&G a few years ago and took a job in New Jersey and the idea was that we would move. We decided to stay and he commuted for three years because this community is so important to us and because we are so happy here.
We have a lot of good friends outside the Jewish community, but the Jewish community is particularly special. Rockwern gave us so much more than just an education for our kids. It gave us a sense of community. It gave me my closest friends.
We don’t have any family here, but we have friends who are like family and who we share holidays with and Shabbat dinner. We have a Shabbat dinner club that has been going on for twelve years. With the kids, once a month, at somebody’s house. And we’ve gone through bar mitzvahs and weddings and people losing parents.
We love this community and we feel very blessed to be here and so we’ve made sacrifices to be able to stay.
So I always feel it’s important to give back. I want my kids to grow up and feel “I am blessed and I need to do my part to help others,” and to feel that sense of Jewish identity and being proud of who they are. So I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that that continues, for my own kids and for the community at large.
Brooke: My tzedakah and the giving part of my motivation is the roots that I have in the city. I think about the history of my family here, about the support given to my husband’s grandparents, who are Holocaust survivors and who were brought to Cincinnati. They started a thriving business, and probably would not have been able to do any of that without the support of the Jewish community.
And I have had children. I got married at the synagogue I grew up with. I think about my continuing to support the community that raised me. Even when I didn’t care necessarily about that Jewish community it was still there when I was ready to care about it.
Also, we impress people from bigger cities like New York and LA because of our commitment as a community to our Campaign, and the amount of work we’re able to accomplish. I like supporting that.
Was there a specific moment for you that shows the importance of this work?
Renee: It’s been an evolution. That commitment to Jewish community has always been there, but it just continues to grow steadily deeper as I become more involved and more knowledgeable.
Brooke: I feel the same. Our co-chairing is kind of a culminating moment for me. We get to see the community campaign and its impact.
Last question: what are your goals for the 2016 campaign?
Renee: Obviously to achieve our dollar goals. But personally I see two opportunities.
First is that I don’t think that everybody in our community understands what Federation does. A lot of people don’t realize how much they themselves benefit from the Federation. I know firsthand—my own kids have gone to Rockwern, which is supported by Federation, they’ve gone to summer camp on Federation grants. I’ve been to Israel on a mission subsidized by Federation.
Second is that sometimes people think if they can’t give at a certain level then they shouldn’t give. So I want to reach more people and help people realize that no matter how much they contribute, that every little bit counts.
Brooke: One hundred percent with you. I want more people to know what Federation does. And sometimes I’ve said to people, “How about $5?” — in other words, put your hat in the ring, and your participation will matter for you and for your community.
Brooke Guigui serves as Young Adult Division (YAD) chair for the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. She is on the board of AJC Cincinnati, and has served on the board and on the membership committee at Adath Israel Synagogue.
Renee Levy has volunteered at Rockwern Academy in many capacities including president of the PTO. She has been on Purim Carnival Committee at Adath Israel Synagogue, and volunteers regularly at Jewish Family Service. A chef by training, she helps plan menus and cook meals for clients at JFS’s Barbash Family Vital Support Center. She is currently vice-chair of the Women’s Philanthropy division of the Jewish Federation and will step into the role of chair next year.